Bethlehem, occupied West Bank – Carrying a pair of borrowed speakers and an MP3 player, a group of 13-year-olds cut through the narrow, graffiti-stained alleyways of the Dheisheh refugee camp, rushing past painted murals of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces.
Upon reaching an abandoned, half-demolished building, they plugged their speakers into an electricity outlet next door and began to rap.
That was more than a decade ago, when five young Palestinians formed Bethlehem’s first-ever hip-hop group, in an effort to express their struggles in the town’s largest refugee camp. Now in their mid-20s, the group known as Palestine Street – comprising Mohammed Azmi, Soud Hefawi, Diya Milhem, Hisham al-Laham and Ahmad Ramadan – have evolved to teach their skills to young Palestinians.
Their home, the densely populated Dheisheh camp, is often the site of violent confrontations, with rights groups citing the systematic targeting by Israeli forces of Palestinian youths in the camp.
Near the decrepit building outside Azmi’s home where the group first started to rap, the area is littered with heaps of rubbish and broken glass. The walls are coloured with graffiti that once shielded the group from a community they feared would not accept them.
“People didn’t like it at first, because they affiliated hip-hop with this ‘bling-bling’ culture,” Hefawi told Al Jazeera. “But we were using the art to speak honestly about everyday life as Palestinians … By our rapping about our frustrations and hopes, people started to relate to us and see themselves in our words.“
Azmi said that a defining moment for the group, which inspired them to help other Palestinian youths, came in 2008 with the death of their friend, Qusay Afandi.
“We used to play games, like all Palestinian children do,” Azmi told Al Jazeera. “Qusay used to come with us to a nearby Israeli military base, where we would touch the electronic security fence, set the alarms off and run away from soldiers.”
Throwing stones at soldiers is a way of expressing yourself, a way of unleashing your frustrations ... When we discovered hip-hop, we used that same energy that used to draw us to the streets to throw stones.
Sometimes, they visited the “martyrs’ cemetery” where Palestinians killed by Israeli forces were buried. Each teenager would sit quietly beside an empty grave that they had chosen for themselves. Just a few years later, Qusay would be buried in the very same grave that he had chosen.
“As we started getting more into rapping and making hip-hop music, Qusay began spending more time throwing stones and playing the same games with the soldiers,” Azmi said.
One cold day in the refugee camp, as the group members were outside Azmi’s home planning for a video shoot of their song Qafes el-Deffe (West Bank Cage), Qusay walked by and they exchanged what would be their final greetings.
The next day, Qusay was fatally shot by Israeli soldiers. His death made the group realise that if not for their music, they would have most likely met the same fate.
“Throwing stones at soldiers is a way of expressing yourself, a way of unleashing your frustrations,” Hefawi said. “When you throw a stone at a soldier, you are demanding a better life. And when we discovered hip-hop, we used that same energy that used to draw us to the streets to throw stones.”
Their hip-hop workshops, which have taken them from Dheisheh to refugee camps all across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, focus on teaching Palestinian youths to channel their anger and frustrations into rap music, while still standing up for Palestinian rights.
In partnership with a local NGO, Azmi and Milhem in 2013 began mentoring an all-female hip-hop group in Dheisheh camp, aiming to teach the girls the art of expression and to encourage them to share their individual experiences of being young girls in a Palestinian refugee camp.
Before their introduction to hip-hop, the girls told Al Jazeera from their small studio in Dheisheh that they were “really shy” – but the music has helped them to open up.
“Once we were able to find our voices through hip-hop, we began expressing ourselves and talking about everyday experiences we have in the camp,” Sophie Aissa, a 15-year-old member of the group, told Al Jazeera. “But the community didn’t accept us at first. It was strange for people to see young girls rapping.”
Now, however, “other girls in the camp want to rap just like us”, 16-year-old Sireen Khaled interjected with a wide smile. Fatoom Shaheen, 15, said that other girls in the camp can relate to their messages: “We want to encourage other young girls to believe in themselves, and show them that they can do things that no one expects. They can even rap.”
The girls are now working on their first album.
Meanwhile, Palestine Street has continued to push messages of solidarity with Palestinians through its own verses. In one song, titled An Institutional Wedding, Azmi tackles the nonviolent politics of some NGOs in Palestine: “Recommendations for new projects that soften the minds through peace and nonviolent culture, yet you are not allowed to talk about a child who died in Gaza … To my people, if you ever want freedom, these NGOs must go away.”
Azmi believes that some NGOs gravitate towards the “most active” young Palestinians and offer to help them, but “then they just drain their energy to sell the NGO”.
“I make sure to encourage the kids to think for themselves, and to never be influenced by these NGOs or anyone else,” Azmi said.
“I remind them of the importance, whether you are rapping or speaking, of expressing your opinion honestly – regardless of who is standing in front of you.”