Sa’aleek – The Palestinian Rap Collective That’s Putting the Margins on the Map
I remember getting off the bus a few blocks up from the Qalandia refugee camp, which is located in the West Bank and was established to house Palestinians who were displaced from their villages during the 1948 Palestine War.
Our group, which primarily consisted of music industry types who had come to Palestine from all over the world to take part in the first ever Palestine Music Expo, was greeted by five young men who were gathered on the side of the road awaiting our arrival.
It was sweltering that day and as we entered the camp, it was generally quiet, though a few small children circled playfully around us to offer bashful hellos.
Taking photos, primarily in areas of the camp that are usually targeted by the Israeli military during their night raids, was prohibited by the locals.
Throughout the camp, posters of young men, many holding machine guns, were taped to the exterior walls of the buildings. Some were men who had been imprisoned by the military but whose families maintain hope that they will return home. Others were martyrs––young men who had already been lost but whose portraits continue to serve as a stark reminder of who and what they are fighting for.
Painted on the wall outside one of the homes was a large portrait of a boy’s face. As our group stopped in the middle of the dirt street to observe it, we listened to a story about how he had been thrown from the rooftop of a neighbouring building after being shot down by police. As someone spoke, I noticed two men standing together in the doorway behind us––watching, listening. They were poised and stoic. The resemblance to their fallen brother was uncanny.
Our last stop, which was mere feet away from one of the busiest checkpoints in the region, was a makeshift recording studio. Unannounced to us, our guides, Tyseer Qatom, Maen Ozrail, and Mohammad Silwadi, are also a promising young rap collective called Sa’aleek.
Despite being a 6 x 12 foot room, the studio is a safe haven for the group. When we arrived there was an event taking place in the banquet hall above us, so to avoid making too much noise, all twenty of us piled in and closed the metal door.
As we stood there, shoulder-to-shoulder, sweating, and breathing in the last of the bone-dry air, it was obvious that we were all about to share an incredibly special moment.
The group performed three original songs for us, and though delivered in Arabic, a palpable energy completely filled up the small space and their words punched right through the language barrier.
Before leaving I coordinated an interview with their manager, Mohammad Deckeideck, who was also present during our tour and is much more like the fourth member of the group.
The following evening just past 8pm, I met Qatom, Ozrail, and Deckeideck in the lobby of my hotel in Ramallah.
Through the hustle and bustle of people, a fog settled in the air above our heads as we huddled around a small coffee table and smoked our way through packs of cheap Arabic cigarettes. A fragrant smelling steam lifted from our glasses of mint leaf tea, and we spoke with a sort of candour and understanding not typical of new friends, for the next couple of hours.
Naturally, I wanted to know what motivated them as artists and who had shaped their sound––the short answer is Malcolm X, Muslim writer Ali Shariati, guys like Wu-Tang, KRS-One, Dre, Tupac, and Immortal Technique, but there are more––and what I got was a much deeper understanding of the power that music actually has to change lives indefinitely.
The word Sa’aleek, is more than two-thousand-years-old, and has at various points in history, been used to loosely describe the weak of society. For these guys it’s a re-claimed term of collective endearment, a word fuelled by self-preservation, empowerment, and above all else hope.
But, they take care to explain that Sa’aleek is bigger than them––it’s an idea, a principle even, it’s a movement.
“There are too many people out there who are just living because it’s not okay to commit suicide,” says Deckeideck. “We want to change that. People have got to have a reason to live.”
“When I was a teenager, I was a hustler,” adds Qatom, who is a rapper and the eldest member of the group. “I knew that wasn’t the life I wanted to live, but I did it because I needed to feed my family. At first, I thought there were nothing but thugs and criminals running around in these streets, but eventually I looked out and saw a lot of good people who were only out there because their own dreams had been corrupted. That made me think. Nobody should live or die like that, but these kids don’t have anyone to look up to or anything to believe in.
“Everyday people are told that they are nothing more than dumb pieces of garbage and that they will never rise above this. That is the reason we started Sa’aleek. With our music we’re telling people, ‘Hey, rise up. Take care of yourself. Don’t let them beat you down. You don’t have to be a criminal, you can bring about change in a positive way, and you can be whoever you want to be.’”
Culturally, it is not uncommon for young men in Palestine to inherit the debts of their fathers at birth. Ozrail, who is also a rapper and the group’s producer, was born into debt, and at twenty-one-years-old still hasn’t been able to pay it up in full.
