"The sound of injustice": Muqata'a turns the noise of warfare into protest music
Zab Mustefa speaks to Palestinian artist Muqata'a about life under occupation, sampling weapons of war and fighting back through music
If you mention the name Muqata’a in Palestine, chances are, almost everyone will know who you’re referring to. For years, the Palestinian artist has delved into many music genres. From hip hop to experimental, there’s always one underlying theme to every album he’s released: freedom for his people.
It’s been an intense few weeks for Muqata’a, who is based in the occupied territories of the West Bank. He’d returned from Berlin to Ramallah on May 10 as protests were taking place against the forced expulsion of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in Jerusalem. As the days went on, the Israeli military fired on people in Al Aqsa Mosque and then began a bombing campaign in Gaza, leading to hundreds of Palestinians being killed.
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At one point, Muqata’a was at a protest near the Israeli settlement of Beit El, which is illegal under international law, where he filmed an Israeli military drone shooting gas canisters at Palestinian protesters. But daily oppression and discrimination against Palestinians is nothing new and as Muqata’a points out, “it’s been 73 years of settler colonialism.”
Spanning over two decades, Muqata’a has been making music since his friends brought him hip hop tapes from all over the world when he was a kid. Inspired by rappers calling out racism and injustice in the US, he co-founded hip hop group Ramallah Underground in 2002 at the height of the second intifada where another uprising was taking place against Israel. At the time, Ramallah Underground was one of the first hip hop acts in Palestine and had a wide influence on youth culture in the region. When the group split in 2009, he continued to develop as an artist, specialising in sampling, from using older Arabic music to sounds he recorded of his experiences from the occupation, such as the noise from Israeli military weapons. Living through the occupation influenced the music he creates and is not only preserving his Palestinian heritage, but also acting as a form of resistance.
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In February, he released 'Kamil Manqus كَامِل مَنْقوص', his fifth album, which he describes as meaning “whole imperfect.” The eight tracks on the album are formed of different samples that have a deep and raw sound. At times, the tracks are eerie and then break away to a powerful beat. The sound of 'Kamil Manqus' in many ways, is metaphorical of what is happening to Muqata’a’s homeland. His own definition of the album is to break the system.
Months later in solidarity with the protests, Muqata’a released the track 'Fi Mi’ad' with Ramallah-based multi-genre producer and rapper Dakn. Fuelled with powerful footage of Palestinian protesters facing Israeli soldiers, the lyrics overlaying the video pay homage to the determination of Palestinians to never stop resisting.
Mixmag spoke to Muqata’a from Ramallah. Check out the conversation alongside his Impact mix below.
How would you describe 'Kamil Manqus كَامِل مَنْقوص'?
It’s difficult to define it. I feel like I played a lot with the idea of representing what “Muqata’a” means. I played a lot on the idea of breaking the system and being a glitch and using these errors and mistakes to break whatever is stagnant or whatever is continuous. I still feel like it’s very hip hop oriented and based in hip hop’s roots. I don’t think it’s as noisy as people describe it and I don’t think that it’s much different in direction from my previous work. I feel like it’s a continuation of my work.
This is your fifth album. What inspired it?
So it’s called 'Kamil Manqus', which means “whole imperfect”, or in a way, it’s like when you think something is in reach, but it’s untouchable or unattainable in that sense. It’s like it’s right there in front of you but you can’t have it, or it’s when it feels like when things are in order but they’re not. It’s really about the error in the system or a break in what’s constant, and that’s the general idea of the method and title of the album. Also in the album, there’s the idea of “simya”, which is the method of how the music was made and a reference to this ancient Arabic spiritual science. The idea of that is numbers and letters of the alphabet are combined in order to reach what’s behind the physical reality. It’s kind of like a metaphysical communication in a way. The idea was to use that, since our history is being attacked, our culture is being attacked and erased and our archives have been destroyed time and time again. So this was an attempt to reach our ancestors and to communicate with them to re-archive and preserve our history and our story.
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You’ve recently released a track with Dakn called 'Fi Mi’ad'. It’s really powerful. What’s it about?
