This paper explores the way in which hip hop artists Iraqi British Lowkey, Iraqi Canadian Narcy, and the Palestinian crew DAM deploy music to challenge narratives of terrorism that are constructed to achieve political objectives and consequently obfuscate geopolitical inequities. Central to these narratives is the figure of the terrorist who is often conflated with Arabs, Muslims, Middle Easterners, and those who express dissent against these narratives. All three artists use hip hop to deconstruct the narratives of terrorism in order to address the perspectives of marginalized groups and to problematize their use. Through their music, Lowkey, Narcy, and DAM contest definitions of terrorism that are differentially applied to certain communities and do not address the use of violence, specifically state violence, to achieve political objectives. These artists suggest an alternative framework where terrorism is not determined by a specific cultural, ethnic, national, or religious affiliation, the root causes of violence are considered, and the complex geopolitical landscape contextualized.
“Confront the culture of power with the power of culture.”—lowkey “the death of neoliberalism”
Music can be, and many times is, a form of cultural production that aims to dismantle and reformulate hegemonic narratives. Through music, artists relay their message in a forum that can reach a broad audience. Moreover, the internet has added a new dimension by allowing for wider access, extending beyond national borders and for the formation of various alliances that reimagine community around shared experiences of marginality. Platforms like YouTube provide hip hop artists with a space to reconfigure narratives so that they address global inequities, especially those that stem from imperialistic objectives.1 Thus, the alliances in many cases are both transnational and translational where they cross not only borders but also languages. Thus, music can foster a sense of community among disparate communities who identify with the messages of the tracks, effectively transcending geographic delineations.2 Hip hop has emerged as a prevalent form of expression for youth globally to challenge hegemonic narratives and protest social and political realities that marginalize them.
Beginning in the 1970s in the South Bronx among African American and Puerto Rican youth, hip hop emerged as a subculture in response to the social and political realities facing these communities. Hip hop expressed these communities' sense of alienation and marginalization produced by racism, poverty, and discriminatory policies. In Black Noise: Rap Music and Culture in Contemporary America, Tricia Rose underscores the role of hip hop in negotiating a common experience of disenfranchisement:
Hip hop is a cultural form that attempts to negotiate the experiences of marginalization, brutally truncated opportunity, and oppression within the cultural imperatives of African-American and Caribbean history, identity, and community. It is the tension between the cultural fractures produced by postindustrial oppression and the binding ties of black cultural expressivity that sets the critical frame for the development of hip hop.3
Hip hop and rap have become cultural vehicles that artists use to express frustrations and marginalization. Despite its origins in the United States, hip hop has been appropriated by artists globally to convey their own marginalization, a point Ousmare underscores when describing the “Hip Hop Globe”: “Hip hop, as an extension of African American popular culture, then, becomes a global signifier [which has]created a worldwide cultural phenomenon.”4 Hip hop, he argues, creates ‘a connective marginality’ that he describes as “social resonances between black expressive culture within its contextual political history and similar dynamics in other nations.”5 Thus, hip hop artists globally identify with the political and social dimensions of hip hop and use this medium to engage in their own social commentary while also maintaining a sense of community through an experience of marginalization and a sense of social injustice. Through music, specifically hip hop, artists are able to speak to and of issues that many share by deconstructing dangerous narratives, and offering nuanced responses.
This article focuses on the way that hip hop artists use their music to resist how terms like “terrorist” and “terrorism” are deployed, but also to reconstitute hegemonic narratives more broadly, producing counter-narratives that address many forms of marginalization faced by numerous communities globally. Specifically, the article examines how Lowkey, an Iraqi British rapper, Narcy, an Iraqi Canadian rapper, and the Palestinian hip hop group DAM use their music to deconstruct narratives of terrorism that have become part of the official national discourse of countries like the United States, for example, as a means of enacting domestic and foreign policy agendas. All three artists underscore the ways that narratives of terrorism have been employed by the US government and other governments to perpetuate a global counter-terrorism war and to support policies that have resulted in the consistent positioning of certain communities as possible threats. Thus, their music becomes a form of resistance to the narratives of terrorism that exploit national traumas—September 11, 2001, for example—to achieve political agendas. They use hip hop to highlight the global implications of the foreign policy decisions of nations such as the United States that sustain these narratives. In doing so, their music destabilizes these hegemonic narratives and rejects the attempts to silence their dissent.
The image of the terrorist has been constructed in such a way that Arabs, Muslims, and Middle Easterners are the most likely culprits, and thus are often perceived as a threat. While the post 9/11 rhetoric has inextricably coupled the terrorist image with these groups, it predates the attacks and is rooted in an extensive history. Moreover, the use of the terrorist image has often been motivated by political objectives. In Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, Edward Said describes a pattern in the way that “Islam” as a label is used to describe diverse groups of people and entire regions in a manner that disregards the immense complexities. The resulting depiction is not only deeply troubling but has been systematically employed to support political agendas.6 The image of the terrorist, especially, has been the most persistent image haunting these communities well before 9/11; however, one of the many consequences of the attacks is that the conflation of the image of the terrorist with Muslims, Middle Easterners, or someone perceived to belong to those groups has been cemented within the construction of an enemy in the War on Terror. This process has led to the what some scholars refer to as the “racialization of the Muslim” where the term “Muslim” is transformed into a loaded signifier to categorize individuals and groups, whereby the Muslim is “known through specific bodies—those with brown skin and ‘Middle Eastern’ looks—and behaviors, such as prayer and the wearing of beards and headscarves.”7 Furthermore, the terrorist figure is reduced to a set of characteristics often rooted in religious and cultural signifiers, as well as presumed racial differences, that are not based on acts of violence, so that terrorism is defined by this construction of the terrorist figure and not the reverse.8 This figure is then deployed to support a narrative of terrorism. In this narrative, the terrorist figure is configured—implicitly or explicitly—as a Muslim and/or Middle Easterner and whose grievances or dissent are deemed to be unjustified. In all of this, the Muslim is not only marked as a threat but also reduced to a body that needs to be controlled through surveillance programs and rhetoric that continually positions these groups as Others. Moreover, groups, such as Arab Christians or Sikhs, that are perceived as Muslim are included within this problematic paradigm. Within this framework, the complexities of geopolitics are minimized to discredit any type of resistance and to automatically employ the term “terrorist,” without any regard for motivation or circumstances surrounding an act within the political context. Thus, it appears that Muslims, Middle Easterners, and anyone perceived to belong to these groups are the only ones capable of terrorism and always in the position of the questioned/interrogated, who must continuously prove their innocence—an impossible task.
