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Protest Song of the Week: ‘Innocent Criminals’

Somewhere around forty or more Palestinians have been killed since October 1. While there have been instances where Palestinians were armed and engaged in attacks, many of these deaths have been a result of execution-style shootings by Israeli forces. And, at the same time, at least seven Israelis have been stabbed to death.

Fueling this escalation in violence is incitement by politicians and senior police officers, who see all Palestinians as suspects. They have encouraged Israeli forces to carry out extrajudicial killings.

DAM is possibly the foremost Palestinian hip hop group in the world. Its members are from Lyd, Tamer and Suhell Nafar, who are brothers, and Mahmood Jrere are internally displaced Palestinians, which means their ancestors were forced from their homes in Haifa, Jaffa, and Nazareth in 1948 but they remained inside of the 1949 ceasefire line.

The group released a song in 2000 amidst what is known as the second uprising of the Palestinian people or the second intifada. The song was called “Innocent Criminals.” It was recorded in Hebrew, and it was one of the group’s first protest raps.

A rough translation of the opening lines is the following: “You say that Arabs are primitive/You say that Arabs are aggressive/You say that we are criminals and barbarians/We are not/But in case we are/This is what the government has done to us.”

The occupation is responsible for producing the climate in which some Palestinians engage in violence to assert themselves and exist. There is no denying that such criminal Palestinians are out there, but there is a context for their conduct, which DAM implores Israeli society to recognize.

As DAM articulates, there is no value for Palestinian or Arab lives under occupation. If Jewish Israelis protest, the Israeli forces will use clubs. When Palestinians or Arabs protest, they are often killed.

The group shares what it is like to live under occupation and feel so alone. The more Palestinians feel they are being judged unfairly and mistreated, the more they are going to turn to drugs or breaking the law.

If one extends this logic, not only does it become obvious that Palestinians will engage in what Israeli officials would deem lawless behavior but they will also resist the intrusive nature of occupation in their lives.

The chorus for the rap roughly translates into the following:

Before you judge me
Before you feel me
Before you punish me
Walk in my shoes and you’ll hurt your feet
Because we’re criminals
We’re innocent criminals

The group used the beat, which Tupac Shakur used for “Hail Mary.” Both “Hail Mary” and “Innocent Criminals” have themes of futility and isolation. What is a person to do when living in a world of violence? Inevitably, doesn’t that world of violence begin to consume them and do they not feel pressure to become a kind of criminal or thug to survive?

Maureen Clare Murphy of Electronic Intifada writes, “The youth from Lyd, inside present-day Israel, start off mimicking the gestures and English lyrics of the US rappers they see on TV, their songs celebrating materialism devoid of the social justice message upon which the genre of hip-hop was founded. However, this changes as the musicians’ political awareness is sharpened by the rapid deterioration of the human rights situation in Palestine and they begin to see themselves in the images of America’s oppressed black urban youth.”

Like professor Steven Salaita concludes in his book, Uncivil Rites, “I wouldn’t argue that all Palestinian resistance is ethical or prudent, but it’s important to remember that it’s the violence (and often nonviolence) of the colonized party. Moral and legal frameworks underline this reality. Israel, on the other hand, is the colonial power. As such, its mere presence is an act of violence.”

“Innocent Criminals” remains an exceptionally relevant song and it is Shadowproof’s “Protest Song of the Week.”

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Are you an independent artist who has written and/or produced a protest song that you would like featured? Or do you have a favorite protest song? Send submissions to protestmusic@Shadowproof.com

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."