It’s 8:30pm in Shoreditch. The sun’s still scorching the pavements. It’s hotter than the equator and all the air conditioners in London are broken. There isn’t even a fan in Kamio’s basement. Why? Because every heatwave is another chance to kill us, and this is the closest they’ve come yet. Oh, why are we here you mean? This is where DAM – a Palestinian hip-hop group formed in the late ‘90s – is about to play to 10, maybe… 12 people.
At first, this doesn’t seem like a great turnout at all. And the show’s about to start. But the cacophony of languages permeating our periphery is impossible to ignore. Hebrew from the left, Urdu to our right, French, Arabic – all filling the still, hot air with noise… until the DAM’s lone female singer strides out, barefoot and dressed in white. The basement silences.
That tiny woman now croons a solemn Arabic melody through the mic. A melancholic string of drawn out notes. They flood your core with warmth, like you’ve just knocked back 3 shots of bathtub rum and kept it down. The room shivers and the rhythm starts to pick up. The rest of Dam join the stage – storming in with their best known hits: Born Here, Who You Are – a song about female oppression in the Middle East and throughout the world – and the darkly funny Mamma, I Fell In Love With A Jew.
We turn around, blink, and out of nowhere the whole basement is filled to bursting. They must have snuck in, the blue and red lights now scattering over hundreds of faces. Women and men are jumping, dancing around us like you imagine a teenagers would alone in their bedroom. It’s hotter than fiery brimstone down here – the walls and everyone in them are melting – but no one cares. The anger, the energy, the humour, the scalding passion behind every syllable coming off that stage harks back to the hip-hop most of the audience remembers as angsty teenage Eminem fans. But DAM don’t talk shiny cars, they talk about war. Why mention whores or flashing cash, when there’s a country that’s doing everything to stop yours from existing. Whether they understand the lyrics or not, DAM connects with something basal in the audience. It’s completely indescribable.
“If we feel something we just say it,” Mahmoud, one of Dam’s lead vocalists, was there after the show to describe it to us. After just playing Meltdown, the Palestinian hip-hop group seemed to bring that same huge energy to that dark frying pan of a basement. As they ready themselves for Glastonbury, it was something in the words that drove the audience wild. Hitting you and resonating further than just understanding what language they spoke.
The two lead rappers, Tehmur and Mahmoud met as kids and formed DAM in the late ‘90s. Often billeted as the ‘outspoken’ and ‘politically charged’ Palestinian hip-hop group, Mahmoud insists that Dam’s lyrics are not about sending a ‘message.’ “I’m not trying to educate people,” he presses, “I’m just trying to say what I’m living. People take it as a message it’s just me talking about my life.”
But it’s hard for audiences not to feel anything, when DAM illustrate so vividly the violence and displacement of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Furiously defending a mother’s strength and a woman’s unfair oppression against man. Even when the odd wry English lyric crops up, like “… you wanna get high, like a building in Dubai!” their energy has already built the audience into a heat-soaked frenzy – making all the English-only speakers in the audience wonder, wantingly, whether DAM will ever release an album in English.
“Tehmur [one of DAM’s lead vocalists] is working on his solo EP,” the artist explained. I mean it’s not all of DAM but it’s a start: “… it’s gonna be in English – 100%.”
But to be frank, if the magic of DAM stems from the intricacies of the languages of their home – maybe they shouldn’t give up their roots just so an English audience will understand them better. And their influences are a cocktail of American hip hop artists. “[I’ve listened to] Kendrick Lamar since his mixtape, Public Enemy, Chance The Rapper… they send a message while still being mainstream. I like that in artists, when they can balance the two worlds,” he explains, “It’s not underground, [but] it’s not stupid.” Syrian and Palestinian writers’ and poets’ works also pepper DAM’s lyrics – “because I’m not going to sing about girls and guns and cars… hip hop is not about that kind of stuff. It’s about message. It’s about community.”
With their new album in the works (expected to be released around February next year), you’d wonder whether the group that speaks their mind is ever concerned if their lyrics aren’t mainstream enough for radio.
“No.” Mahmoud is blunt on this point, “The people are the most important thing. I’m not going to sing about girls and guns and cars, that’s not interesting to hear,” he shakes his head. “I don’t know why the radio wants to play that… it’s really not interesting to hear about your car and money,” he jokes. With their first album in years coming up in the next few months, and setting the stage alight, Mahmoud ends the interview with DAM’s final, eternal promise to their fans: “We’re gonna do our best not to dumb it down.”
Words by Mimi Davies