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Arab Hip-Hop Group Profiled; Rapper with a Gay Rights Message

Aired August 9, 2013 - 17:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to a special edition of our program, where we take a look at some of the stories and conversations that we've had this year. We update them and we think they're worth sharing with you again.

Tonight, music as a form of expression and protest. In a moment, you'll meet a hip-hop artist, voicing support for gay rights. That's in a genre that's dominated by homophobia.

But first to rap as a form of resistance. So often rap music is borne from the fringes of society. It's the outlet of the repressed and the marginalized. It originated right here in the United States, and it's caught on as a means of protest across the world, playing a role in the Arab Spring in places like Tunisia, Bahrain and Morocco, and so many other places as well.

It's alive and well in Israel, for instance, which is home to more than a million and a half Arab citizens. Now three of them make up the hip-hop group DAM.

They are brothers, Tamer and Suhell Nafar, and their friend, Mahmoud Jreri.

The Palestinian artists rap in both Hebrew and Arabic and they speak English. And the themes of oppression and injustice are prevalent in their songs about struggling to survive in the Jewish state. The late American rapper, Tupac Shakur, was their inspiration. And Tupac's imagery of violence and crime in poor neighborhoods here in the U.S. resonated with what they say they were feeling at home.

DAM's lyrics, like those in many hip-hop songs, can be controversial and even offensive. I spoke with them when they were in New York at the beginning of their U.S. tour, before they moved on to the Middle East and Europe.


AMANPOUR: Suhell, Tamer, Mahmoud, welcome to the program. Thanks for joining me.

You say the quintessential American hip-hop rapper, Tupac, was your inspiration and that it was very similar to what you lived every day.

I want to play part of one of your songs that actually recorded in Hebrew, and it's called "Born Here," and then we'll talk about it.


AMANPOUR: So this is in Hebrew, presumably directly aimed at the Israeli Hebrew-speaking population.

What are you trying to tell them?

TAMER NAFAR, DAM MEMBER: Back then, it was part of a campaign called Born Here.

Just to give a reference, "Born Here" is a very known Israeli Zionist song. The actual lyrics in this Hebrew song was, "I was born here; this is where my sons were born here, my grandson will be born here and this is where I built my own house."

And we, the natives, that we were born in this land before Israel even, we took that song and we flipped it, in that song, as you saw.

And we said, "We are born here, my grandfather was born here. My great-grandfather -- "and this is the way you demolish the house in your both hands.

And basically that song is to talk about the neighborhoods, about the -- we are talking about Israeli citizens.

AMANPOUR: Which you are.

TAMER NAFAR: We -- yes, we carry the Israeli passport; we pay the Israeli taxes. And we live in neighborhoods without no -- sometimes no water, sometimes no electricity -- sometimes, of course -- poverty, no streets, walls in between us and the Jewish neighborhoods, like the separation, the big separational (ph), 70 houses were demolished back then when we did that video clip because the Arabs built without license. But at the same time, they don't give license to Arabs.

So --

AMANPOUR: So, Suhell, are you trying to make a political point or a social point?

Are you talking about the bigger Arab-Israeli peace process?

Are you just talking about your own neighborhoods?

SUHELL NAFAR, DAM MEMBER: I mean, we're talking about our reality, whatever we see when we open our window, whatever we talk to our families, whether they're in Gaza or in the West Bank or even the refugees that are there in Lebanon.

So what we talk about is we're talking about one solution for everyone, which is like everyone under one peaceful state. And so we talk to everyone.

TAMER NAFAR: But we do consider ourselves as part of the Palestinian people.


AMANPOUR: You know, a lot of people don't often focus on Arab Israelis. So let me just put out the statistics. There are about 1.6 million of you who live inside Israel as Israeli citizens, of a total of nearly 8 million Israelis.

Do you feel part of Israel, Mahmoud?

MAHMOUD JRERI, DAM MEMBER: Well, we have -- we have a song called "Stranger in My Own Country," and this is what we feel. We are targeted citizens. And we are targeted because we all live in a country that defines itself as a Jewish country, which deletes (ph) everyone else. And this is how we feel and this is how we are being treated by this country.

AMANPOUR: Let me read some of these lyrics.

"Stranger in my own country. Who cares about us? We are dying slowly controlled by a Zionist, democratic government. Ya, democratic to the Jewish soul and Zionist to the Arabic soul."