This framework prevents a nuanced examination of the geopolitical landscape in which acts of violence should be read. More specifically, it stems from an intentionally constructed discourse around terrorism in order to further a paradigm and to garner support for political action, especially war. Consequently, in official discourse, state-led wars carried out by Western countries are often justified and legitimate, while resistance in the same places is deemed unjustified and, in many cases, often labeled as terrorism, suggesting that there is a culture of violence inherent to specific communities invoking binaries, such as civilization/barbarism.
It is, therefore, not surprising that hip hop artists, like Lowkey, Narcy, and DAM question the hegemonic narratives on terrorism that position Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners as terrorists and delegitimize any grievances that result from the increasingly complex geopolitical landscape. The music of the hip hop artists examined in this article challenge the prevalent rhetoric post-9/11 that positions certain groups as the only culprits of terrorism, hijacking the discourse and distracting from the continued manifestations of empire that deepen global inequities. By doing so, they reconfigure the discourse so that the focus is on acts of violence and the context in which they occur, visible or not, rather than individuals. In this framework, state violence domestically and internationally is no longer assumed to be automatically justified and outside of the scope of terrorism.
A salient example is the focus on the War on Terror in hip hop and its repercussions on domestic minority communities as well as its impact on numerous communities globally. For many hip-hop artists, the War on Terror represents “the most explicit arm of the U.S. empire.”9 Scholars have addressed the ways in which the rhetoric around terrorism is a construction to achieve certain political aims. For example, in Writing the War on Terrorism, Richard Jackson asserts that the discourse around the War on Terror/Terrorism depends on the systematic use of language to justify what he refers to as a “global campaign of counter-terrorism.”10 This massive campaign necessitates the construction of a narrative with numerous facets to support political actions that otherwise would not receive public support. Further, this narrative depends on the strategic use of language, which includes the use of oppositional binaries, such as civilization/barbarism, good/evil, native/foreigner, moral/depraved, et cetera, as well as the perpetuation of the national myth of American morality, civility, and exceptionality, even in tragedy so as to absolve the United States of moral responsibility in the use of violence.11 The notion of exceptionality in tragedy and American victimhood as part of the terrorism narrative, Jackson underlines, “represents an obfuscation of global realities” 12 where global inequities and tragedies are effectively ignored. The danger of the terrorism narrative and the figure of the terrorist is emphasized by Tomas Kapitan and Erich Schulte in “The Rhetoric of ‘Terrorism’ and its Consequences”: “The prevalent rhetoric of ‘terrorism’ has not provided an intelligent response to the problem of terrorism. To the contrary, it has shut off any meaningful examination of causes or debate on policies … Rather than promoting a free and open examination of the grievances of the group from which terrorists emerge, the ‘terrorist’ label nips all questioning and debate in the bud.”13 Thus, this narrative promulgates a particular agenda and silences any dissent.
Therefore, hip hop artists use their music as a forum to protest this reductionist rhetoric of terrorism and expound on global inequities and grievances. As such, their voices are no longer silenced by the threat of the “terrorist” label and queries of their patriotism, and they unpack the hegemonic narrative of terrorism. In other words, in the songs, the term terrorist is emptied of the signifiers that suggest an Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern, Palestinian, Iraqi, or dissident, et cetera—a one dimensional caricature. Instead, the songs engage political and social grievances that are often at the core of many conflicts where the term terrorist is employed. In this way, they destabilize hegemonic narratives that engage in reductionism in which grievances such as systematic marginalization, global inequities, state-led violence, the propping up of dictatorships, and the question of Palestine are suppressed. The approach of these artists is multilayered and is reflected in the various themes that they engage. These artists challenge not only hegemonic narratives propagated in Western imperialistic agendas, but also hegemonic narratives that are internal to these communities. Therefore, there are stringent critiques of leaders within the Middle East, for example, who have been complicit in working against the interests of their own people and societal systems, like patriarchy, which have marginalized members of the society. This music aims to discredit any system of oppression.
Moreover, these artists explore the question of belonging and home. The artists who are Muslims and Arabs residing in the diaspora have personal narratives that are informed by numerous cultural experiences that create a sense of ambivalence in their sense of belonging made even more pronounced by their forced visibility after the 9/11 attacks. These groups face increased scrutiny regarding their citizenship and belonging. They are not afforded the space to critique the imperialistic impetus of nations like the United States that affects global communities to which they feel affinity without having their loyalty questioned. This tension underlies the music of artists such as Narcy and Lowkey who reject any framework that imposes a patriotism that continuously “others” certain communities and does not address the political grievances that stem from a sense of solidarity beyond the boundaries of the nation. The challenge of artists such as DAM, living in the Middle East, is that they are confronted with a reality framed by conflict (a result of internal and external factors), instability, and war that has an impact on their sense of security and home as well. In this context, their music reflects not only the local and national dimensions but is highly cognizant of the global dynamics that affect their existence.
Finally, in this larger interrogation scene, it is demanded that Muslims and Middle Easterners engage the question of terrorism according to the Western definition of the term, where they are always suspects. The songs, however, reverse the process of interrogation by refusing to submit to being classified as suspect citizens in their nations or be subjected to the same mistrust Palestinians face in the Israeli state. The artists not only challenge the larger symbolic interrogation scene that paints them as guilty until proven innocent but destabilize it altogether by demanding that any discourse around terrorism should reflect geopolitical realties. In their songs, these artists refuse to condemn terrorism as articulated in this discourse, which demands that these communities acquiesce to a particular position regarding terrorism. This position Steven Salaita describes in Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where it Comes from and What it Means for Politics as the “the prerequisite to speaking”:
The injunction on Arabs to denounce terrorism results in what I call the prerequisite to speaking. The prerequisite to speaking is simple: the ability of Arabs in the United States to articulate our political sensibilities is limited by the continuous juxtaposition of those politics with terrorism; in corporate media, therefore, Arabs are either expected to immediately denounce terrorism or they are asked immediately to do so. The prerequisite to speaking is disturbing because it assumes (not so tacitly) that Arabs only have agency in the context of American morality. It also assumes that Arabs are mendacious intellectually unless we acknowledge our own shortcomings … before speculating on the possibility of shortcomings in American foreign policy. Ultimately, the prerequisite to speaking is, for Arabs, an uncritical capitulation to those who believe we are inferior.14
These artists reject “the prerequisite to speaking” and the paradigm created by the rhetoric of terrorism that demands a denouncement of terrorism along these terms. Instead, they insist on the right to express dissent on their own terms and to use hip hop to reconfigure the discourse along lines that demonstrate a nuanced understanding of geopolitical realities.