The lyrics are mainly giving a shoutout or salute, to support and empower Palestinians that are protesting, Palestinians that are fighting back and not giving up in Palestinian cities like Haifa, like Lydda, Jerusalem, and it talks about how the settler colonial state of Israel is claiming that this is their country. The song is also saying that you can dig as much as you want beneath our historic cities, which they have been planning on doing for ages in an attempt to erase our history, but you’re still going to find us as the indigenous people of the land. It’s support for resistance and support for fighting back against the ongoing ethnic cleansing.
Life is always difficult for many Palestinians, but in the past few weeks, it’s been particularly hard. How has the situation affected you?
The day I arrived here, that’s when things really escalated. Israel started bombing Gaza as well. Of course it really affected me just like it affected everyone else. Everything got shut down, all the checkpoints were closed. People were enraged and this whole movement to resist started — well, this has been happening for the past 73 years, the ethnic cleansing, the destruction of everything Palestinian and the erasure of Palestinian people has been happening for such a long time — it really escalated during the past few weeks and it really showed the true face of settler colonialism. I feel like it was just amplified. Like, this has been happening since forever and what we’re seeing today is the stories we would hear from our grandparents like people being kicked out of their homes, their homes being taken over by settlers. It's been kind of shocking but not really surprising. The escalation that happened was the more shocking part. That footage that I took of the Israeli drones was during the protests that were happening in support of Sheikh Jarrah and also against the massacring of our people in Gaza. These protests were in Al Bireh [Palestinian city in the West Bank]. The protests happened exactly in front of the Israeli settlement there, or actually it’s a military base of Beit El. The protests were in front of that military base and the Israelis would shoot rubber and live ammunition, but also send out drones from the base with cameras on them and they would shoot gas canisters to try to disperse people, and people responded with fireworks.
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It’s interesting that you mentioned the Israeli drone. You’ve sampled some of the Israeli occupation in your music. How did that happen?
I used to just record random soundscapes, like random field recordings, without any reason to be honest. I would just find myself in situations like being on the border between Palestine and Jordan, where Israel controls these borders and I would hear something that’s either bizarre to me or very telling of how it feels to be controlled and how fascist the occupation is in general. So I started recording sounds without knowing what I would do with them, but then I decided to use them in a way that was a response to what’s happening as a way to document their weaponisation of sound, and using them in a way to fight back. So I started sampling these sounds in my music. There were many different sounds. For example, the sound of the metallic doors that would cling at the Israeli checkpoints, which I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world, used for humans at least. They’re basically horizontal, metallic bars and they go into each other. You have to stand in between and they’re so small, that’s the only way you can pass. Then the Israeli soldier has a button that stops the door even when you’re in the middle, so you’re stuck in there. Also, the sound of the speakers where they would call out the people’s names because they would take everyone’s passport and make us wait for a supposed security check, but the security check never happens, because they just stack up the passports on a desk and then return them to us hours later. They just make us sit and wait for hours before giving us our passports back. It’s like trying to document this psychological warfare that happens and to use it in a sense that it’s a response. There’s also the sounds of the soldiers shouting at us and the sound of fed up people with little kids who have been sitting under the sun for hours waiting and crying. It’s the sound of injustice.
You grew up with the intifada [Palestinian uprisings in 1987 and 2000-2005] and the experience of that veered you towards music as an outlet. As a Palestinian artist, what obstacles do you face?
Palestine has been divided into different areas because Israel divided us into different parts. Each area has a different ID, which states where you are based. You have the Gaza ID, you have the Jerusalem ID, the West Bank ID and the Israeli ID. To move from one of these areas to another is pretty much impossible: you need a special Israeli-issued permit and it’s very difficult to get that permit. We shouldn’t need to get a permit to travel inside the same country. For me to perform in Haifa is pretty impossible. Many artists would go there without the papers. They would sneak in to go and perform in somewhere like Haifa or Jerusalem. I can’t get into any of the Palestinian cities that were colonised in 1948.
Yeah, movement for Palestinians is severely restricted. How does it make you feel that you can’t go to another part of your own country?
It just shows that I’m living under military occupation and under colonisation. I feel like a colonised subject. It’s very difficult because I’m not originally from the West Bank. My family is actually from the north of Palestine which is now Israel and for me to not even be able to visit that area is unbelievable and it’s unacceptable. For me to accept that is for me to normalise the situation that is not normal at all.
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You have a West Bank ID so you can’t go to places like Jerusalem or Haifa. You’ve only been to Haifa once. What was it like?
