Palestinian spoken word and hip-hop nights are not your average Friday activity in Bethnal Green, but last night’s gig at Rich Mix, to mark Israeli Apartheid Week, was a glorious celebration of culture and talent – an amazing experience, whether or not you’re into the Middle Eastern music scene.
Rich Mix was full from wall to wall when I arrived and as I picked my way through the packed out room, the feeling of warmth, community and excitement was almost tangible.
In place of the usual merch stand, there was a mountain of free propaganda; stickers, posters, badges and flyers from War on Want, aimed at educating and publicising the plight of the Palestinians.
But whilst the opportunity for charity was there, if anything, tonight was not about pity. Ziadah took to the stage to rapturous applause, and from that moment, the audience was captivated.
Silence gave way to the dry, sparse tones of the oud, her only accompaniment. The player deftly picked his way around the traditional Middle Eastern instrument, opening with a beautiful solo, familiar yet other-worldly, and providing the perfect backdrop for Ziadah’s words.
Beginning in Arabic then providing the English translation: “Allow me to speak my Arab tongue/before they occupy my language as well,” she set the tone.
These are the opening words of one of her best-known poems, ‘Shades of Anger.’ A scathing attack on colonisation and Western intervention in Palestine, she declares: “I will cross their barriers, their check points, their damn apartheid walls and return to my homeland/I am an Arab woman of colour and we come in all shades of anger.”
Her poetry is some of the most moving I’ve ever heard. Infused with the anguish and pain of the oppressed, there is anger and disgust but also a longing for home that pulls at the heartstrings.
Tales of her childhood, of the olive oil her mother rubbed into her hair, of family lost to violence. I don’t think I was the only one in the audience with chills down my spine.
Between poems, her voice was soft, her accent delicate. She has a wicked sense of humour but never drops her defiant tone, and it’s humbling. Whilst in verse, her voice became a force, using repetition to make her point as she rose to a crescendo: “Let Jerusalem speak!”
She finished with her best-known poem, eponymous with her album, “We Teach Life.” It is the story of her frustration boiling down her people’s suffering to something presentable to the Western media: “Today, my body was a TV’d massacre that had to fit into sound-bites and word-limits.”
A journalist asks her why her people teach their children hatred, to which she replies: “We teach life, sir/We Palestinians teach life until they have occupied the last sky.”
After a brief recess, Palestinian hip hop producer Muqata’a (Arabic for boycott) gave the audience an incredible set.
He rapped in Arabic but there was little doubt even amongst the non-Arabic speakers in the audience what was on his mind, speaking also in between tracks of justice for Palestine: “What do we write in history? That’s the question.”
The politically charged performance was passionate and energetic, and the crowd couldn’t stop moving.
The night was finished off by Jordanian/Palestinian electronic dance duo Eljehaz ft. Walaa Sbait Zumur/Mijwz. Their music mixes street sounds of the Levant with up-tempo dance music, and as I slipped away for lack of a dance partner, it looked as if the party was just beginning.
Last night, the pain of apartheid was present, but the Palestinian artists showed their true colours and ‘taught life.’