New Texts Out Now: Jil Oslo: Palestinian Hip Hop, Youth Culture, and the Youth Movement
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Sunaina Maira, Jil Oslo: Palestinian Hip Hop, Youth Culture, and the Youth Movement. Washington, DC: Tadween Publishing, 2013.
Tadween (T): What made you write this book?
Sunaina Maira (SM): I wrote this book because I was deeply moved, in the first instance, by the hip hop coming out of Palestine and by the searing critique of settler colonial dispossession and racial violence in the songs of rappers such as DAM. Listening to the music coming out of Lid, Acca, and, increasingly, Ramallah, Dheisheh camp, and other places across Palestine underscored for me the ways in which young Palestinians were using a global cultural idiom and recreating hip hop as the poetics of Palestinian protest. The second major source of inspiration for the book was the youth movement that erupted across Palestine in spring 2011 during the Arab uprisings. I was in Ramallah at the time and witnessed the unfolding protests by youth demanding an end to the political status quo and challenging the factionalism of party-based politics in the West Bank, Gaza, and inside Israel. Their encampments in solidarity with the Arab revolts and Palestinian prisoners were largely overshadowed by the more dramatic protest camps and revolutionary movements next door. But the struggle against colonial occupation and internal repression and collusion is an immensely difficult one to wage. It became clear to me after talking to these young activists, and to Palestinian rappers, that their protests and cultural production expressed a call for an alternative political language at a moment when it seemed that political vocabularies had been exhausted and when political skepticism and fatigue has been pervasive in Palestine. What does it mean to “do” politics when politics is itself suspect? What is the space of resistance within the ongoing violence of “peace?” What is the sound of refusal of complicity with “normalization?”
A song from Ramallah Underground, “Min El Kaheff” (From the Cave), eloquently captures the paradox facing Palestinian youth haunted by the sense of political betrayal in the wake of the Oslo Accords:
And Arab leaders let us down
Abandoned us, fled to our enemies
Because they couldn’t infect us with their cowardice
They promised the future and look what they got us into
2007: the world’s moving ahead and they blow us up,
Starve us, they wanna forget us
We spent years building and they came suddenly led us on,
Threatened and frightened us
Poisoned us with democracy
Wouldn’t let us have a normal life
They set us right on line of fire, they ruined us, destroyed us, dried up our blood
All that and still they couldn’t finish the job
I am trying not to care anymore, but politics pulls at me
I say, leave me alone
She says, I am part of your life
You won’t be able to resist me.
T: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
SM: This book focuses on Palestinian hip hop as an expression of the social and political identities of a new generation of Palestinian youth in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and in Israel. Based on ethnographic research, it explores how hip hop and activism by Palestinian youth are rethinking “politics” in this generation and challenging Israeli settler colonial policies as well as the national leadership’s adoption of the Oslo framework. Through ethnographic research, I explore how Palestinian hip hop has lent itself to the politicization of a new generation of youth and the formation of an alternative public sphere and what it represents to young Palestinians, both within and outside of the hip hop subculture. The book examines the emergence of Palestinian hip hop artists and young activists on the public stage, the ways they transformed that arena, and the sentiments of inspiration, consternation, excitement, disapproval, and solidarity they have evoked.
One of the major political interventions of the youth movement is the call for a unified national identity linking the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, and Palestinians within the 1948 borders of Palestine (“1948 or ’48 Palestinians”). This is not a new political narrative but it is significant because it challenges the Oslo paradigm that fragmented the nation by situating what could be Palestine only in the West Bank and Gaza and deferring the status of Jerusalem, within the degraded terms of sovereignty supplied by Israel. Parallel to this critique, Palestinian hip hop has helped (re)connect geographically dispersed groups of Palestinian youth and offered a medium for reimagining the political itself. At the same time, I found that there are complex debates about national identity and cultural authenticity that surfaced in my discussions of Palestinian hip hop with young people. Some Palestinian youth questioned whether “Palestinian” and “hip hop” could even go together while in other cases Palestinian hip hop has been included as representative of Palestinian national culture at major cultural events. I argue that these debates are indicative of deeper tensions intertwined with gendered and national politics that Palestinian youth grapple with in the context of cultural and economic shifts in the post-Olso moment.
Both Palestinian hip hop culture, including graffiti, and the youth movement are significant because they re-politicize public culture and public space in the context of the retreat from mass mobilization since the intifadas and after Oslo. Young activists and artists confront repression and surveillance by Israeli as well as Palestinian authorities, challenging the PA’s sometimes violent crackdown on political protests and the ongoing repression of the colonial regime, including surveillance and censorship of Palestinian student activism in Israeli universities. Palestinian youth engage in a form of counter-surveillance, creating through music and visual culture a counter-archive of public memory that critiques the new “normal” politics of neoliberalism and consumption that has transformed urban life, particularly in the bubble of Ramallah. The book draws on literature from Palestine studies, feminist studies, and youth studies, addressing the gaps between them and areas in which these fields have not always spoken to one another.