It felt really strange. It’s hard to describe that feeling. It was really sad, to be honest, and it was very difficult for me to go there. Haifa is really not that far from where I live. I had no idea what Haifa looked like in real life and arriving there and seeing it was like, wow this is a place I’d love to perform and spend time in. I have a lot of friends that are from Haifa, but it’s just inaccessible for me and it feels horrible and unjust, honestly.
Your experiences play a big part in your music and you were really influenced by hip hop. How did you get into it before you helped form Ramallah Underground?
I was about seven years old and had been listening to tapes from my friends, or more like my older brother’s friends who would bring music from other countries and I started getting into hip hop and punk as well. Hip hop just sounded right to me, like someone is expressing how I feel through music. It made me interested in that kind of music because I felt someone is speaking up against injustice that is happening and against oppression and racism. I connected to it and it made sense to me. That’s what got me into that kind of sound.
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What sound were you aiming for after Ramallah Underground?
I was looking more into experimenting and diversifying more sounds, which was something I was doing before, even during Ramallah Underground. It felt like Ramallah Underground was boxed into this classic hip hop frame, and then after we ended the group, I felt like I had more freedom to experiment with other things. I was able to try different sounds and go into different directions, with hip hop still being the main element of what I do, but I tried to open more doors with different worlds of sound. I started the audiovisual performance group Tashweesh, along with artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme.
What inspires you in your music from Palestinian culture?
A very big part in how I make my music is sampling. For me, it’s a way to preserve my culture because it’s under attack and it’s being erased bit by bit. For me to resample historical or older Arabic music is to try to keep it and preserve it in a way that it can’t be erased. That, but also because it’s beautiful and sounds good as well.
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In terms of speaking up about oppression, your name also holds significance. What’s the meaning behind it?
“Muqata’a” has different meanings. The first is “boycott” because to me and to a lot of the Palestinian people, it is one of the strongest ways for us to resist and also to exist, and that’s something that we call the whole world to endorse and to participate in. It’s also succeeded before in South Africa, so for us it’s a very powerful weapon in a way and that’s the reason I chose this name a very long time ago. But it also means to disrupt, it also means to interfere and distort, and in that sense, it’s also to break the status quo and be a glitch in the system. Instead of this continuous, stagnant situation that we live in, I feel like we need to be the glitch in that and break it so that we can live in a different world.
Solidarity should be universal and that’s why the #MusiciansForPalestine campaign was launched recently. Why is it so important?
Artists and musicians are really important parts of the creative world and when you have artists that are important - and I don’t mean famous artists, I mean people who have something to say and people who play a role in their communities - I feel like that spreads a lot of awareness about what’s really happening here. The mainstream media has disappointed us time and time again. I think it’s time that we as people are communicating with each other around the world, and that’s why I feel like there’s more endorsement globally from people, artists and musicians. For me, I feel that the most important part is the connection between the different communities across the world that are speaking up about oppression and trying to make a change in the world.
'Kamil Manqus كَامِل مَنْقوص' is out now, get it here
Zab Mustefa is a multimedia journalist and regular contributor to Mixmag. Follow her on Twitter
Muqata’a - Dirasat ‘Ulya
Meds Recordings - We Remember What You Will Not Forget
Dengue Dengue Dengue & Prisma - Legamo (Unreleased)
GEORGIA - Zipf's Code
Lil Asaf - Balki [prod. Khadije]
SCOTT YOUNG - Tuck [with Joe Beedles] (Unreleased)
ABUL3EES - nta2 [prod. rknddn]
Adel Poursamadi & Tegh - Atf (Unreleased)
NRD - Ya’joujakom Qadem (Unreleased)
Julmud - Untitled (Unreleased)
Wanton Witch - Grieve
Baaghmaar - Untitled (Unreleased)
Dolenz - Danko Crumb
Kutmah - Taurian Riddim
Søulless & ODDZ - Somewhere Then
Tarxun - Fishy Peace (Unreleased)
ZULI - Where Do You Go
Lacuna - Ego Death (Unreleased)
Shins K - Gida (Unreleased)
São Paulo Underground & Tupperwear - Los Realejos Underground (Unreleased)
Moma Ready - Simple as a Song [Ft. Mina Thomas & Yunie Mojica]
Muqata’a - Untitled (Unreleased)