Do you worry that this will be seen as anti-Semitic, that you will be criticized for saying these kinds of lyrics? What is the reaction to this kind of singing?

TAMER NAFAR: I don't think it's anti- -- I'm Semitic first (ph), so I cannot be --

JRERI: You're Semitic.

TAMER NAFAR: Yes. So, yes, exactly. So I cannot be anti-myself. My -- I --

AMANPOUR: Anti-Jewish? Anti-Israeli?

JRERI: I'm not anti-Jewish; I'm anti-Zionism, because I think Zionism is racism. And Zionism is deleting any other culture and any other religion living in Palestine. And this is what I'm criticizing.

I don't have problem with Jewish people. I'm calling for a country that their citizens is the important thing in the country. I'm not his religion. I'm not his background. And this is what we are calling for.

TAMER NAFAR: I must add something if possible.

I don't know how it got through the history to that point, where I should defend myself of being anti-Jewish. I mean, we are sitting on a land that have Christians, that it have Jews, and it have Muslims. Most of the Muslims and Christians were kicked out of this land.

And the 20 percent that was left, the Christians and the Muslims are being defined under Jewish country that is ignoring them and canceling them.

How the hell we are being anti-Semitic if it's not the opposite? I don't know how -- what's the process --


AMANPOUR: So you think -- you think the process (inaudible) you --

TAMER NAFAR: Yes, definitely, yes.

AMANPOUR: Obviously that's your feelings; it comes out in your music.

What is the reaction inside Israel amongst the Jewish population and amongst the Arab population to your music?

TAMER NAFAR: Some like it. We have a big following of the Jews.


SUHELL NAFAR: It's mostly activist people who are following us. But when you have --

TAMER NAFAR: -- the army, activists --

AMANPOUR: Well, thank you all for coming in.

And I want to turn now to journalist Robin Wright. She's covered the Middle East extensively, including the role of rap music as a form of protest and expression.

Robin, welcome. And you are also, of course, the author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion across the Arab World."

You've written a lot about rap and you've seen DAM perform.

What's your analysis of their role in society?

ROBIN WRIGHT, JOURNALIST; AUTHOR OF "ROCK THE CASBAH": Well, I think the most important thing about them is they reflect the attempt to create a different way of expressing their anger. They're not using Molotov cocktails; they're not donning suicide vests. They're using music.

And it reflects this vibrant culture of change that has been given birth across the Middle East in music, in theater, in comedy, in trying to find other ways of achieving your goals, of tackling whether it's autocrats or extremists or fighting for your rights in Israel.

AMANPOUR: So given the fact that they're not advocating violence -- and, in fact, a lot of their songs are about coexistence and wishing they could -- is some of the offensive language, whether Zionism is racism or whatever they might be saying -- is that fair game? Or is that something that people should take offense at?

WRIGHT: Look, their lyrics are controversial and they're going to offend some people. This is where -- we're kind of in a transition period as we work our way, hopefully, at some point, down the road to a peace process.

But the mere fact that they are singing to an Israeli audience as well as a Muslim and Arab audience, the fact that they have performed in Israeli clubs and the fact that they have sung with Israeli rappers tells you that something has changed and that's really what they represent.

AMANPOUR: And how much of that is there amongst the Arab population in Israel and then we'll talk about the rest of the Arab Spring countries.

WRIGHT: Oh, I think there's a good bit of rap. You find it in -- whether it's in Israel proper, the West Bank, Gaza, there is the music. It's playing the same kind of role that folk music did in the United States in the '60s and '70s, in giving voice to opposition and trying to redefine the political agenda and to deal with the socioeconomic issues of daily life.

And that's what's so interesting; it's not just, you know, Arab Israelis that they're dealing with. They're dealing with the fact that there aren't enough kindergarteners in their neighborhoods, that there's garbage that isn't picked up. That -- this is really the transition we've gone through.

AMANPOUR: Is it like American rap in that it is, you know, American rap is very macho, it's very testosterone fueled; some of it is very anti- women and some of it is, well, you know, religion often plays a role in some of these songs.

WRIGHT: You don't find the kind of gangsta, as they call it, lyrics or the attitude in -- there's an anger, but there's not -- and a little bit of that genus, but there's not that kind of, you know --

AMANPOUR: Violence?

WRIGHT: Yes, the violence, that kind of on-the-borderline of promoting violence. I think it's really in a very different stage than you found in the early American rap.


