Shadia Mansour, a London-born Palestinian rapper, took the tiny stage Wednesday night at the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory to big applause. A crowd of mostly feminist women of color filled the seats and stood in the back of the beautiful warehouse space for a chance to hear their hip-hop heroine. Latinas know Mansour best for her guest verse on Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux's "Somos Sur." Palestinians revere the anthem "Al Kufiya Arabiya" (The Kufiya is Arab) she first unleashed on the world as a solo performer.
The feminist group AF3IRM-Los Angeles organized the intimate gathering on a quick turnaround. They invited Martha Gonzalez, a Scripps College professor and lead singer for Grammy-winning East LA band Quetzal, to interview Mansour for the "Freedom Dreams" conversation. Backed by portraits of revolutionary thinkers like bell hooks, Paulo Freire and Gloria Anzaldua, the topic turned to politics between the two right from the onset. "I started going to anti-war and pro-Palestinian protests in London," Mansour said with a Brit accent. "My family would take me at the age of five." She sang at demonstrations before getting into hip-hop as a teenager.
Being a part of the Palestinian diaspora, growing up in London provided an experience many Latinas in the audience could identify with. Mansour's parents left Haifa and Nazareth for the country that issued the Balfour Declaration that eventually led to the partition of Palestine. As a school girl, classmates taunted Mansour with the racist insult "Paki" even though she wasn't Pakistani. She defied the assimilation of her name and its pronunciation. "We know all about that duality," Gonzalez said, pointing to the portrait Anzaldua, the late queer Chicana theorist. "She particularly put a name to it for us and it's 'border consciousness.'"
The rapper found refuge in music. "When I discovered hip-hop, I felt like I found this kind of shelter for my thoughts," Mansour said. She became "the first lady of Arabic hip-hop" when she started rapping in 2003. The cross section between protest and song from the her childhood proved to be defining later in life. The rapper's "musical intifada" never shies away from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. "I came into Arabic hip-hop directly outlining the struggles of my people," Mansour told the crowd. "That's why I call it protest music."
When a company in Brooklyn sold an "Israeli remix" of the Palestinian scarf known as the kufiya with "Long Live Israel" written on it, Mansour retaliated in song. "I've been wearing the kuifya since I've been going to protests at five years old," she said. "You can't take something like that with a history behind it." The conversation provided a perfect time to perform "Al Kufiya Arabiya." Mansour stayed seated, but blistered the mic with rapid fire rhymes. Her vocals on the chorus showcased the range of talent she possesses in being able to invoke Arab divas of the past.
"I don't know if you're rhyming or not, but that shit sounds dope!" Gonzalez joked after the performance. "My Arabic wasn't perfect as a teenager but I decided to study the language so that I could efficiently use it in my art," Mansour said. "That's why I decided to rap in Arabic and only Arabic. It's made a lot people want to learn Arabic." She sang another song acappella in Arabic much to the crowd's delight. Mansour's hooks on Arab hip-hop songs by Omar Offendum, Lowkey and the Narcicyst help define the genre's distinctive sound.
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Playing to her audience, Mansour listed Chicano music among her many inspirations. "Did you listen to Quetzal?" Gonzalez joked. "I should have!" Mansour responded. "Just so you know, they're one of the most important bands in East LA!" Gonzalez added with wit. Even though Gonzalez didn't bring it up, Queztal recorded a pro-Palestinian tune of their own in "Intifada" after canceling a scheduled 2009 performance at Fiesta Shalom in Boyle Heights. They issued a statement of solidarity when learning the event was sponsored by the Israeli Consulate in the months following Israel's Operation Cast Lead.
For all the politics of the evening, Mansour saved her own views on the occupation of Palestine towards the end. Even then, she focused most of her insights on scolding the Palestinian Authority's complicity in the West Bank. "Every time Palestinians have protested an Israeli war criminal coming to the West Bank and meeting with the Palestinian president, [they're] getting beaten with batons," she said. "There's an occupation within an occupation."
Mansour's experiences helped inform her song "Language of Peace," which is more cynical than the title lends on. Citing the PA's security coordination with Israel, the rapper blasted fake diplomacy calling the Middle East peace process one of the biggest scandals in political history before performing the song to close out the event. But don't worry about missing out on the woke conservation and mini-concert. Shadia Mansour is coming back to Los Angeles on May 27 in tandem with Ana Tijoux.
Hey, Shadia: give a visit to Anaheim's Little Arabia district when you do!