“when privilege will yield indifference / like history needs some Ritalin like misery sees your system as / an accessory for pillaging / meant to be the end of it
whether you an immigrant or children of slavesyou can see it in the difference / of the living in conditionslike missions tortured indians / force ’em to christianswe call ’em Palest-indians / we ain’t missing”—Excerpt from “No Justice,” Arab Summit1
Introduction: A Pedagogy of Empire
An honest, accurate, and open discussion of the history and reality of the vexed Palestine question has long been missing in the U.S. public sphere. [End Page 161] In the last few years a new force has attempted to counter the silence in this larger arena slowly and sonically, and has infused Palestine-centered movements with a new aesthetic idiom and a new genre of music: Palestinian and Palestinian American hip hop.2 The emergence of what is a largely underground phenomenon of rap produced by Palestinian and Palestinian American youth is linked to a larger phenomenon of a growing Palestinian and Palestinian American hip hop generation that has come of age listening to the sounds of rap both in the United States as well as in Palestine, and that has taken up the cause of Palestinian self-determination as well as issues of racism, inequality, and imperialism.
The globalization of U.S. popular culture and the diffusion of hip hop into the Arab world has been accompanied by the mainstreaming of hip hop in the United States and its increasing embracement by new groups of young people inside and outside the United States who have used it as a medium to express their political and cultural concerns (Osumare 2007). Given the mainstreaming of hip hop in recent years, it is also by now a pervasive, even global, signifier of being “cool” or simply being young or youthful. If hip hop was described as “the Black CNN” by Chuck D of Public Enemy, suggesting its role as a tool for sharing news of the social and political realities of urban, disadvantaged youth of color since the 1970s (Rose 1994; Forman 2002), it is possible to argue that today, hip hop has become the “Palestinian Al Jazeera” (knowing what we know about CNN)! In this paper I will offer a transnational perspective on Palestinian and Palestinian American hip hop, situating it in the context of a political movement and youth culture that spans national borders and that links the United States and Palestine, and exploring how it is shaped by the politics of both locations.
To speak of the question of Palestine in the U.S. public sphere is to note that the public sphere, by definition and in debates about its constitution, is marked by relations of power. Silencing and exclusion are built into the structure of who and what can and cannot legitimately be a part of the public sphere and what can and cannot be spoken or, as Talal Asad points, cannot be heard by “publics” that are always politically constructed (2003, 184–85). I would argue that the politics of collective denial and repression of the Palestine question in the United States is linked to the larger politics of “collective amnesia” [End Page 162] about the United States as an empire and that the two processes need to be considered together to understand why Palestine so often goes “missing” in mainstream public debates about the Middle East or international politics (Finkelstein 2005; Said 1979).3 Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease, in their edited volume Cultures of U.S. Imperialism (1993), advanced an analysis of U.S. empire that they argued had long been absent, or evaded, in American studies as well as in postcolonial studies, and offered a framework that would connect cultural politics and popular representations to the politics of late U.S. imperialism. They also argued that repression and subordination of marginalized groups within the nation (women, minorities, immigrants, workers, queers) is linked to U.S. overseas hegemony, and that the domestic and global frames of U.S. empire needed to be connected rather...