“You can take my falafel and hummus, but don’t f***ing touch my keffiyeh,” declares 26-year-old British-Palestinian MC Shadia Mansour from a New York stage as she introduces her song, “El Kofeyye 3arabeyye” (The Keffiyeh Is Arab), written when she discovered that an American company had created a blue-and-white version of the iconic Arab scarf with stars of David on it. Then she starts rhyming. Arabic words emerge like a burst of machine-gun fire.
Mansour only became an MC by chance. But today she’s regarded as one of the luminaries of the Arab hip-hop scene, a platform she has used to declare a musical intifada [uprising] against oppression – be it the occupation of her people’s land, the repression of women, or conservative opposition to her music.
“I’m like the keffiyeh/However you rock me/Wherever you leave me/I stay true to my origins/Palestinian,” she raps from the stage.
In response, numerous red-and-white and black-and-white checked scarves appear above the crowd at Galapagos Art Space in Dumbo, Brooklyn, where Mansour is performing. This is the first concert on a fundraising tour for the organization Existence is Resistance, which organizes hip-hop tours in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Mansour is part of a crew of MCs from the Arab diaspora performing both their own songs and collaborations with each other.
“This is how we wear the keffiyeh/The Arab keffiyeh,” she sings. Her voice, so uncompromising and stern just a second ago, has switched to soft velvet. The audience is rapt. “Every single man, woman and child that the Israeli government kills will give birth to another rapper/Because we are the new generation,” Mansour shouts.
The keffiyeh has become an important focus of Mansour’s image and her music, as it has for many Arab MCs. She received her first keffiyeh from her grandfather in Nazareth. Originally, it had purely personal, sentimental connotations for her. “Now when I put it on, it’s like a statement. It’s Arab,” she says. “Our image is still being distorted, and I am not going to allow that.”
“The keffiyeh represents struggle now more than ever before,” says Mansour’s friend Yassin Alsalman, the Iraqi-Canadian rapper who goes by the stage name The Narcicyst, with whom Mansour collaborated on the track “Hamdulilah” (Praise God.) “At first it represented nationalism, but for our generation it represents the oneness of nations.” That explains the anger Mansour expresses in her lyrics:
Now these dogs are starting to wear it as a trend
No matter how they design it, no matter how they change its color
The keffiyeh is Arab, and it will stay Arab
The scarf, they want it
Our intellect, they want it
Our dignity, they want it
Everything that’s ours, they want it
We won’t be silent, we won’t allow it
It suits them to steal something that ain’t theirs and claim that it is.
“It’s cultural appropriation,” says Alsalman, of the current clamor for keffiyehs among non-Arabs. “There is a thin line between showing respect to a culture and appropriating it because you assume it is cool or hot or chic.” Both artists agree that wearing the scarf and singing about it is their way of reappropriating and reowning it.