AMANPOUR: So what did you see when you went to Tunisia and the other countries?

WRIGHT: Well, what's so interesting is that in Tunisia, several weeks before the uprising began, you saw a young rapper put his lyrics on a Facebook page. And they were more scathing and criticizing the president than any politician had been in 23 years.

And it was his song that Tunisians sang as they protested after a young street vendor set himself on fire. In Saudi Arabia, a country that doesn't allow music, you find a whole new generation of rappers --

AMANPOUR: Even in Saudi Arabia?

WRIGHT: -- absolutely. Young --


AMANPOUR: On the ground?

WRIGHT: -- most of them underground, but there is -- one of them is a host of a show called "Arabs Got Talent," which is a takeoff on "America's Got Talent." So they're -- you know, you find them everywhere.

AMANPOUR: And in Iran?

WRIGHT: Absolutely. And one of the interesting things during the 2009 presidential election was the fact that one of the opposition candidates for president, who is a 70-year-old cleric, put out CDs of rap music with pro-democracy themes as one of the means of campaigning.

AMANPOUR: Now you also report that DAM had said to you -- this is the group that we just profiled -- that every village now has hip-hop. "Hip- hop is our CNN."

At the risk of being self-referential, what did they mean by that?

WRIGHT: I think they meant this is a way of both communicating our message, getting our political agenda across and having people, you know, connect with each other, that this was a kind of global medium. And --

AMANPOUR: So a communal sort of event?

WRIGHT: Yes. And the way of communicating their message and being heard.

AMANPOUR: And what do you think is the future of this?

Is it just now because of this monumental sort of political upheaval that's going on?

Or is it something that's, you know, like here, is going to be the wave of the future?

WRIGHT: In many ways, the culture of change tells us really what happens next. We get so absorbed in the daily headlines and the gruesome pictures of a protest or a confrontation or the tragedy of Syria.

And the fact is, whatever happens politically, it is this culture of change produced by the young who are the majority across the region that really reflect the guts of what's happening and this epic convulsion.

And the positive side of it, that people are turning to -- whether it's song or theater or comedy as a means of communicating their message and sending out something very different than the kind of extremism that you and I covered 20 years ago.

AMANPOUR: And to that point, you obviously are not just a music and rap reporter. You have looked and covered all these revolutions and for decades now.

What is your feeling for the young people who had these revolutions for their own economic betterment and things are really stuck in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere?

WRIGHT: Look, this is a time of tremendous disappointment for all of them, because they can't translate their dreams into political reality, and they feel they're not getting the rewards for their courage and initiative.

And one of the interesting things -- most interesting barometers of change -- will be to hear the lyrics of the rap a year from now and five years from now and what they're singing about, how much anger there is in their voices and what they're demanding.

And are they going further than they -- than they were today and just calling for peaceful coexistence and change? That's the danger that we get the old edginess and violence back into the music as well.

AMANPOUR: So rap is the third intifada?

WRIGHT: It's the third intifada. It's the rhythm of the resistance across the region.

AMANPOUR: On that note, Robin Wright, thank you very much.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Thanks for being here.


AMANPOUR: And of course here in the U.S., music is also an instrument of change. In the macho world of hip-hop, an unexpected voice speaks out on behalf of gay rights. We'll explain when we come back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

The majority of Americans now say that they support gay marriage, catching up to pop culture which has long led the way in the support of gay rights and same-sex marriage. But in one corner of the entertainment world, hip-hop, homophobia has strongly persisted. Now even that might be changing.

A turning point came with singer Frank Ocean, whose very public coming out last year stunned the music world.

And now my next guest, the rapper Macklemore, has created a sensation with his song, "Same Love." It quickly became a gay love anthem. Take a look and also listen to those lyrics.


MACKLEMORE: If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me Have you read the YouTube comments lately? "Man, that's gay," gets dropped on me daily We become so numb to what we're saying It's the same hate that's caused wars from religion Gender to skin color, the complexion of your pigment The same fight that led people to walkouts and sit-ins It's human rights for everybody, there is no difference! Live on and be yourself I might not be the same, but that's not important No freedom till we're equal, damn right I support it.


AMANPOUR: I spoke to Macklemore, whose real name is Ben Haggerty, about why he decided to take this stand.


AMANPOUR: What is it that has led you, first and foremost, to write that song?

