As a teen writing songs in her bedroom in Haifa, Israel, 27-year-old Maysa Daw never imagined she'd one day be onstage with DAM — the revered Palestinian hip-hop group (the first of their kind) who've been rapping about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and life under occupation since the late 1990s.
Daw began her music career solo. Her 2017 debut album, Between City Walls, is a personal-political collection of lovelorn folk songs, inspired by classical Arabic music and built on Spanish guitar riffs. The record — as well as her work with reggae group Ministry of Dub-Key and Palestinian-Swiss-Dominican trio Kallemi — showcases her shapeshifting vocals, which often morph from a guttural howl to a tender croon in the span of a song.
DAM's trio of Tamer and Suhell Nafar and Mahmoud Jreri took notice, and after the band collaborated with Ministry of Dub-Key, asked Daw to start writing and performing with DAM. Though she says she still doesn't see herself as a rapper, Daw quickly picked up a jagged spoken-rap style that fits effortlessly beside the Nafars and Jreri's airtight flows.
She became an official member of DAM on their third LP, Ben Haana Wa Maana, released in June. Under her touch, as well as producer Itamar Ziegler's, the band's old-school, Tupac-inspired sound is now loaded with M.I.A. flavor, while retaining roots in Arab percussion and Middle Eastern melodies.
It should go without saying that, despite the recognition they've achieved in the West, DAM writes defiantly for an Arab audience. While many are protest songs, their dense raps flout the black-and-white, bumper-sticker friendly conversation surrounding Israel and Palestine that Western listeners will be familiar with. More so than ever on Ben Haana Wa Maana, their work dives deep into the creases and folds of what it means to be Palestinian in 2019.
Daw says it's frustrating that she's often quizzed on the headlines of the day, rather than asked about her storytelling and artistic process. For an American listener, with the help of the translated lyrics, Ben Haana Wa Maana can certainly be an encyclopedic resource on contemporary Palestinian culture. But DAM's songs don't "tackle" the Western gaze, Arab political censorship, or mental health under the occupation. Rather, the band documents the struggles in their everyday lives — aging, love, relationships and career anxieties. Of course, if checkpoints, border walls and drone strikes are a part of your daily reality, questions about the government defining that reality (as well as about diaspora, bodily autonomy, and social movements) have a way of seeping in. The resulting document, which Daw says is ultimately "about self-love," is richer and more provocative than any news explainer.
PAPER chatted with Maysa about joining DAM, being politicized as a Palestinian artist, and joining Jerusalem fashion brand tRASHY's new campaign.
What kind of music did you grow up listening to?Well, my parents used to listen to classical Arabic, like Umm Kulthum. Me and my older sisters used to listen to a lot of mostly American pop and rock, also British as well. Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, Linkin Park, and all of that. I leaned towards the Western music rather than the Arabic music. I started writing in English before I even started writing in Arabic. And I just discovered my love for Arabic music after I was 16 or 17, even later on.
Was there a local music scene where you grew up in Haifa?
There were a few local Palestinian bands, but there was never a really big scene here. It really started to build up a few years ago. And then there's DAM, which I am now a part of — they were one of my favorite bands growing up.
How do you feel like your writing style and sound merged with DAM on the new album Ben Haana Wa Maana?
Lyrically, the way that I write is very different than the way that Tamer and Mahmoud write. I would say lyrics are not my strongest side. I love to write, but my writing is not always understandable, it doesn't always really fit hip-hop writing. We'd write together, or they write and I would edit. It was also really interesting because our producer does not understand a word of Arabic, so for him, it was completely about music. We would spend hours writing, and then go to the studio and he's like, "Yeah, this verse needs to end here and you need to delete the rest." We we would spend two days on a verse and then he tells you, "Okay, you need to cut it in half."
So, you were a singer-songwriter. What was the first time you rapped? When did that become a part of your musical vocabulary?
It was actually now, only in this album that I rapped.
That's funny, just because I learned about you as, "Maysa Daw, Palestinian rapper."
