The song starts with what I imagine a spring to sound like. Not the water kind, but the object: a mechanical spiral, like someone pulled a cartoon spring to its limit and let go suddenly. It’s a twang that sounds detached from instruments, a twang that dissolves into a series of organ chords, swelling, filling my ears with a medieval melody, its edges fuzzed by autotune. Then, a break, a beat drop, and Shabjdeed comes in, his voice also thick with autotune: “Nakad, galag, yakhi, galab ma3dee…” (Sadness, anxiety, bro, I’m nauseous).
If Count Dracula composed the melody for a trap song, it would be NKD GLG. It’s haunting yet playful, its lyrics and melody alternating between the woes of living under occupation, the joys of finding a crew to trust within a sea of suspicion, and the pride of resisting – honestly, stubbornly, arrogantly – the unnamed but obvious colonial other.
Lines like “latshoof il 3izz, ta3al shoof 3arasee” (To see the glory, come and see my wedding ceremony) are followed immediately by “ma nhaab il moot, law jaanil moot tarani 7ot 3eini b3einey, ninsa thal ba3nee, eh” (I do not fear death, if death comes to me, you will see me look it in the eye, forget who sold me out). In almost a single breath, Shabjdeed goes from bragging about the parties he throws to his experiences looking death right in the eye.
Shabjdeed shows us verse after verse that you cannot escape the violence of occupation, even as you survive it. Its scent seeps into every aspect of life, from weddings, to parties, to just hanging with friends. In Palestine, joy and misery are so closely intertwined as to be almost indistinguishable. In each, there is a speck of the other, like the yin-and-yang symbol (before it was nullified by white girls who do yoga to mean ✨peace✨ instead of ✊peace✊).
Growing up in the Palestinian diaspora, my first-generation parents touted nostalgic depictions of the homeland: the olive tree and the knafeh and the orange groves, the fishermen of Akka and the farmers of Jericho. The music they listen to still reinforces this nostalgia, both lyrically and melodically. Examples of this are Shalby Younis and Ghazal Ghrayeb’s “Mayil Ala Baladi” (Swing By My Country) and Mohammed Assaf’s “Anna Dammi Falasteeni” (My Blood is Palestinian).
Though I appreciate both songs for their picturesque imagery and peaceful – though proud – patriotism, this musical translation of what it means to be Palestinian no longer feels relevant. At least not to me, at least not all the time. It is important imagery, yes, but imagery that no longer accurately reflects Palestine today. The olive trees are burning, the Jerusalem stones are soaked in blood, and like the parasitic eucalyptus forests they planted in 1948, the settlers are taking over.
Shabjdeed, Daboor, and other artists signed to Ramallah-based label BLTNM are the few musicians both reflecting and combatting this in their music. Take Shabjdeed’s single “Wlad Quds” (Children of Jerusalem) from his debut album Sindibad Al Ward (Sinbad of the Roses). Again, the song’s throughline is a foreboding synth melody layered with a throbbing beat and Shabjdeed’s lyrical mastery delivered in autotune. At the very beginning of the song, he reminds us of the only result of sustained, one-sided violence: “Kol fi3il lahu raddit fi3il,” meaning every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
When the message is encased in autotune, it feels even more valid. For my autotune haters (most of you, I’m assuming), a brief history: autotune was invented in 1997 by Antares Audio Technologies, a company that creates software solutions for the music recording industry. Its initial purpose was to adjust pitch fluctuations and fix singer’s vocal errors. But in the early 2000s, artists, particularly rappers, began using it as a tool of distortion rather than correction.
In the case of modern Palestinian music, this use of autotune feels strikingly appropriate. The horrors and reality of tech-enabled apartheid are often so visceral as to feel nightmarish, and to accurately depict it, Shabjdeed not only raps about them as honestly as possible, but also wraps his voice in a blanket that distorts, disturbs, and disrupts reality in the same way apartheid does.
There is nothing nonviolent about occupation. The idea, then, that resisting occupation should be nonviolent is ridiculous. The idea, then, that even music made under occupation should be sanitized and stripped of its time and place in Palestinian history is also ridiculous. Violent times beget violent art, and violent art is the most honest way to transmute anger, frustration, and rage into dialogue. In this way, Shabjdeed’s music is not a call, but a response. An equal and opposite reaction.