this palestinian rapper is capturing the realities of occupation life
Muqata'a includes the iPhone-recorded city sounds of Palestine in his avant garde productions.
Photography Raouf Haj Yihya
Ever eloquent and insightful, despite having just woken up from a late gig the night before, Palestinian producer and rapper Muqata’a explains to me how he feels like he doesn’t belong anywhere. “My family are refugees,” he says as he explains that, while born in the United States, he moved between Nicosia, Cyprus, Amman, Jordan, and ultimately ended up in Ramallah, Palestine.
The Ramallah-based producer is known as the forerunner of Palestinian hip-hop thanks to his group Ramallah Underground, formed in 2003, and has increasingly been known for his more avant-garde noise music. Glitchy, haunting, and highly experimental, the artist has also ventured into more fine arts territory as part of his sound and image performance group, Tashweesh, which is comprised of himself and artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme. Having performed internationally at venues such as the ICA in London and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, lately, the musician is more focused on playing in the Middle East and particularly, Ramallah. Muqata’a will be releasing his first vinyl with Discrepant in London, a forthcoming 8-track instrumental album.
Here, he talks to i-D about living under Occupation, gaining inspiration from Wu Tang Clan, and making hip hop tracks in his bedroom.
How is it navigating life as a musician in Palestine, under Occupation, and beyond given the political limitations and ramifications of your identity as a Palestinian rapper?
For me, most good art is political. It doesn’t have to be political in the sense of living under occupation, it doesn’t have to be that direct, but it’s a way to express yourself and a way to respond to what you see. That in its own sense is politics, because it’s being enforced on us, all around the world. Not just in Palestine. Here, there just happens to be a lot of things to talk about that are obvious. I can’t say that it’s more than anywhere else, but this is where I live so this is what I talk about, what I know. To me, it’s always a response to what’s going on. In the other sense, of course there are limitations as well [as a Palestinian]. Traveling is always very difficult, every city here is isolated from each other and we are living inside a wall. That has its own limitations in the psychological effects, not being able to reach the sea or the city you are originally from. That’s translated into the music. Living inside checkpoints, sometimes having to be under curfew — all these create limitations for us, not just as musicians but as human beings.
Actually, I don’t feel the limitations as much because as a musician I have more ways of moving and getting out.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
I used to listen to a lot of underground, New York-hip hop. Also a lot of UK-trip hop and hip hop. I don’t like to say artist names because there’s so many. I used to listen to a lot of Wu Tang, Jeru the Damaja, Portishead, Massive Attack, and Tricky. Of course jazz, punk, and drum and bass music. I was inspired by a lot of different things and the music my parents would listen to — music from Egypt and Lebanon in the 60s and 70s.
What’s the story behind Ramallah Underground?
All of us were interested in making beats, and Stormtrap and I were into writing and rapping. So we got together and were like 'Let’s try to support each other in some way.' Start a website — that was the first thing we thought because we were getting a lot of our influences through the internet. We thought it would be nice to have a platform online to show what people in Ramallah do, what people in Palestine do, because we knew a few other people that were writing poetry, doing photography. So we were like let’s start a website and have it as a platform and [have our] friends and people we know put their work up and that’s what Ramallah Underground was. We made RU.com and started uploading works. Two years down the line, we started getting shows. It was [myself], Stormtrap, and Basel [Abbas] under the name of Ramallah Underground. On the poster it said Ramallah Underground. That quickly made it into a band name.
Yeah, slowly we stopped being this platform for other people and became [a platform] for just us. We still had everyone’s work up on the site. It took off from there, we got more shows, we started touring, and we got pretty excited at that point because we started traveling around the world. For us it was putting Palestine on the map for hip hop and electronic music, that was one of our main purposes. We were missing in a lot of hip hop in the world. We make it sound as good as that. It was empowering, like, yeah, we can do that, not other people’s music, but we can do something on that level from our bedrooms out of Palestine.
Can you describe more of the contemporary hip hop scene in Palestine?
Some producers started focusing more on producing trap — more autotune, but it’s still highly political. It’s still in the same scene, it’s still coming out of the same crew, so it still makes sense though the sound is a bit different. It drifted from the abstract sample-based hip hop [Ramallah Underground] did. At the same time, we still have very different sounds that are coming out [from producers and MCs like] Haykal, Dakn, Shua, Julmud, Al Nather, Jurum, Abul3ees — it’s not that it became more underground or mainstream, lyrically what happened is that everything became coded. It used to be more [direct] and in your face. Now, you have to decipher the references, which is only natural given the accumulation of releases that make the scene more dense and complex.
You often produce sounds using sampled material, field recordings, and electronic devices for your hip-hop, downtempo, and glitch work, can you describe the purpose and origins of these materials?
My work is similar to the work we do as Tashweesh — it’s a collage of our solo works. I don’t go to checkpoints to record, but when I’m there, I’ll record through my phone. There are many recordings of the city, in general. It has this harsh sound. I believe the situation of any place can [be heard] from its soundscape. There’s a lot to learn from the sound of the city. I started to sample these sounds of a city in my music. It’s an integration, but also a response to that, like I’m using the sound of the checkpoint to fight back with it.
Would you say those are the central components of what makes up your music or another part to it?
I think it’s part of it because I try to use the sounds I create on synthesizers in that same direction. Mainly, it’s music so I want it to sound good, but these elements are also being used to have the sound convey a message or spark for discussion — although with instrumental music it’s way more difficult. [I also] sample a lot of older Arabic music and Eastern music, in general. It’s all part of that. Preserving the culture. Our culture, my culture, it’s being attacked. So, I want to put it on the map.
What prompted changing your rap name from Boikutt to Muqata’a?
Boikutt just means one thing and that’s "boycott." “Muqata’a” in Arabic is “Boycott” in English. I felt there was no need for me to have a translation of my name — which is something that I came up with when I was younger. I need to have my name in my own language. That’s part of representing who I am. And Muqata’a has many different meanings, not only boycott, but interference and disruption. That represents the sound I’m making.
I was going to say, that is your music?
[Laughs] Yes. Disrupt that stagnation we live in.