T: Why is this particular moment in Palestinian youth culture important, and how is it different from previous manifestations of youth culture in Palestine?
SM: The generation of Palestinian youth that came of age after the Oslo Accords of 1993, what I call here jil Oslo (the Oslo generation), has been shaped by three significant political conjunctures: one, the decline of grassroots political movements and rise of NGO-based politics in the contradictory context of a Palestinian state without sovereignty, as well as the ongoing colonial predicament of Palestinians within Israel; two, the restructuring of Israeli military control and the disconnection among Palestinians created by the settlements and the wall, an encircled and increasingly peripheralized Jerusalem, and a besieged and blockaded Gaza; and three, the sense of national crisis laced by the disappointment in established political parties and the politics of normalization and neoliberalism.
While popular culture has always been an important site of national politics and cultural resistance in Palestine, post-Oslo youth culture emerges from a context of increased commodification and NGOization of public culture, on the one hand, and increased unemployment and debt co-existing with the imaginings of neoliberal democracy and individualized cultural consumption, on the other. In this context, “youth” is a category that is fraught with anxieties about conformity and co-optation, as well as hopes for radical change and revolutionary potential. Across national sites and historical moments, the imaginary of youth is one invested with these competing expectations and fears that are often reflective of larger political shifts and social concerns. This post-Oslo youth culture, that includes hip hop and the youth movement—but is not restricted only to these sites—grapples with these contradictions in ways that have not been taken seriously in the literature thus far, but which pose important questions about the kind of life that might exist other than that imposed by imperial, capitalist modernity. The book does not claim to answer all these questions, but it is the beginning of a conversation that centers the experiences and critiques of youth.
T: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?
SM: This book builds on my earlier research on Palestinian and Palestinian/Arab American hip hop as well as diasporic South Asian youth culture. It connects to issues I explored in my first book, Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City, which focused on second-generation youth and negotiations of national authenticity and gendered and sexual politics in music and dance, including in desi (South Asian) hip hop. Interestingly, the ambivalence about hybrid forms of cultural expression as inauthentic and the anxieties about female behavior associated with these new subcultures as impure resonated with debates among young people about Palestinian hip hop, suggesting the deeper anxieties about border cultures as zones of moral ambiguity and about national identities facing the threat of erasure or presumed to be under threat.
My last book, Missing: Youth, Citizenship, and Empire After 9/11, was concerned with the ways in which Muslim immigrant youth in the United States understood national belonging in the War on Terror and their everyday experiences of the imperial state. Thus it was also a study of the nuanced forms of politics expressed by young people for whom formal politics is not always possible, desirable, or effective. Jil Oslo also extends the research I have been doing on hip hop produced by Arab and Palestinian youth in the diaspora and more recently on ’48 Palestinian youth. I coauthored an article with Magid Shihade on ’48 Palestinian hip hop and the notion of the present/absent as an analytic for the political subjecthood of young people from communities viewed as liminal, hence supposedly inauthentic, or already colonized, hence presumably disloyal, but whose resistance confronts the settler colonial logic of annihilation in daily life and through popular culture.
T: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SM: I really hope a broad audience will read this book, as it was intended not just for an academic audience. It will speak to those interested in youth, Palestine, hip hop, youth subcultures, popular culture, political movements, gender, militarism, surveillance, and decoloniality. I would really like to inject a serious engagement with youth culture into Palestine studies, so that these issues can be linked to the exciting and important work that already exists on the politics of nation, gender, and resistance movements in Palestine. I think the questions of youth and resistance have a global purchase, and there are many ways in which these issues loom large around the world in the wake of Occupy and the Arab uprisings. As the discourse about Palestine expands in the U.S. academy and mainstream media, my hope is also that this book could contribute to a more critical discussion of representations of Palestine that could enter fields in which it has hitherto been marginalized or suppressed.
T: What other projects are you working on now?
SM: My current book project is an ethnographic study of Arab, South Asian, and Afghan American youth activism in the Silicon Valley area of California and the turn to civil rights and human rights in post-9/11 activism. It discusses the cross-ethnic alliances and transnational politics that have emerged among college-age youth and their engagement with antiwar and global solidarity movements as well as resistance to Islamophobia and racial violence. The book is in part an examination of the failure of human rights discourse in the case of Palestine solidarity activism and the repression and surveillance experienced by young people who are the objects of the counterterrorism regime. Thus it is very much part of the transnational research I have been doing for the past few years linking Ramallah and Haifa to Oakland and San Jose.
In addition, I have a co-edited book that is coming out in the spring, The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (University of Minnesota Press) that looks at these questions from the other side, to speak, from within the U.S. academy. It links the policing of knowledge within the U.S. university to the broader politics of imperialism, militarism, racism, and neoliberalism that underlie debates about academic dissent that generally center only on academic freedom. The volume includes writings by scholars who have been themselves targeted for their criticism of U.S. foreign policy or of Israel and of others who dissect the gendered and racial politics of academic repression and the longer histories of academic containment.