The first episode of Vice Media’s new web series, “Hip Hop In The Holy Land” opens with a warning: “Never make a documentary about the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
The show’s host, Mike Skinner of British hip hop group The Streets, makes a fair point — however cloying. The ongoing conflict, which technically began with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, has truly (if undiplomatically) existed in the region for thousands of years. It’s ingrained in, and inseparable from contemporary society.
So when Vice announced a six-part docu-series called “Israel Palestine: Hip Hop In The Holy Land” back in July, I can’t lie and say that I wasn’t excited and intrigued.
With six episodes ranging from nine to 14 minutes, “Hip Hop In The Holy Land” attempts to broaden the discourse on rap culture in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Vice does this from a specialized standpoint. Founded in 1994 in Montreal, the company has become one of the leading sources for both news and entertainment among young, alternative media consumers, these days through its 10 distinct web channels/brand-specific sites connected to the main www.vice.com. In particular, Vice’s music site Noisey has created other series in this vein, about hip hop in Atlanta, dancehall music in Jamaica, metal in New Orleans, and more.
Having grown up playing music, writing music, and mostly writing about music, I’ve become a staunch believer that this art form in particular can unite people of disparate backgrounds. And as a humanistic Millennial Jew, I support this kind of artistic creation as a tool for non-violent protest, as well as mutual communication and understanding. In fact, I’ve already argued here that a number of groups are successfully using music to build peace in the region, and have been doing so for years.
Unfortunately, the most immediate problem with “Hip Hop In The Holy Land” is its constant verbal misrepresentation of religions and citizens. Much of the terminology used focuses on Jews against Arabs, which technically pits group of religious people against people who are from certain geo-political locations around the region. Better comparisons would include people of differing religions—mostly Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the area—or people who secularly identify with where they are from—most commonly the State of Israel or Palestine.
Throughout the series, Skinner meets many different musicians across the region. There’s the separatist Palestinian musician and activist, the Hasidic rapper, the spiritual-yet-non-religious Israelite of African descent, the popular secular Israeli DJ and rap star, the inclusive Palestinian rapper–turned-sex symbol, and finally, the African American transplant from Baltimore. Each offers a specialized perspective on the conflict though his music (if also presenting a frustrating lack of females in the scene and/or the series).
However, when Vice presents these individuals with the incongruent baseline descriptors of “Jewish” and “Arab,” it complicates the process of assessing the music in its most accurate context and the influence that music reaps on society. The inconsistent labeling distracts “Hip Hop in the Holy Land” from its original purpose — exploring the region’s musical diversity — and detracts from its credibility.
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