ARTISTIC FREEDOM
Artist in Exile: Khaled Harara's music reflects Palestinian political reality
31 Oct 2018
BY LEAH ASMELASH
Rapper Khaled Harara (Photo: Joakim Roos)
Rapper Khaled Harara (Photo: Joakim Roos)

“Music gives me a voice and the power to survive physically and mentally,” rapper Khaled Harara tells Index on Censorship.

In 2003, 16-year-old Harara was a refugee living in Gaza. The Israeli occupation of the territory was in full force. Food was in short supply due to a lack of aid shipments. Then US president George W. Bush  pledged a “personal commitment” to peace between Israel and Palestine. A new Palestinian prime minister was appointed. There were peace talks and a 7-week ceasefire, but they were disrupted by the killing of a senior Hamas leader. Throughout everything, there were reports of more suicide bombings and Israeli invasions.

Driven by the chaos around him, Harara began rapping to reflect his feelings and thoughts.

As one of the first rappers in Gaza city, he says the music gave him a unique place in society.

Rap  “gave me a character, not just only a number like many people living inside the community suffering from occupation and unlivable circumstances,” he said. 

Harara’s music revolves around the political situation in Palestine. He often criticises the lack of freedom of expression and the suffering of Palestinians under Hamas rule.

His activism didn’t go unnoticed. Harara’s group, Palestinian Unit, was banned by the Hamas government, along with hip hop workshops that he organised for Palestinian youth.

Because of his involvement with the Palestine Liberation Organsation before Hamas came to power in 2006, and his outspoken music, Harara was detained and jailed by the government on multiple occasions.

In 2013, Harara was able to relocate to Denmark and later Sweden, where he has been based ever since.

Despite being away, he’s still been involved in efforts back home. Using his experiences living in Gaza, Harara helped design and manage the Zouqaq project, which supports musicians in Gaza city so they can  continue to make music. The project, begun in 2016 by a friend of Harara, also focused on training them to become music teachers and coaches. Harara developed the strategy for going into Gaza and implementing the initiative, and the team also built small studios inside schools using equipment from outside of Gaza.

The project, funded by the Swedish Postcode Lottery, was designed for conflict areas. He studied the risks in the area and focused on how to support artists and musicians directly without an on-the-ground organisation.

As part of the analysis Harara conducted, a Swedish journalist and colleague of his spoke with the cultural ministry and the education ministry in Gaza to ask them if they could begin sound engineering workshops in schools to teach music to hundreds of Palestinian children. Hamas more or less accepted, but UNWRA, which also operates schools in Gaza, did not.  

Harara is also working on developing a cultural toolkit for other conflict areas to help organisations and individuals in those countries start effective and sustainable cultural initiatives like the Zouqaq project.

Leah Asmelash from Index on Censorship spoke with Harara about his music and the current situation in Gaza.

Index: Hamas considers you an enemy of the state and banned both your hip hop workshops and your music. What was your reaction to that?

Harara: I think Hamas considers anyone who doesn’t agree with their ideology an enemy of the state, and, to be honest, when Hamas banned the workshops that didn’t surprise us. They banned all the cultural activities that didn’t serve their cause. Hamas’ actions taught us how to work with different strategies to keep our music alive, and that gave me the experience I needed to now work in cultural project management in conflict areas.

In 2016 I launched the Zouqaq project to support music and culture in conflict areas, specifically in Gaza. It was a big success.

Working with culture in conflict areas gave me the experience I needed to understand and work with refugees that come to Europe. I am able to use culture and music as an integration tool and give them a way to communicate with the new community.

Index: Before Hamas took over, you were a soldier with the PLO forces. What was your experience like and how did that influence your music?

Harara: It’s a difficult question, and I do not know how to answer it in just a few short lines.

The most important lessons l learned at that time were that your true friend is the weapon you hold in your hands and that you should only trust your fellow soldier who is standing next to you at the checkpoint. I learned to never trust high-ranking officers, who sit in the office and give us orders to die defending our positions, while they get higher military ranks after our deaths.

I also learned not to trust politicians, no matter how much they pretend to love the country.

All these lessons opened my eyes to the bitter reality we live in Gaza, and that’s what I talk about in many of my songs.

Index: What was the tipping point when you knew you had to leave Gaza?

Harara: The tipping point happened when I lost hope of change in the situation of Gaza. I felt very frustrated in my country, like all the young people who suffer there.

The music was my hope, but it was the cause of my suffering as well. The community was against me because of the Western music that I make and the government was against me because of my political lyrics. My parents were against my music because they thought it was a waste of time and money, and that I should get a real job.

I felt that Gaza was too small for me and for my dreams. I felt helpless there. I had no choice but to leave.

Index: How has your move to Denmark impacted your work? How do you keep up to date with news in Gaza?

Harara: Moving to Denmark impacted my work because of the level of freedom of speech there. Also I improved my musical skills by working with several Danish and European musicians. In general my life turned upside down when I decided to live in Europe.

I have learned a lot about life differently. I have worked in many European countries in the field of music, and I have the chance to speak out loud about the suffering of artists in conflict areas.

I have been living in Sweden for the last  five years, after I got accepted by the ICORN organisation for a 2-year scholarship. This scholarship has grown my abilities and put me on the right path to continue my work. I formed a big network of friends and people who work in the cultural and musical field.

I get updated about Gaza by following the daily news and being in contact with friends and relatives there.

Index: How popular is hip hop in Gaza? Why do you think Hamas saw your rapping as dangerous?

Harara: Hip hop is still not very popular in Gaza, but I hope by my work and the others’ work we will change that. We hope to open a university in Gaza for this music and all types of modern art and music.

Hamas sees any cultural activity not compatible with their political views as a danger,  threatening their control or breaking the fear walls that they built around the community. My lyrics criticised their behaviour, and therefore my music was seen as a threat.

Index: How does the situation in Gaza shape the art people are making, and how have you seen it change?

Harara: Living under occupation gives artists solid material to shape their art. Artists get inspired by the daily problems and obstacles they face, and art gives them an area where they can discharge all their feelings and get strength to keep going.

Art is a mirror reflecting reality and everything happening in reality reflects in art. Every fluctuation in the Gaza situation is thus reflected in the art people produce.

Index encourages an environment in which artists and arts organisations can challenge the status quo, speak out on sensitive issues and tackle taboos.

Index currently runs workshops in the UK, publishes case studies about artistic censorship, and has produced guidance for artists on laws related to artistic freedom in England and Wales.

Learn more about our work defending artistic freedom.

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