Sunday, July 08, 2007

Ghetto Town Flavor

B-Boy of G-Town is comin' up outta the hood.

His hood is called Shuafat Camp, a sprawling refugee camp located on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The camp is surrounded by the eight-meter high concrete separation barrier. Even though all of the camp's inhabitants possess Jerusalem ID cards (since their homes fall within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem), they must pass through an ominous Israeli checkpoint to enter the Holy City.

This be G-Town. Ghetto Town. The hip-hop consortium named after a village of chaos. A hamlet of disorder. A zone of utter misery. And an oasis of pride.

The group is trailblazing because although there have been a few Palestinian rappers, there have never been Palestinian Arabic-language rappers who explicitly repped Jerusalem. These folks have Jerusalem coursing thru their veins.

Some of the members of G-Town, namely its leader B-Boy (Mohammed al-Mughrabi), have twice been rendered refugees. The Arab-Israeli conflict goes in cycles, and the first two pinnacles of conflict in 48 and 67 dislodged the al-Mughrabis from their homes both times. First they fled from their native village of Lod in central Israel/Palestine, which had been slated to become part of the Arab state under the 1947 UN Partition Plan. Due to the family's partial Moroccan heritage, they relocated to the Moroccan quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, where a sizable number of Moroccans lived just steps away from the Western Wall.

The historically important Moroccan (Mughrabi) quarter settled hundreds of pilgrims from North Africa. After the Arab Legion decimated the adjacent Jewish Quarter in 1948, refugees flooded into the fully Arab-controlled Old City.

B-Boy's family was among those who moved to the neighborhood. However, their relative contentment under Jordanian occupation was short lived. Upon the Israeli conquest of the Old City during 1967's Six Day War, demolition crews destroyed the Moroccan quarter. In revenge for the 1948 Jordanian destruction of the synagogues and homes of the Jewish Quarter, the Israelis summarily wrecked the Moroccan Quarter upon their assumption of Old City control.

The stated purpose of the demolition was to make way for a plaza in front of Judaism's holiest spot, the Wailing Wall. The result was a remodeled section of the Jewish Quarter and fresh refugee status for hundreds of families. B-Boy's family was among them, and this was the 2nd time his family became refugees of the conflict.

This time, they relocated to Shuafat Camp, east of the Shuafat neighborhood in the northern suburbs of Jerusalem. The camp settled thousands of Arab refugees, who all became Israeli residents with prized blue Jerusalem ID cards.

B-Boy was born at the start of the 1st Intifada in 1987, when refugee camps throughout Palestine erupted in a paroxysm of stone-throwing. The camp has always been notoriously lawless, destitute, and neglected. Upon construction of the separation barrier at the height of the 2nd Intifada in 2003, Israeli authorities decided to separate Shuafat Camp from Jerusalem, forcing residents to enter the city via Shuafat checkpoint. Israel wanted nothing to do with this bastion of clan violence and perennial balagan.

The 7th of 8 kids in the al-Mughrabi family, B-Boy has perhaps come to terms with the reality of his living situation. His camp is patrolled by neither Israeli nor Palestinian security forces because Israel proper is protected from the camp by the separation barrier, and Israel does not wish for Palestinian police to provide security in a camp nominally located within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. A number of family-based clans control the camp.

CNN put together a clever report several months ago in which B-Boy was interviewed. The report focuses on the drug addiction and violence that have become unmanageable in Shuafat Camp.

B-Boy is a refugee twice over and is thus as Palestinian as they come. Yet, B-Boy goes to art school in the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem, a section of the city that straddles the line between East and West and was in fact No Man's Land between 48 and 67. B-Boy is a fluent speaker of Hebrew and English. Therefore, his outlook is global and far more open than one might expect. He does not limit his worldview to the dingy gutters of his native camp. His imagination stretches beyond the nightly rat-tat-tat and merciless gangbusters that run rampant in Shuafat Camp.

In addition to his burgeoning career as a hip-hop practitioner and his multimedia studies, B-Boy runs a recreation center for youth in the basement of his apartment bloc. He coaches ambitious young campers in the basics of Capoiera and always manages to thrive in his ghetto town, which locals sometimes refer jokingly to as "Chicago Camp."

The 20 year-old emerging artist represents for his community of almost 30,000 desperate souls, where the unemployment rate hovers around 50%.

G-Town has put on rap shows all over Israel and Palestine. The group's concerts inspire Arab the nascent hip-hop spirit from within the belly of Palestine.

The hip-hoppers were recently featured on the soundtrack of a documentary film about drugs in the mixed city of Lod, which was screened at Jerusalem's Cinemateque on July 12th. They also performed at a Jerusalem-area festival that marked the 40th Anniversary of the Israeli presence in the West Bank, where they were decidedly the most thuggin' of all the performers.

"We wake up and eat humus, but they wake up and eat Cornflakes," said B-Boy, referring to the difference between Shuafat neighborhood and Shuafat Camp. B-Boy said that the Stop Snitching mentality pervades in the camp and that most Palestinians from outside the camp harbor ill will towards Shuafat Camp residents, who are generally perceived as uneducated criminals.

Though B-Boy was schooled on Tupac and Eminem from an early age, he took his formal schooling much more seriously than his peers. Most of his friends never finished high school, but B-Boy devoured both his schoolwork and an endless quantity of rap education ranging from American pop to Arab rap groups such as Dam from Lod and MWR from Akko.

"Those guys just talk about Israel and drugs, but I wanted to rap about Jerusalem," said B-Boy. "The situation here is much worse than elsewhere."

He continues, "Not many people knew about American rap just a few years ago. Some kids could write poetry and other could sing. But no one had flow. I wanted to build a hip-hop city, a sort of culture factory with breakdancing, graffiti, etc. I wanted to teach rap to everyone in Shuafat Camp."

B-Boy says that previously he could never get respect, being from what he alternatively calls Gangsta Camp, Gangsta Town, and Ghetto Town.

Having released G-Town's first album in January 2007, B-Boy is poised to blow up. Subject matter on his tracks range from mothers and relationships to peace and humanitarianism.

"I don't like politics, but life is political," said B-Boy, who believes that Hamas probably takes better care of the common folk than Fatah, who many camp residents blame for years of neglect. Regardless, he's not too interested in the minutiae of Middle Eastern politics. B-Boy jokes about having been chased off by Israeli cops for throwing a concert on Salahdin Street in the Old City. Even so, B-Boy seems intent on sticking to a wholesome path towards refugee glory and redemption.

Since G-Town's tracks are generally in Arabic, it's difficult to comment on the lyrics. Yet, one English hook stands out from the rest.

On a track titled "One not Two," G-Town relates: "Life is so.../ Been living it once, not twice / Sing with us this song / We all live in one world, not two worlds."

B-Boy is enthusiastic about linking up with other musicians in Israel/Palestine. "I don't care for Subliminal's politics, but his music is good. Maybe we can make a song together one day if we meet up via David Broza, who recently brought us into the scene. Either way, we've got many years ahead of us in this rap game."

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