Rap it up
Tamer Nafar to lighten White Nights at Islamic Museum
Rappers – to my older ears and understanding, anyway – frequently come across as having plenty to get off their chest. There seems to be an inherent angst-driven undercurrent about the subject matter. Hence it follows that you have to have a bee in your bonnet about something or other, possibly life in general, to do the business as a rapper or hip-hop artist.
Tamer Nafar certainly seems to have lots to get out there. Nafar is a 38-yearold Palestinian Israeli rapper who hails from Lod. He first hit the rap scene in 1998, and two years later joined forces with his brother Suhell and their friend Mahmoud Jrere to establish the first Palestinian-Arab rap group, called Dam. Both as a member of the trio and a solo artist Nafar performs regularly up and down the country, and abroad, to wildly enthused audiences. Tomorrow (November 16) he will appear at the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem as part of a free entry program marking International Day for Tolerance, initiated by the UN in 1996.
The White Night at the museum is epexegetically subtitled as “Music, Culture and Art from the Arab World in a Western Reality.” That spells out the socio-cultural objective succinctly enough.
Nafar has been billed as the headliner of the museum program, and will take the stage at 11 p.m. He will be preceded by a 9:30 p.m. slot featuring popular high-energy world music act Quarter to Africa, with the whole bash kicking off, at 8 p.m., with the hand- on Jerusalem Double event, initiated by the Kulna organization which seeks to bring residents of east and west Jerusalem together for cultural and social intermingling. Jerusalem Double is a backgammon session for all comers, from all parts of the city. The White Night proceedings will close with the East Mediterranean Party, overseen by DJ Bamya, which starts at midnight.
As posited earlier, rappers generally have some kind of soapbox message to convey through their art. But while, inter alia, they clearly have a need to offload gripes, thoughts and feelings about some personal and/ or political state of affairs, it is not just a matter of venting one’s spleen. The rapper in question wants his or her audience to take the message on board and, hopefully, do something about it. To that end, as the most fundamental of preconditions, your listeners have to be able to understand the language in which you perform.
As such, presumably Nafar brings a different mindset to his numbers, across his professional lingual spread of English, Hebrew and Arabic.
“Arabic is important to me because it is my mother tongue. It is the language in which I think, love, dance, dream. That is built-in, for me,” he notes. “That brings more passion. My approach is always the same, but there will always be more passion [in Arabic].”
There is a flipside: “Sometimes [in Arabic] I can take the material for granted, and that makes it boring. So I’ll look for something else.”
While Nafar says he doesn’t pay too much attention to the possibility that certain members of his audience may not understand the lyrics of a particular number, his mindset changes with the language of choice.
“If I do something in Hebrew the message will always have some political content,” he states. “In English it’s different. I have a song in English called ‘Working Class Shero.’ That is a play on John Lennon’s anthemic song ‘Working Class Hero.’”
The late Beatle continues to provide Nafar with personal and artistic inspiration.
“The whole idea of the song is ‘in the name of Father, the name of the Koran and the name of John Lennon.’ Those are the three things I grew up on. My father wanted to be a musician. He went on a hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca] and turned to religion, and John Lennon – the music he played at home almost every day. And there’s my mother who, because of society, didn’t have any dreams at all. All of that is in the song, and my work as a whole.”
Nafar aims to attain as wide a market appeal as possible, regardless of religion, nationality or cultural baggage.
“When I perform I don’t think about geography,” he says, adding that there is a universality to much of his work. Wordplay is a major component of his artistic arsenal.
“For example, I sing ‘same flood different people.’ There is the biblical flood with Noah and I talk about [Daily Show host] Trevor Noah. I mention ‘same flood, different preachers.’ Each has their own flood. [US President Donald] Trump has his flood, against which Trevor is constantly battling.”
While Nafar wages his own battles, against what he perceives as injustices, he says he is under no illusion that his creative offerings or, for that matter, anyone’s artistic work can put too deep a dent in some political line of thought or other.
“If art could really make a difference in the political arena, Bernie Sanders would be the president of America instead of Trump,” he says with a sigh.
Even so, the rapper feels a strong urge to say his piece, regardless of the local or global political situation.
He says he and his work are a product of his milieu.
“If I lived in, say, Berlin I’d probably produce different songs, with different lyrics. I live in a place where you have to keep your ears and eyes open, the whole time.”
But it certainly not all about angst, doom and gloom. Nafar is an ace at getting his audiences on board the fun train, and nary a patron is left unmoved – physically too – at one of his shows. He also gets them in on the act. There is no missing the interaction vibe in the video clip that goes with his latest release, “Johnny Mashi” – a reference to the whisky brand Johnny Walker.
“You see how the audiences react,” he states. “The video was created by people from the audience at 30 shows – in Belgium, Ramallah, Toronto, ‘IF I lived in, say, Berlin I’d probably produce different songs, with different lyrics. I live in a place where you have to keep your ears and eyes open, the whole time,’ says Palestinian Israeli rapper Tamer Nafar. Bethlehem, all over. I did 30 shows in a month and a half.”
Nafar takes potshots at all kinds of targets in “Johnny Mashi,” chiding overly consumer-conscious Arabs for being more into fashion than the important issues of life, and imparting his disappointment with the state of the world by way of noting the evolution of Arabic society.
“My grandpa had superpowers, he had 15 children,” Nafar intones in Arabic. “While I’m at the pharmacy, buying Durex. It’s beyond my ability. Why bring children into this cursed world?”
The eponymous beverage, he sings, offers some temporary relief.
“So, Johnny, pour me another shot,” the number continues. “Johnny please press the escape button.”
For more information: (02) 566-1291 and www.islamicart.co.il.