The remainder of the article will focus on examples from each of the artists' music, the themes they explore, and their use of music videos in propagating messages that fundamentally reject hegemonic, exclusionary, and rigid narratives in a visual medium that transcends borders. Joel Rubin emphasizes the impact of music videos in his article “Hip Hop Videos and Black Identity in Virtual Space” when he writes: “While region-specific Hip Hop gained visibility through music video proliferation and as consumption of music has shifted from purely aural to a mixture of aural and visual, I argue that Hip Hop has entered a post-regional phase wherein the virtual space of the internet and mobile media have allowed artists to dissolve regional borders and foster more fluid identities.”15 This is particularly relevant for artists such as Lowkey, Narcy, and DAM, who identify with numerous communities that are not tied to a locale and include politically, socially, and religiously marginalized groups.
Kareem Dennis is an Iraqi British rapper, who goes by the stage name Lowkey and began his music career in 2003. Lowkey's music denounces systems of political and economic repression, state-led wars, and hegemonic narratives, like that of terrorism, that dismiss the grievances of what he sees as the victimized masses to justify illegal acts. His music is informed by his experience as an Iraqi British citizen but also the connections with other groups who fall outside of exclusionary narratives. Lowkey's oeuvre explores these themes as illustrated in his tracks “Terrorist?,” “Ahmed,” “Children of Diaspora,” and “McDonald Trump.”
One of the most acerbic critiques of the use of the term “terrorist” is in Lowkey's track “Terrorist?” Lowkey's message is clear from both the aural and visual dimensions of the track. Specifically, Lowkey employs sonic layering, clear in this track as well as the following tracks, where the song begins with a melody that is almost immediately disrupted by the beat of Lowkey's rapping, which relays the dislocation and urgency created by the issues that he addresses. The video further emphasizes his message through visual components like staging an interrogation scene, images of state violence, and written messages, almost subliminal, on a wall near the prisoner. In the opening scene of the video, Lowkey immediately challenges the definitions of terrorism, terror, and terrorist with the interrogator reading the definitions of terrorism as “The systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion” and terror as “violent or destructive acts, such as bombing, committed by groups in order to intimidate a population, or government into granting their demands” from a dictionary and then poses the question “so what's a terrorist?” The definitions destabilize the reduction of the terrorist image to particular groups since both “terrorism” and “terror” revolve around acts, for example bombings, that can be carried out by groups and governments. Kapitan and Schulte, however, argue that the main problem is not the definition alone, but rather the inconsistent, uneven, and selective application of the definition to reinforce a hegemonic narrative of terrorism.16 The prisoner in the video, played by Lowkey, responds to the definition by saying that he is labeled as a terrorist because he is conflated with this problematic image when he is “all about peace and love”—the defense often given by Muslims about Islam—and that the understanding of terrorism, and by extension a terrorist, must be reconfigured around violence and geopolitics rather than groups. Therefore, he maintains that states are often the culprits of terrorism exemplified in war and interference in the affairs of other countries in order to further their imperialistic enterprises. The following verses illustrate this point:
Call you terrorists if you don't wanna be a colony/we used to bow down to a policy of robbery … /they say it's religion, when clearly it isn't/It's not just Muslims that oppose your imperialism/Is Hugo Chavez a Muslim? Nah … I didn't think so/ Is Castro a Muslim? Nah … I didn't think so/It's like the definition didn't ever exist/I guess it's all just depending who your nemesis is/Irrelevant how eloquent the rhetoric peddler is/They're telling fibs, now tell us who the terrorist is17
These verses tackle the narrative that positions Arabs and Muslims as terrorists by asserting that the conflation of these signifiers is a result of a problematic process whereby the definition depends on imperialistic political objectives and aims to silence dissent at all levels. Further, Lowkey reverses the interrogation by rejecting the narrative and posing a rhetorical question at the end that suggests that the terms terrorist and terrorism extend beyond these group. Throughout the track, he offers an alternative framework, which is indicated in the first verse: “It seems like the Rag-heads and Pakis are worrying your dad/ … Tell me, what's the bigger threat to human society/BAE systems or homemade IED's/Remote controlled drones, killing off human lives/Or man with homemade bomb committing suicide/I know you were terrified when you saw the towers fall/It's all terror but some forms are more powerful.”18 In these lines, Lowkey destabilizes the problematic narrative that views Arabs and Muslims, signified here with the derogatory terms “Rag-heads and Pakis,” as terrorists and thus a threat by asserting that terrorism should be considered along different lines where manifestations of violence are the criteria for understanding terrorism. By the end of the song, Lowkey reconstitutes the narrative of terrorism around the question of violence and its uses to further political aims. Thus, a state's use of violence is called into question with the numerous references to war. In this song, Lowkey rejects any discourse that dismisses the political grievances of marginalized groups and does not reflect what he sees as the hierarchical structure of the geopolitical landscape and asserts that the narrative of terrorism and the image of the terrorist are constructed to further this unevenness.