BEN HAGGERTY, "MACKLEMORE," HIP-HOP ARTIST: "Same Love" came about actually from reading an article about a 13-year-old boy that had committed suicide after being ridiculed in school. And his teachers didn't do anything; his classmates teased him. No one really stuck up for him. And eventually ended his own life at 13 years old.

And I heard this story and you know, certain news stories just affect you on a personal level. And it was one of those that really resonated with me. And I knew that I needed to write something about it.


HAGGERTY: I didn't know how to do it.

AMANPOUR: Ben, you yourself are not gay, but you say it affected you on a personal level. How is that?

HAGGERTY: Yes. I grew up with two gay uncles, a gay godfather; I grew up in the Catholic Church and I grew up in a very gay area of Seattle, one of the most populated gay areas on the entire West Coast.

And then also being a member of the hip-hop community, so which is stereotypically very homophobic for the most part, has been throughout the last 20 years.

AMANPOUR: I wanted to ask you about that, because of course, everybody's amazed. It's why we're interviewing you.

Why is it that the hip-hop community is known to be so homophobic?

And why is it that you've decided to break with that?

And have you done it as a challenge?

HAGGERTY: You know, it's tough to really pinpoint why there's been so much homophobia in hip-hop. I think that it's a very masculine, testosterone-driven art form. And there's not -- you know, it stems back to religion; it stems back to our culture. And it's tough to really pinpoint why it is homophobic.

I think that, you know, our manhood is so at the forefront of what it means to be a rapper and to challenge other people's manhood. And there's something tied up in that. But for me personally it was about holding myself accountable, about holding my community accountability and really opening up a dialogue so that people could have a conversation around the issue of homophobia.

AMANPOUR: And do you think what you've done in terms of this song, what you've done in terms of speaking out, of Frank Ocean coming out so publicly, do you think that will be a game-changer, not just in our society, but in your world, in the hip-hop world?

HAGGERTY: Yes, I think that in this last yea --, I wrote this song a year ago -- and in the last year, I have seen tremendous progress on a civil rights level. And I think that, you know, music has the power to change people, to change the way that we think, to change the topics of conversation that we're constantly having on a day-to-day basis.

And people like Frank Ocean and Barack Obama, there's been a certain level of courage that has come out in the last year that I haven't seen previously. And I think that really what it's done has facilitated an open discussion and through those discussions, people have the power to change their viewpoints and lessen the fear that has been passed on from generation to generation around this issue.

AMANPOUR: So I'm talking to you, Ben Haggerty, but you are also the hip-hop star.

Does this mean that you will continue this? Or is this a one-off?

Are you going to be more political? Are you going to write more songs about this?

Or is this just your art form now and your statement now?

HAGGERTY: I think that there's a long way to go on this issue. I mean, obviously what's happening in the Supreme Court this week, but really just overall, our tolerance, our level of compassion for what we don't understand necessarily as Americans.

We're so fearful. There's been a longstanding lineage of hate and prejudice amongst -- against the gay people.

And I think that there's a long way to go. So if I see injustice, then I want to speak about it, whether it's this issue, another social issue, if it's something that hits me on a personal level, then I feel like it's my job to speak up against it. And this is one of those issues. And we have a long way to go as a country.

AMANPOUR: Ben Haggerty, thank you so much for joining us.

And I must say my 13-year-old son thought it's incredibly cool that I'm interviewing you today. And when he hears --

HAGGERTY: Beautiful.

AMANPOUR: -- what you're saying about justice and civil rights, I think it's a great lesson for the young people. Thank you very much indeed.

HAGGERTY: Thank you, Christiane. Appreciate it.

AMANPOUR: And we'll be back with still another playlist with a conscience, a singer-songwriter who literally went underground to record his music and helped launch the revolution that began the Arab Spring, when we return.


AMANPOUR: And finally, what my guest, Robin Wright, called "the rhythm of resistance" has become the pulse of a generation, from the hip- hop music of DAM on the West Bank to the defiant rap of the young Tunisian who helped spark the Arab Spring.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Back in 2010, El General, the name he gave himself, posted a music video on Facebook and YouTube. It was an angry appeal to Tunisia's then dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and it sang of the suffering of a people, as he says, living in filth and fear.



AMANPOUR: Because hip-hop was banned in Tunisia, the young artist had to go underground literally to record his music. With primitive camera work and a makeshift studio, he produced an Internet sensation, the soundtrack, if you will, for the uprising that brought down Ben Ali and an anthem of outrage.