“That’s a big thing in our community,” he says, “to be born with a debt. So, you don’t go to school, you can’t follow your dreams, in fact, don’t even think of dreaming. You’ve got to work your way toward paying off the debt that your father had so that you can separate yourself from it––so that you can go back to zero. Then, maybe after twenty-years you start to think, ‘Okay, my debt has been paid, now what do I want? Now what should I do?’
“All my life I’ve been in debt,” he notes, “and I still haven’t reached my zero. But, I have hope, and I’ll be sure that the people who listen to my music have that hope also. When I was growing up, I didn’t have someone to tell me to hold on, but when I tell someone they will reach their zero, I know it helps them to keep going.”
“The way I see it,” adds Qatom, “if I am not scared of you and I want this laptop right here, I’ll just look you in the face and I’ll take it. But, when I bring an army and AK47s, that means I’m afraid of you, you get me? The people don’t recognize the power they have, they don’t realize that they have the ability to make a change, so we’re trying to let them know that they do.”
It is for that reason that this group has spent the past five years hauled up in a windowless room with spotty electricity, honing their lyrical craft, producing beats, and laying down tracks on old, busted equipment they either found or stole. And yet, they’ve written songs that have, through the magic of the Internet, found their way clear across the Middle East, Europe, and into North America.
“You would be surprised who our fans are,” says Deckeideck. “Our fans aren’t the guys who are bumping in their fancy cars. No. Our fans abroad are the Syrian and Lebanese refugees. They are the people in the gutters in Egypt, and throughout the Third World. These are the people who are listening.”
And he’s right people are listening. They’re listening in their homes in Denmark just as they are sitting in Palestinian jails, and it’s because what these guys rap about is their truth. People see themselves in Sa’aleek’s story and contrary to popular belief, it is in many ways, the same story being lived by honest, hardworking, marginalized people everywhere.
“One of our friends knew this guy who was in jail,” says Qatom. “He had one-hundred-and-fifty bullets in his body. They were steel bullets covered with rubber––the kind that will crush your bones but won’t kill you. When he got out, he said to our friend, ‘I want to see Sa’aleek.’ We were like, ‘What? Why is that?’ We knew he had street cred, like he was a big somebody in the streets, but when we saw him he just said, ‘I heard your song in the jail and it touched me. I thought that you were talking about me and that you wrote that song after you heard my story.’
“What we do, it’s all about giving hope,” he adds. “That is what’s missing for people. So no matter what your story is, if it’s that you have a shitty job and you’re bringing in no money but you still work it because you have a family and you have to stand up tall, you are one of us, you are part of Sa’aleek.
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Qatom tells me that there is a long history of rap music in Palestine, but that for many years people didn’t take it seriously. More recently, a new crop of hungry, young rappers has begun to emerge.
“In our community, we’ve got three or four young guys who are becoming rappers now,” he says. “They are recording and releasing music because they saw us and were like, ‘Okay, maybe music isn’t just bullshit like people told us. Maybe we can make something out of it and out of ourselves.’ So, they come to us, even to learn how to write bar-to-bar. And, in some sense, not even just musically, more like in their souls, now these guys aren’t just hanging around in the streets looking all hallow. Now they’ve got something to do and they can empty their energy into something that is beneficial.”
“All around the hood, even in our hoods, people always glorify the drug dealers and the thugs,” he adds. “But, right now, when we look out at these kids we can honestly say, ‘Okay, we have more credibility in the streets.’ Why? Because people can sense the positive energy. People know we’re not out there glorifying all that bullshit, we’re saying, ‘Okay, you’ve been through a struggle, now it’s time to stand tall, and to be a man.”
From the outside looking in it is easy to see only what people lack, particularly when measuring them by Western standards of “happiness,” and then taking the liberty of presuming that they must be miserable.
In reality, Biggie was right when he said, “Mo money mo problems.”
In the West, where we aspire to nothing more fiercely than the illusion of financial security, and we have the audacity to order half-sweet, low-fat, 180 degree soy lattes and bitch about having too many choices or how hard it is to make the grand leap to gluten-free, organic, and non-GMO, our addiction to spending exorbitant amounts of cash we do not have on shit we do not need, is out of control. And yet, we are absolutely convinced that we have it all figured out.
Turning to face Deckeideck, I ask him to speak to the group’s aspirations outside of Palestine. I want to know where and how they see themselves within the framework of rap music today, and I want to better understand what drives them to keep going.
“Look, the sidelines or the margins, they’re not just in here,” he says. “And, to tell you the truth, we didn’t even know we struggled until we saw the outside world. At the same time, sometimes when we see what’s going on out there we think, ‘Thank God we are here.’ We look at some of these other places and go, ‘Dude I would rather be here all day than go to Syria and get bombed by chemical weapons.’ No. I’d rather be here. I love it here.”