A case in point of the consequences of state violence and geopolitical inequities is the Syrian refugee crisis, which Lowkey examines in the track “Ahmed.” In “Ahmed,” Lowkey addresses the refugee crisis by tracing the factors that have resulted in mass displacement, many of which stem from state violence and problematic narratives, such as terrorism, to achieve political aims. Furthermore, in “Ahmed,” Lowkey demands that the audience consider the Syrian refugee crisis from the perspective of a child named Ahmed, who is representative of not only Syrians who have been displaced by the civil war but also of different types of migrants who have had to seek refuge in Western nations. By using this framework, Lowkey refutes the construction of the refugee as an Other, a terrorist, and thus a threat that must be contained. The song underscores the perils of refugees' journey to Europe, indicated in the chorus, and the way in which they are doubly displaced: from their homeland and, if they make it to Europe, by the politics that reject their presence. Lowkey raps, “Trying to get to Europe via Greece is where he's lost at sea/Ahmed not Achmed, it's Ahmed, he's that dead/… If he made it here, would have been bullied for his accent.”19 The rejection of refugees is indicated by the irony that the refugees are mocked for their accents, while Ahmed's name, representative of the process of othering, is distorted.
The video, as well as the music of the track itself, relay the jarring experience of the refugee. Specifically, Lowkey uses layering with the sound of the piano in the background meant to evoke a calm melody which is then abruptly disturbed by the rapid beat of his rap. This movement from the calmness to the rapid and seemingly unstable sound of the rap parallels the experience of refugees themselves. Similarly, in the video, Lowkey further emphasizes the refugees' struggles by repeatedly juxtaposing images of sea with images of war: the sea was supposed to transport them to a new home, but the pictures of the sea stand as a reminder that the serenity of the water conceals the dangers of death, whereas the pictures of war illustrate trauma, destruction, and loss. The refugees are confronted with the continuous loss of home and sense of belonging. To address Ahmed's situation, Lowkey underscores the geopolitics involved in creating the refugee crisis, indicated by the following lines: “We need to understand the policies that put him in the sea/We need to understand why it is the beach is full of dying kids/A colonial metropole people want to reside in.”20 Here, Lowkey refutes the reductionist narratives that do not recognize the role of geopolitics, historical and current, in creating and/or furthering refugee crises. The civil war in Syria, for example, is not simply the result of the Middle East being inherently plagued by conflict without external interference. Lowkey points to the networks at play that have produced the refugee crisis, so that the narrative is not how refugees are a threat, but the global dynamics that have produced this situation and what should be the appropriate response on a human level, especially from countries that espouse particular ideals.
In “Children of Diaspora,” Lowkey employs a similar sonic strategy with the use of the piano overlaid with his rap to explore the consequences of global forces that result in the movement of peoples, whether forced or voluntary, and the politics and responsibilities of receiving nations, as well as the identity politics at stake. Like “Terrorist?” the music video for the song opens with a definition of the central term “Diaspora.” The definition in the video is: “The movement, migration or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland.”21 This definition, along with a quote by Edward Said on exile at the end of the video, serve as the framing device for the remainder of the song. As with the video for “Terrorist?” the visual elements of the music create a layering effect, where the tropes in the song are further enhanced by the video. The song begins with an almost rhetorical question to an audience that may not be able or willing to identify with the struggles of these groups, and Lowkey's own desire to understand their predicament: “Don't you wonder what became of the children of diaspora?/ Those that innovated in their ways and their vernacular/ Those that saw their traces in the faces of the massacred/I wonder what became of them, tell me what became of them….”22 The video then presents a series of individuals smiling as Lowkey relates the struggles of living in societies that perceive them as outsiders, whether refugees or citizens, described by Lowkey as “first world diaspora problems.”23 This video technique serves to destabilize any singular representation or designation of individuals or collectives in hegemonic narratives. Even Lowkey's phrase “first world diaspora problems,” is a reformulation of the phrase “first world problems,” shifting the focus to the experiences of immigrants in diaspora.
The struggles that Lowkey describes are not limited to a singular locale but underscore the issues that refugees and immigrants, who entered legally and are citizens, in Western nations face are rooted in histories that other them. The question of belonging is the central theme in this song. There are several examples from the song that relate this struggle. In the opening verse, Lowkey addresses belonging when he raps, “Just ‘cause you're both but neither doesn't mean that you're none/… Your hosts can't relate to your sense of dislocation/The type of pain that cannot be contained a dissertation.”24 The reference to being “both but neither” points to multifaceted identities that include a sense of belonging to another space and perhaps community that seems to conflict with the national identity that while espousing inclusivity, many times excludes experiences that do not mirror a homogeneous identity, leaving these individuals in an ambiguous predicament where their loyalty is questioned and they do not fully belonging to any space. Lowkey expresses the struggles of belonging by harkening back to the Middle Passage and tracing the way in which slavery, colonialism, and other historical events have produced global inequities and subsequently a large-scale movement of people. Lowkey expounds on this problematic situation by citing examples of the demonstrable consequences of exclusion. He raps, “Since the Middle Passage either sink or your swim/Bleach the pigment of skin and pray its privilege trickling in/But are we missing the link?/… [Diaspora's] [t]he reason the President's melanin remains a threat/Ahmed made a clock, they arrested him and mangled his name/… Racism manifests in many cancerous ways.”25 The obvious referents in these verses are the race politics around the election of former President Barak Obama and to the Ahmed Mohamed clock incident, where a 14-year-old student in Irving, Texas, was arrested when his English teacher called the police for a homemade clock that Mohamed brought with him to school. The case was later dismissed. Both represent examples of persistent othering that marginalized communities continue to face, resulting in discrimination in many cases. He then mentions names of individuals like Anthony Walker, a Black British student of Jamaican descent, and Stephen Lawrence, a Black British man, both of whom were murdered in racially motivated attacks. Lowkey also offers the example of Mark Duggan, a man of Irish and West Indian descent who was killed by the police and Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, and Alton Sterling, all of whom were killed in the United States in police shootings and/or racially motivated attacks. By doing so, Lowkey highlights societal narratives that are constructed to permanently other groups by virtue of race and religion that can result in fatal consequences; narratives that are deeply rooted in historical dynamics, a point he underscores with the verse: “Your history is power, that's the reason some are petrified.”26 While these examples suggest a sense of hopelessness for these communities, Lowkey contrasts these examples with individuals who in some manner challenged hegemonic systems by breaking through symbolic and physical barriers and rejecting the structures in places that aim to exclude and silence them. Specifically, he mentions Zaha Hadid, Edward Said, Nina Simone, and Frantz Fanon. These names are followed by Mai Khalil singing, “Pledge no allegiance to the flag/… We never bow to the Queen.”27 By juxtaposing these names alongside references to symbols of nationalism (i.e. the flag and the Queen), Lowkey not only indicates a rejection of loyalty to a system that does not embrace them fully but also the possibility of various forms of resistance.
