An editorial by Northeastern University’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine
“This is not a label to sleep on, and neither is their first official release Sindibad el Ward.”
Palestine is no stranger to hip hop, and hip hop group BLTNM is a testament to the rich culture constantly emerging from Palestine. Mirroring the 1970s advent of hip-hop in the Bronx, marginalization in both places led to groundbreaking music full of expressive critique of institutional oppression and sick, hard-hitting sound.
Due to Israeli apartheid, Palestinians face physical and technological barriers, such as checkpoints and limited or inefficient cellular data. These factors make it difficult to form a unified, bustling music scene among Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel proper. Occupation is always in the background of daily life, as Israel gets to decide how and when Palestinian artists without Israeli citizenship get to perform (Yang, 2019). Palestinians need an Israeli citizenship to move with full mobility between separated territories, but many Palestinians are unable to apply for such identification cards. The “Boiler Room” episode Palestine Underground shows DJs hopping over the apartheid wall, and finding other ways (and any way) to get to the gig. Ultimately, hip hop has been a force of fun, liberation, and important connection between these divided areas.
BLTNM is an independent record label based in Ramallah, a city in the West Bank. It started in 2016 by artists Shabjdeed and Al Nather. Since 2016, the independent label has grown to include other artists like Faris and Mukta-feen, and has collaborated with artists like Sama’. The label has been steadily releasing tracks on SoundCloud and Bandcamp, sharing the cultural and musical stage with other known Palestinian artists in the area and throughout the diaspora.
Palestinians have been living under Israeli occupation for three generations, since 1948, which has shaped Palestinian music and culture in dynamic ways. Palestinian-produced art is resistance against Israeli appropriation and destruction of Palestinian culture. For example, In 2011 British Palestinian rapper Shadia Mansour expresses her anger at the appropriation of the Palestinian scarf of resistance, the kuffiyeh, in her song “Al Kufiyyeh 3Arabeyyeh” which translates to “The Kuffiyeh is Arab.” Other Palestinian hip hop groups such as DAM, Excentrik, and Refugees of Rap hit on similar political themes surrounding occupation and racial and ethnic discrimination. However, there is a difference between the content of music and the context in which it is released.
Although Israeli occupation is mentioned in BLTNM’s tracks, it is not the force that propels them to succeed, nor is it the topical center of their work. BLTNM has made it clear that they make music for the sake of making music, and that not every cultural piece that emerges from Palestine has to be about occupation. Shabjdeed explains this in a recent article from The Guardian, where he describes his reaction to the common inquiry of how it feels to live under occupation: “I was born here. We’re used to it. They [Israeli soldiers] could come here, start shooting, and we wouldn’t even stop the interview. It’s like traffic in London; it’s very upsetting, but we don’t ask, ‘How does it feel to live in traffic?’” (Faber, 2019).
In August of 2019, Shabjdeed and Al Nather released their first full album, Sindibad el Ward under BLTNM. The tracks are hot and melodic, with moody synths layered over carefully curated beats. They rap primarily in their local dialect of Arabic, though a few words of English can be found on the track “Arab Style.” “Mtaktak” is a standout from the album that just makes listeners want to let go and dance to it. “Wlad Quds,” which roughly translates to “Boy of Jerusalem” or “Holy Boy,” is mellow with a stand-out hook and sharp, quick rap in between. All of the tracks on the album are essentially non-skippable. BLTNM has made it clear they create music for a good time, for partying, and for the craft itself, regardless of countless restrictions placed upon them due to ethnic identity.
BLTNM has also produced music videos for multiple tracks, curated a stylistic Instagram presence, and appeared in multiple documentaries and articles about underground Palestinian hip-hop. Accessible to fans outside of Ramallah, BLTNM also has a Facebook page through which one can track new updates and live performances. This is not a label to sleep on, and neither is their first official album, Sindibad el Ward. BLTNM is an emerging force in the current music industry, bolstering a myriad of Palestinian voices impossible for the world to ignore.
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the Northeastern chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine and do not necessarily reflect the position of WRBB and its members.