“But, we don’t see ourselves as just Palestinian,” Qatom interjects. “We are proud to have been born in Palestine and even to have grown up in the camp, but as artists we represent marginalized people everywhere.”
“It’s crazy,” continues Deckeideck, “that people always think, ‘Okay, I’m going to leave and go to America to start living fancy over there.’ Man, half of American can’t even live a normal life; they are struggling too. Don’t think that the people living in First World countries don’t have struggles. There are gutters all over the world. But, that’s what we mean when we talk about Sa’aleek, the gutters, that’s where we came from and that’s who we are talking to.”
In the seventy plus years since the end of World War II, the masses have, in many ways, become the margins of society. As the middle class continues to inch ever closer to extinction, you either find yourself excessively rich or some varying degree of poor.
And, while traditional news media outlets are supposed to be the ones holding the politicians accountable, they are instead busy spinning stories that serve the private interests of their corporate partners by capturing the public’s attention, quenching its insatiable thirst for entertainment, and instilling within it a widespread sense of collective fear.
We live in a scary time, but it’s not because the world is fraught with terrorists, it’s because we are steadfast and marinating in our own hate. CNN is not the voice of the people; it’s the mouthpiece of the 1%. And, despite any perceived sense of freedom, it is the media that tells us who to desire, what to want, and where to place our disdain.
“The problem is that the news media isn’t actually talking about regular people who have struggles,” says Deckeideck, “not in any kind of a real way. All the news media talks about are terrorists and holy wars, but I’m not trying to hear any of that bullshit; it’s all about money.
“We might be weak people but we’re changing a lot of things and we’re changing things with just words. What are the powerful people doing? Nothing. They’re making sure that Kim Kardashian gets paid.”
“The capitalist mindset is all about, ‘Okay, I’ve got some money, but I want way more, so I’ll squash this guy over here and take what he’s got,’ adds Ozrail. “For a lot of people, making more money is their only goal in life, but that kind of thinking is primarily what has destroyed the world.”
“When you look at the Third World, only dumb people have that mentality,” continues Deckeideck. “In our country and in our camp, when we see a guy who has a capitalistic mindset, people actually laugh at him like, ‘Dude, what are you doing with your life?’ I don’t know how to describe it but he’s the dumb one; money is not everything.”
But, like most artists, Sa’aleek dream of reaching mass audiences as well, so I ask them how they reconcile the inherent conflict that exist between fame, money, and worldwide acclaim.
“There are benefits that come with fame,” says Qatom. “But, we only need that one thing that you can’t achieve unless you are famous and that’s word-of-mouth all over the world. That’s our main goal.
“Here in the Middle East there is actually a saying,” adds Deckeideck. “It’s that money is the dirt of hands. It’s dirt. So, that’s part of our message. We don’t give a shit about free stuff or fancy cars, and we’re not trying to be famous for the perks. We’re trying to reach people who are on the edge of their lives and who have real hurt.
“At the end of the day, we know that the Sa’aleek life is not for everyone, but it’s also not as if we’re giving out club cards, you know? You don’t have to have lost everything in order to be a part of Sa’aleek, you just have to stand tall at every opportunity you get and in the face of every struggle. Sa’aleek is us and it’s you.”
No matter if you’re a refugee who has had to flee your home or a single mom from Ohio, the takeaway is that there is no measure of loss. All humans, regardless of their geography, are fundamentally the same in that none of us are immune to heartbreak or struggle.
The following evening, on the final day of the Expo, Sa’aleek returned to the hotel to give their first ever-public performance. In five years, they had never had the opportunity to share the stage together, and as I stood there watching hundreds of young people who they had never met chant their name, it was hard not to be emotional. Afterwards I found Silwadi––who had not joined us during our interview––out on the terrace surrounded by a large, genuinely excited group of people who were offering him congratulatory handshakes and hellos. He was in tears.
When I greeted him and asked him how he felt, he turned to me and said, “You know, there were security officers in the room tonight. I could see them from the stage. Our lyrics are honest and we said a lot of things up there, so there is a very real chance that I may be arrested later tonight once I leave here. But, to tell you the truth, it was worth it. It felt so amazing to be up there.”
And, on the most basic of levels, that is the true power of music. For a fleeting moment, he and the rest of the group had dropped the weight of their own realities at their feet and expressed themselves freely and recklessly in the face of their particular oppressor. I could see it in the black of his eyes, he felt alive and it was exhilarating. It was then that I realized these guys would not be stopped, not even by the threat of impending danger.