In this way, Lowkey's music engages in a multifaceted musical resistance in which he recognizes that the focus cannot be limited to one group or location, but rather traces the multiple interconnections that affect the subjective and collective experiences of communities globally, illustrated forcefully in his recent song, “McDonald Trump,” released in 2018. To be clear, Lowkey is critical of the politics of the United States as it relates to the global community and the way in which that agenda is represented in the figure of the president. Thus, he has an earlier song titled “Obama Nation” in which he maintains that Obama was complicit in enacting policies that furthered the United States' imperialistic aims. Moreover, Lowkey critiques economic, political, and social systems that play a role in maintaining inequities that affect societies, further marginalizes minority groups, and have an impact on issues such as immigration, increased violence, political polices, foreign engagement, and environmental protections. This is exemplified throughout the song, including from the title of the song where President Trump is referred to by the name of a major corporation suggesting that his primary commitment is to advance the profits of corporations. In verse one, for example, he raps:
700 billion a year to the fossil fuelers/750 billion a year to the rocket launchers/This monster's morbid mob is sordid more than what's reported/While this song's recorded, hope a hundred humans cross the borders/Words of MLK, greatest violence purveyor/See ourselves in the afflicted, the environment decayer/Do it for Puerto Rico and Ibrahim Abu Thuraya/He'll get Ahed Tamimi while he's tweeting London's mayor … Passport not accepted, it's a London City travel ban/… Merely an apprentice to the corporate gangster glamour gang.28
Here, Lowkey raises several issues that stem from the framing argument. Specifically, Lowkey contends that the influence of the oil and weapon's industries extends beyond the economic realm but is inextricably connected to the domestic and foreign policy decisions of the United States. This is conveyed in the references to the recent decisions regarding the environment and to Martin Luther King Jr.'s antiwar quote. Also, Lowkey denounces the United States' position regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and suggests that it is motivated by Israel's strategic position in the region. He illustrates this with the references to Ibrahim Thuraya, a disabled Palestinian activist killed by Israeli troops during protests against President Trump's controversial decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, and Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian minor and activist incarcerated in an Israeli prison for assaulting a soldier after members of her family were attacked. Both Abu Thuraya and Tamimi have become symbols of Palestinian resistance against Israeli aggression. Further, in these lines, Lowkey draws attention to the highly politicized immigration debates and the travel ban enacted in the Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” or more widely known as the Muslim Travel Ban, poignantly expressed with the use of both Spanish and Arabic in the hook, two languages that embody the immigration debate under the current administration; in the case of both of these issues, Lowkey counters the official discourse that aims to restrict peoples entering the United States and instead calls for an increase in the number of immigrants and a travel restriction on the American president. Lowkey's acerbic critique in “McDonald Trump” challenges the discourse that positions immigrants and minorities as a threat; rather, he locates the threat in the control of money on politicians and the governments and the way that it generates policies in all realms.
Like Lowkey, Yassin Alsalman, known by his stage name Narcy (formerly The Narcicyst), uses music to challenge narratives that marginalize groups and maintain hegemonic systems. Alsalman, an Iraqi Canadian, began recording in 2000 and went solo in 2004. His music explores numerous issues, including the impact of war, the experience of being a Western Arab and facing racial profiling, and the dangers of economic and political repression. Using both English and Arabic in his music, Narcy demonstrates a linguistic dexterity that draws audiences globally. Moreover, he layers various beats and melodies, often drawing from a variety of musical traditions, with his rap to create tracks that relay complexity of experience to inform the issues that he addresses in his music, especially as it relates to the depictions of minority groups This is illustrated in the following discussion of his songs “P.H.A.T.W.A,” “The Last Arabs,” and “Free (One Day).”
Because of the rhetoric of terrorism, one of the most persistent points of concern for Arabs and Muslims in the post-9/11 era has been religious and ethnic profiling and the implementation of security policies that target these groups and undermine their civil liberties. This is a point of contention that artists like Narcy, and Lowkey earlier, critique. This is most clearly demonstrated in Narcy's song “P.H.A.T.W.A,” where he questions the premise of racial profiling at airports to identify potential terrorists. The title of the song is a play on the word “fatwa,” a formal religious ruling in Islamic law, and is an acronym for “Political Hatred Against the Wrong Arabs” and “Political Hip Hop Attracting the Wrong Attention.” With the acronyms, Narcy challenges the assumed construction of a terrorist as an Arab, Muslim, Middle Easterner, and someone who dissents by demonstrating the absurdity in a reductionist construct that frames entire groups. As in Lowkey's video for “Terrorist?”, Narcy stages an interrogation scene but sets it in an airport, which has become emblematic of the Arab and Muslim experience of surveillance and profiling because it is in that space that there is an clear unevenness in treatment, a point that Mucahit Bilici underscores in his discussion of Muslim comedy and the space of the airport: “At the airport, those who have so far (in the city, at the ticket counter, and so on) been treated equal suddenly become suspect. At the internal borders of the nation, they suddenly feel their protected status begin to evaporate … Strip search and other security rites of passage through the border show the hard edge of the nation.”29 In the video for “P.H.A.T.W.A,” Narcy uses the airport setting to explore the relationship between surveillance, profiling, domestic and foreign policy, and its disproportionate effect on certain communities.