I always find that funny. DAM is the most well-known thing that I'm a part of, more well-known than my solo project, and a lot more well-known than Kallemi. It's also the thing that I'm putting most of my energies in lately. Bu it's funny for me because I don't consider myself a rapper, really.
Both in your solo project and DAM, there's this organic way that political context weaves into personal stories. How does that happen?
We're not really involved in politics. We only sing about what we go through. Being Palestinians and coming from where we come from, however, politics are a big part of our life. Even if it's personal, politics has a place in that most of the time, sadly. We document what is going on in our lives, we don't aim to do political music. When we do interviews, especially abroad, a lot of times other interviewers will ask us a lot of political questions that we either don't feel like talking about, or just don't have the answers to. When you ask about a specific song, naturally, we start talking about politics because politics are the background of that story.
"We're not really involved in politics. We only sing about what we go through."
How do you approach writing about gender? Do you ever feel hesitant to write about misogyny in the Arab world, given Western narratives about the Middle East?
I've stopped trying to prove anything to anybody. I especially stopped trying to prove anything to the West. I'm always asked, "What are you trying to tell the world? What do you want to say to the world in your music?" Right now, I can really say that I don't have a message to the world. I don't write for the West. I have a message to the Arab world, to the Arab people, "Hey, we know there's a lot of things that we need to work on, but let's do this together because we can do this. We need to talk about our problems. But forget how they portray us in the media, where we're either victims or terrorists. That's not us. We are people, forget the rest of the world and let's focus on us right now.
On "Prozac," you do seem to be talking to the West.Yeah! "Prozac," is all about saying to the West, "We know we are depressed, but we do not want your Prozac. We'll be depressed alone and we'll find a way to get out of this depression, alone. We know there's a lot of really bad stuff in the Arab community, that really needs to change. But we didn't have ISIS before Bush." With regards to gender, a lot of times you hear that chauvinism is an Arab thing and all of this shit. The West tries to "fix" what is happening here. But it always ends up really bad, and ignores the real problem. So we're saying, "Let us handle the case of the honor killings, you go handle pornography. You solve your problems and we will solve our own."
What's the story behind the spoken-word song, "Jasadik-Hom" ("Your Body of Theirs")?
The inspiration for that song is actually Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me. It's a really brilliant book. Tamir was reading it and told me: "Hey, you need to read this book." It really connected to the world that we live here as Palestinians, especially how much Coates emphasizes the body… how to live in a Black body in America, how to be a Black man in America, what it means to be the spirit and the body. This is what I feel as a woman in our community and as a woman under the Israeli occupation.
Tell me about "Milliardat" when you sing "Kolthoum left/ Thinkers are gone." Is that line talking about the lack of radical artists or their persecution?
That song is all about how bad Arab leadership is, and how much money is put into dividing Arabs. We talk about Kolthoum, Nawal El Saadawi, Abu Trikah, Ashraf Fayad. Nawal El Saadawi is a very feminist Egyptian author. Bu Kolthoum is an amazing Syrian rapper. Aboutrika is an Egyptian football player. Each one of those people said something that disagrees with the will of the Arab leadership, whether it's criticizing religion, chauvinism, the government, the king, whatever. Each one of them got their own punishment. This song is about the billions of dollars that go into dividing the Arab world, and how, whenever anyone tries to make a change, they're punished.
There was another line I thought was so interesting: "Keep the underground for the privileged / we want to build a real scene." I was curious what you guys were talking about there as far as scenes you're a part of.
This line is connected to the name of the album, Ben Haana Wa Maana, which is a very well known Arab story about a guy that marries two women, and tries to satisfy both. Something we talk about a lot is how to maintain a mainstream audience, without losing the "underground" or hardcore hip-hop fans. How can we be true to ourselves, but satisfy both? Mainstream music has a really, really bad reputation. If you "go mainstream," you supposedly lose your message, you just want fame. So on this song, we're saying: we live in tunnels, under the ground (that's referring to Gaza of the Gaza tunnels). So, it's not cool to call yourself underground. Underground is for the people that have a mainstream. Before we start bashing "mainstream"... let's build a scene, building a real scene doesn't mean selling out. Mainstream doesn't mean it's a bad thing. You can still have a message — and you can do a lot more with it.