In the video, he is targeted by a government agent and interrogated because he appears to be an Arab and Muslim, and because he is a political artist who refuses to be silenced. The irony, of course, is that he is an artist calling for peace and that his only weapon is his music. At one point, he appears to be strapped with an explosive; instead, it is his CDs and microphones taped around his body. The song highlights the targeting of Arabs and Muslims “randomly” in the name of security and the implications that has on their civil liberties. Moreover, he addresses the larger geopolitical context and its impact on domestic and foreign policy, including counter-terrorism policies implemented for security. For example, a central trope throughout the song is that the desire to control oil is the main motivation for the wars in the Middle East, specifically, those in Iraq, rather than the need to counter terrorism, indicated in the following verses: “pump pain and oil while they murrrdaah/… We went from, supported to subordinate, can't afford it, ordered/My motherland smothered and mortared, morbid.”30 In the second verse, Narcy asserts that countries, such as Iraq, that were once supported by the United States and its allies are no longer in that position after the War on Terror. Further, Narcy emphasizes the troubling violation of the civil liberties of these communities as a result of post-9/11 policies and the failures of profiling. This is underscored with the hook and the following verses: “C-I-A-F-B-I Enter and spy/ When we fly denied, from planes landing into NY (why?)/ C-I-A-F-B-I, sentenced our lives (Phatwa)/ I'll get deported somewhere to die/… Trying to speak out for peace, deleted, believe it/… I'm sorted out from beardless cats that boarded the plane as I was boarding/… Passport control, where I'm picked at random.”31 In other words, profiling and surveillance of Arabs and Muslims others these communities such that they are presumed suspicious and guilty by association because of the conflation of terrorism with Muslim and Arab identity, and merely the appearance of belonging (i.e. a beard) results in additional screening. Finally, Narcy is concerned with the broader human rights violations resulting from the War on Terror which is demonstrated clearly in the song with references to Guantanamo Bay indicated in verses such as “On the other side, brothers wearing bags for hats/Orange jumpsuit steez, standing back to back”32 and visualized in the video with sign posts to Gitmo and men dancing in the hallways wearing the orange suit.
He suggests that the religious profiling of Arabs, Muslims, and Middle Easterners as presumed terrorists is an extension of the history of racism in the United States. The beginning and the end of the video gesture to this point. The video opens with Narcy engaging in conversation with his African American friend at the airport. His friend asks him who he thinks will most likely be stopped. Narcy replies, “Yo, obviously me dog. Iraq is the new black.”33 He does not negate the experience of African Americans; rather, he indicates that the targeting of Arabs, Muslims, and Middle Easterners is an extension of the racism that permeates the American system. The video ends with presumably an Arab American agent who assists in the interrogation handing him his business card, which reads on one side “U.S. Department of Arabman Security” and his name “Mohammed ‘Amu’ Toomas,” translating as “Mohammed ‘Uncle’ Tom,” on the other. With the department name, Narcy underscores the notion that Arabs and Muslims are the primary targets. Moreover, the reference to Uncle Tom is a critique of Arabs, Muslims, and/or Middle Easterners who work within a system that furthers an image used to regulate these same groups and challenges the view that a good Muslim is an informant. Furthermore, Narcy problematizes the assertion that the security apparatus is intended to protect all individuals and maintains instead that the image of the terrorist is configured to mean Arabs, Muslims, and anyone who is perceived to belong to those groups in order to surveil, marginalize, and treat them as Others undeserving of the same civil liberties and human rights.
Narcy's concern with the post- 9/11 context and the subsequent challenges for Arab and Muslim communities is a theme that he explores also in the 2009 song titled “The Last Arabs.” The track features Omar Offendum, a Syrian-American hip hop artist, and addresses the predicament of immigrants and their descendants who are not only viewed as Others within the countries they live but also endure the pain of war in their homelands because of the War on Terror. In the track, Narcy insists that they are the last Arabs that will be targeted: “The Last Arabs to blast at” and proceeds to lay out the consequences of this predicament. This includes the use of the security apparatus against these groups, which he reiterates in the following verses: “There's no way I'm fearing you/Double Agents clearing through/Bag harassment/Border Cops Jetlag and Asthma.”34 The security scene is invoked here with the references to a search at a border, except that rather than encountering a meek victim, Narcy confronts the system embodied in the figure of the agents. He laments the broader geopolitical reality that has resulted in increased violence and a war waged on his family homeland. He raps, “Who's sane? A strangled bastard, tracks bang when blasted/Like the Madrid Bombings, I'm sick of this shit mama/I'm leaving Iraq's missile hymns/War music … /And why'd you bomb Iraq?/ … Store your guns brother, there's more to come now.”35 Here, Narcy reverses and exposes the paradigm so that the violence and war are not only waged by Arabs and Muslims, with whom he identifies; rather, they are victims like those in the Madrid Bombings who were killed as a result of an ideology embodied in a state, groups, or individuals. In his paradigm, Saddam Hussein is executed, and yet the war continues to propagate more violence. In the same way as “P.H.A.T.W.A,” the “The Last Arabs” underscores the precarious situation that these communities face because of their increased visibility and the challenge of witnessing their ancestral homelands in war.
In “Free (One Day),” Narcy continues to reflect on the experiences of migrants, who struggle to survive in a new space; however, he underscores the particular challenges of refugees who are depicted as a threat and disrupts the discourse that views these groups as unwelcome Others. In recent years, Syrians escaping the civil war have come to embody the figure of the refugee; along with the already problematic construction of the terrorist figure, the Syrian refugee is viewed with greater suspicion. Narcy insists that the refugee crisis stems from geopolitics that implicate the same nations that represent refugees as an impending threat. The focus of the track, therefore, is dismantling this narrative that makes a threat of the most vulnerable. Narcy humanizes these communities, with whom he identifies in his use of the pronoun “we,” by demonstrating the complexities in their narratives that cannot be defined by a singular signifier. One way that Narcy achieves this is by using opposing descriptive statements to define these communities and thus underscore a common humanity. He raps,
We are the same/… We are the hated, We are the favorite/We are the change/We are the sacred, We are the strange/We either came on a boat or a plane, both of them harbored the pain/We are the Master, We are the slave, We are the cast out in the rain/We are the sheltered, We are the helpless, We are the vain/We are selfless, We are the blame/We are the Shooter, the Victim, the Home, the Drone/We are the hear, We are the fear, We are the reflection in the mirror/We are the People, We are the past and we are the sequel/… Honestly can't even tell you the difference.36
In these verses, Narcy disrupts the image of the migrant by insisting that their experiences are complex and that they do not differ from those that depict them as Others to be feared. They embody traits that are constitutive of any group of individuals. This point is further emphasized by the video clip that employs a similar technique as Lowkey's “Children of Diaspora.” The video clip features refugees from different nations. Their diversity refutes the narrative that they can all be reduced to a singular image that negates their personal histories and multiple identities. They are, as the video suggests at the end, “… Refugees, orphans, the forgotten. But they are mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters first. They are all humans.”37 Finally, in the effort to subvert the problematic image of migrants, Narcy traces the ways in which immigrants and refugees lay claim to their place in their new nations. He counters the narrative that questions immigrants' loyalties and that portrays these groups as simply a strain on the nation. Narcy raps, “Immigrant Youth, North American Roots/… Trying to breathe smothered in gas, working a shift, pumping your gas/Driving a cab, paying a tax, laying their countries flat/Open a laundromat, what's wrong with that/Everything's relative, self in development/… I don't even think my country loves me back.”38Here, Narcy reverses the narrative of loyalty by maintaining that the issue is not immigrants and refugees' contributions and loyalty to their new nations, but rather the national narrative that negates their commitment and depicts them as a threat and enemy to achieve other political objectives. As such, in “Free,” Narcy not only destabilizes any singular image of marginalized groups but maintains that these narratives are situated in domestic and foreign policies that must be addressed regarding portrayals of these groups.