Is that criticism DAM has received as you've gotten more popular?
Yeah, particularly after our song "Emta Njawzak Yamma," which got more than a million views, and was really fun and danceable. People were like, "DAM are trying to go mainstream, that's why they're doing more pop music." To be honest, it did feel weird because DAM is usually really hardcore and political. But Tamir was like, "When we go offstage, what do we talk about? We talk about parties or football or whatever — we just joke around." That's always been important: simply to document our lives. As Palestinians, we're expected to be non-human in a way, or non-personal. We feel the pressure to always be political. We have the right to say, "I want to do this for fun." I feel like people don't treat me as a musician or as a person, they just ask me about politics. I want to be able to talk about all the layers of my life: when I want to be alone, when I don't want to be alone, when I'm pissed off of politics, when I just want to say: "Hey, I don't care and I just want to dance."
"People don't treat me as a musician or as a person, they just ask me about politics. I want to be able to talk about all the layers of my life."
Totally. That said, the video hardly seemed apolitical — it's all about marriage.
Yeah! We all feel from our parents or grandparents the expectation to finish school, meet someone, get married, have kids. My verse is like, "If I can't find myself, how the hell am I supposed to be able to find someone else? Tell the guy to wait because it's worth still waiting for me. Just let me figure this thing out and meanwhile, cheers to the single life, to the late nights and mornings." That's my perspective. Tamir on the other hand, is married with two kids... we're just saying, nobody ever asks about your mental health or your personal feelings, all people say is "You need to get married."
Right, so the criticism is because it's a dance song, a party song.
Exactly. The funny thing is that right now, it's playing in all Palestinian weddings. It's the new Arab wedding anthem [laughs].
I know you don't love being asked about random politics. But I am curious about your perspective as an artist on the artistic boycott of Israel. Some people on the left don't think it matters if Lorde plays Tel Aviv or not, while conservatives find it anti-Semitic.
I'm very much with this boycott. I think it's really, really important. If artists are going to talk about love and about peace — because a lot of what the artists who choose to perform in Israel say is that music knows no limits, it's about love and peace.
They always say that [laughs].
It doesn't make sense for someone to say "music unites us," when people are living a half an hour away who can't leave Gaza or the West Bank to come see your show. Beyond that, they're being bombed. How can you even say that music unites and totally ignore the reality of this place that you're performing? I think about it a lot, because I'm very aware that artists shouldn't be handed the responsibility of solving these problems. But we live in a world where if we want to consider ourselves human, there are things we can't ignore. When Lorde or Madonna or whoever performs in Israel, it normalizes an unacceptable situation. It's ironic because when we do non-violent demonstrations, they call us anti-Semitic. When we do violent demonstrations, they call us anti-Semitic. The artistic boycott is very much a form of non-violent resistance, but we are still called anti-Semitic for doing that. If you're calling us anti-Semitic for doing something that is non-violent, it's not even against specific people or the state. If they think describing the truth of what is happening here is anti-Semitic, then that's a very interesting point actually. They are saying whatever is happening here, we cannot talk about it — although it's reality — because it's anti-Semitic. What does that say about the actions that are really being done?
You were recently featured in the new "XD" campaign for the Palestinian brand tRASHY, which was all about the internet "as a tool of survival and distraction from reality" and expression for young Middle Eastern people. What was it like working with tRASHY and what is your own relationship to fashion?
One of the founders of tRASHY worked with us on the video of Emta Njawzak Yamma. I usually wear weird things, I'm usually in all black. But I saw the shoots and just thought it was really brilliant. tRASHY clothing is brilliant, it's breaking so many stereotypes and it's interesting. The way everything is... so cheap this "trashy" way. I think that's what I really liked about that. They have these t-shirts with really the most cheesy sort of sentences that are used or were used in the '90s in the Arab world. I think it's just some sort of the whole image of tRASHY that it does everything in such a cheesy way. For me, that's what makes it brilliant.
Photography: Sereen Khass
Styling: Reem Kawasmi
Visuals: Shukri Lawrence