This leads the discussion to one of the most consistent themes that these artists have explored in their work: the narrative around Palestine. Both Lowkey and Narcy have tracks that address the question of Palestine. But, the Palestinian crew DAM has made the Palestinian cause, informed by their personal lived experience, the primary focus of their music. The question of Palestine is symbolic of the many issues these artists explore in their music. Specifically, the Palestinian perspective has often been masked by the persistent narrative of terrorism, whereby Palestinians are presumed to be terrorists and thus their cause is illegitimate. As such, hip hop artists like Lowkey, Narcy, and particularly DAM have attempted to reconfigure the narrative to present the Palestinian perspective outside of the problematic framework of terrorism. DAM's focus, however, is not limited to a localized understanding of the question; rather, they address this question within the larger geopolitical landscape, a point that Sunaina Maira underscores in her discussion on Palestinian hip hop:
The emergence of what is a largely underground phenomenon of rap produced by Palestinian and Palestinian American youth is linked to a larger phenomenon of a growing Palestinian and Palestinian American hip hop generation that has come of age listening to the sounds of rap both in the United States as well as in Palestine, and that has taken up the cause of Palestinian self-determination as well as issues of racism, inequality, and imperialism.39
DAM's music exemplifies the phenomenon that Maira describes; Palestinian self-determination frames their art, but they trace the way in which it intersects with other social, political, economic issues. In many of their songs, DAM interweave well-known Arabic songs and music into their own. This layering suggests a continuity in the musical spectrum where hip hop and rap, often considered “Western”—a point they raise in their work— should be read as part of the Arabic musical landscape as well as part of a larger global phenomenon.
DAM, which means “to continue, persevere, and persist” and is also an acronym for Da Arabian MCs, is a Palestinian hip hop group, founded in 1999, that is composed of Tamer Nafar, Suhel Nafar, Mahmoud Jreri, and now Maysa Daw. Their music weaves together traditional Arabic music with hip hop and focuses mainly on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, specifically Israeli aggression on Palestinians and in many instances the Arab governments' failure to respond. They do so by situating this conflict within the larger geopolitical framework. DAM also addresses social issues that stem from patriarchy, economic disparity, and failing political systems.40 An interesting aspect of DAM's music is the meta-discussion that emerges about their use of hip hop, its Western origins, and their appropriation of this medium to relay their message. They rap mainly in Arabic but have also rapped in Hebrew and English. The following discussion will focus on DAM's songs: “Min Irhabi” and “Lysh.”
DAM approaches the question of Palestine from several angles that challenge the construction of narratives. The most persistent narrative is that Palestinians are terrorists and therefore their claims are illegitimate. In DAM's track “Min Irhabi” (Who's the Terrorist?), they contest specifically the image of the terrorist, stemming from a narrative of terrorism deployed by the Israeli government to achieve political objectives regarding the conflict. This song was downloaded over a million times and addresses the way in which the term “terrorist” has been employed to dismiss Palestinian grievances. Specifically, the song was released after a suicide bombing in 2001 in Tel Aviv, after which a group of extremist Israelis gathered around the Hassan Beck mosque chanting, “Death to the Arabs, and Terrorists.” “Min Irhabi” was their response. Despite the differing contexts for their music, this song intersects with the music of Lowkey and Narcy in that DAM impugns the conflation of the image of the terrorist with particular groups, here Palestinians, to further political agendas, and strongly asserts that the acts carried out by a state like Israel, can be deemed as terrorism. The song is organized around the hook that encompasses three rhetorical questions: “Who's the terrorist? Am I the terrorist? How am I a terrorist when I live in my own country?”41 and their responses. By structuring the hook around a series of questions that they pose and then answer, they demonstrate a refusal to be interrogated; instead, DAM reclaims the discourse around the conflict and asserts their perspective. The Palestinian perspective that emerges through the song is not focused simply on a critique of the Israeli state, but there is an implied frustration with the international community, a witness to the conflict, and the refusal to recognize or act on violations of human rights conventions. For example, in verse one, Tamer Nafar raps, “Go to the law? Why bother, my enemy/You're the witness, lawyer and judge/If you're my judge, I'll be sentenced to death”42. In this verse, Nafar underscores the futility in the legal system for Palestinians, such that they do not have access to equal justice, whether in the context of Israel or on the international stage. This is further emphasized when Suhel Nafar draws a comparison between Palestinian blood and dogs' blood as a way to illustrate the perceived insignificance of the Palestinian perspective: “We'll remain patient and suppress our pain/The most important thing is that you feel secure/Relax and leave the pain to us, what's our blood?/The blood of dogs/Not even! When a dog dies they receive sympathy/That means our blood is less valuable than the blood of a dog?/No! My blood is precious/And I'm going to defend myself if you call me a terrorist”43. Again, these verses indicate a refusal to capitulate to the narrative that their voice is irrelevant because they are reduced to the label of terrorists.
Moreover, the song also queries the definition of democracy as it applies to Israel, often referred to as the only democracy in the Middle East, just as it interrogates the definition of a terrorist. Tamer Nafar poses the question regarding the Palestinian experience of Israeli democracy and its implications on the conflict. Nafar raps, “You want us to be the minority?/To end up the majority in the cemeteries? In your dreams!/Democracy? More like Nazis/With your countless raping of the Arab soul/It got pregnant and birthed a boy called the suicide bomber/And you are calling us terrorists?”44Through these verses, DAM destabilizes fixed narratives that relay the notion that Palestinians, and Arabs in the region, are more prone to terrorism and are by extension unable to embrace democracy as defined by Western nations; instead, they maintain that their grievances are ignored and that they are not accorded the same treatment as called for under the democracy in which they live, resulting in more violence. This point is emphasized in the second verse, when Mahmoud Jreri raps: “You don't listen to our voices/You silence us and degrade us/… Who grew up with freedom and who grew up in confinement?/We fight for our freedom, but you've made that into a crime/ and you the terrorist, call me a terrorist?”45 Here, they reconfigure the narrative, so that Palestinians' grievances determine the definition of a terrorist; in other words, there is a suggestion that the focus should be on acts and understanding the complexities of the conflict, rather than a reductionist narrative that silences one side by labeling them simply as terrorists.
In this song, DAM vehemently rejects the narrative that fixes the Palestinian cause within a framework of terrorism and illegitimacy. They reverse the narrative by demanding recognition for the Palestinian experience of the conflict and highlighting the acts of violence carried out by the Israeli state. In addition to the hook, the song cites various offenses meant to establish that although they (i.e. Palestinians) are labeled as terrorists, they do have legitimate claims. Therefore, the focus is on emptying the term terrorist of any referents like “Palestinian” in order to provide an equal footing to recognize their grievances to pave a way forward.
DAM recognizes the necessity of situating this specific conflict within a global framework in order to produce a more nuanced and informed narrative and foster transnational alliances. “Lysh” (Why?) is a collaboration with Rachid Taha, a well-known Algerian Rai singer. In the song, DAM poses a series of questions regarding the geopolitical reality to underscore the systematic inequities and the struggles of marginalized communities. Moreover, the queries refute the narratives that do not reflect the complexities in the global dynamics and the positions and grievances of the different parties. For example in the first section of the track, DAM questions the disproportionate application of laws and the consequences of foreign policy decisions on the global landscape: “Why must say ‘I obey’ to the executioner?/… Why are laws flexible for foreigners but for us they are a wall?/… Why was America completely shocked by 9/11 when it spread orphans around the world who strove for revenge?”46 In these verses, DAM asserts that there are communities that do not receive due justice under the law, domestic or international. Further, DAM, in reference to the 9/11 attacks, emphasize the interconnectedness of global politics, such that policies and events must be considered within this framework rather than as isolated instances.
Their refusal to subscribe to the image of the terrorist, cemented by the 9/11 attacks and subsequent events, is emphasized in the second section when they pose questions about the representation of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists: “Why do they bring me in in Hollywood, but always as a terrorist?/ Why do they bring Bin Laden but do not mention Abdel Bari Atwan?”47 In the same way as “Min Irhabi,” DAM rejects the process in which the image of the terrorist is conflated with Arabs, Muslims, and Middle Easterners. The role of Hollywood in perpetuating the image of the terrorist with certain signifiers has been documented extensively.48 Moreover, the juxtaposition of Osama Bin Laden and Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of Rai al-Youm, an Arab world digital news and opinion website, illustrates the disproportionate representation of Arabs and Muslims as a one-dimensional image that does not reflect their diversity in backgrounds and ideologies.
The track continues with observations on the geopolitical dynamics that affect the region and inevitably the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Specifically, DAM highlights the disputes among the surrounding nations, thus implying their subsequent effect on the conflict. For example, in the last section of the track, they rap, “Why is Iran building nuclear weapons?/ and Why is Israel criticizing it when it is the mother of nuclear weapons?”49Here, the focus of the verses is twofold. First, DAM is highlighting the tensions between the two nations and the instability in the region as a result. There is a clear critique of both Iran and Israel's nuclear programs. Second, it problematizes the double standard of the international community as it relates to supporting one nation over another and viewing one as an ally and the other as an enemy despite their nuclear weapons programs. Further, they express their perplexity towards Israel's role as a policing force in the region in relation to nuclear weapons. This echoes their frustrations in “Min Irhabi” as it relates to dismantling the terrorist narrative that frames the conflict. In their example here, Iran is symbolic of the “terrorist,” thus delegitimizing their aspirations, while Israel is positioned and supported as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Thus, DAM poses these queries to demonstrate the multifaceted reality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is affected by the political dynamics of the region and the global community. Rather than providing simplistic answers to these questions, they leave it open to the audience to envision responses that demand multifaceted and complex answers lest they fall into the reductionist trap.
All three artists use their music to problematize the narrative of terrorism that conflates the terrorist figure with Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern, Palestinian, Iraqi individuals, and anyone who dissents, in order to achieve political objectives. In doing so, this narrative delegitimizes the grievances of marginalized groups and obfuscates the geopolitical inequities, as well as the responsibilities of states in the use of violence. These artists, employing a medium that has often focused on societal ills, deconstruct the narrative of terrorism and perform their own readings of this narrative to address the unevenness of the geopolitical landscape and to underscore the deeply problematic use of the terrorist figure. Their music becomes their aesthetic tool to reflect the perceptions of marginalized groups on the consequences of geopolitics.
In this way, hip hop, especially music disseminated through social media and YouTube, becomes a powerful challenge to reductionist narratives that reduce regions and peoples to dangerous signifiers and result in further marginalization. Narratives like that of terrorism mask political agendas and societal inequities resulting from both foreign and domestic policies. Artists like Lowkey, Narcy, and DAM's music reveal the numerous aporias in these narratives and offer nuanced counter-narratives that reject hegemonic systems of any kind. As Lowkey lays out in his track “The Death of Neoliberalism,” hip hop “confront[s] the culture of power with power of culture.” Thus, these three artists engage in a musical resistance that contests the culture of power by voicing their dissent and refusing to be silenced.