Palestine's Growing Electronic Scene with DJ Sama’ Abdulhadi
"There is nothing I can do that can get me out of politics because I am Palestinian. The two as separate does not exist for me."
London's Junction 2, or J2V, added a panel talk with discussions surrounding the roots of electronic music, the growing scene in Palestine, equality in the industry and more. Trippin had the opportunity to have a frank conversation with one of the first DJs to emerge internationally from Palestine, Sama, and Martha Pazienti Caidan, panel host 'Techno: Music of Unity and Resistance. A Conversation with Sama’, Sarouna, DJ Dar and Darbak’.
In aim of learning more about Palestine besides what we see in the media, we sought to speak to someone who is unshakeably Palestinian and proud, to learn about how their culture, music and politics are undoubtedly intertwined.
Sama', what is your musical background and what brought you here today?
S: My mum was really into music and my sister played piano, so I would really just listen to whatever music they did. My brother and I loved dancing to Michael Jackson as well. I got involved with music when I started playing the piano until I was 16, but I was mainly into hip-hop - I didn’t even know what electronic music was - and also a little bit of Arabic. I connected with electronic music quite late in the game. I started DJing hip-hop first at university and then I started DJing techno when I was in Beirut, as it was the first time I’d ever even heard it and I loved it. She first connected with hip-hop and rap, the region’s foremost alternative genre. My love for music was evident at an early age, but it was the technical side that drew me in first which lead me to study in Beirut.
As a DJ from Palestine living abroad, what are your thoughts on how people here perceive Palestine?
S: I just have to say: it’s not like two kids fighting for a place, it’s always just been about fighting for human rights. The perception of Palestine that other people see is actually a completely different reality. In the Arab world, it depends on what Arab news you watch, but you’ll generally see the same news we’d see. It was very shocking to me when I came to study in the UK; it was the first time I’d lived in Europe and watched their news. Especially with CNN, I’d sit in front of the TV and go crazy because I couldn’t correct what they were saying. Back when I was studying in London, some people didn’t even know what Palestine was, compared to now, where people seem to be more aware and there are even MPs standing for Palestine.
Being more exposed to more people now, what are some of the experiences you may have had as the first international Palestinian DJ?
S: A lot of people have never even heard of Palestine and come up to me and ask “what is that word? How did you come up with it? Who are Palestine?” But it’s also very cool because through music, I get to talk to people I’d never usually get to. For example, there was this 21-year-old who had just finished university, three years ago at Sziget Festival, who was the biggest supporter of Trump and Netanyahu and I had to just sit with him for an hour just to know what the hell goes through that man’s brain. All my friends were yelling for me to leave, but I just had to stay and listen to what he believed was the truth and his reasonings. It’s so much harder these days to hide your truth; you have to confront who you are and be okay with it.
How important is your identity to your music and overall just as an individual?
S: Identity is very important, especially as a Palestinian, the day you were born, you have this strong sense of being Palestinian, knowing your rights and where you’re from, even if you're not aware of it. My parents had to explain to me what ‘occupation’ was and teach me who the ‘enemy’ was at the age of 8. I didn’t get it and would ask: “what? Why are we here?” My dad was kicked out when he was 15 years old and was only able to return when he was 41. He kept fighting to go back - he was kicked out in 1969 and went back in 1994. But he was fighting for his dream to go home, he didn’t fully know the extent of what was happening. He’d say we were fighting for hope and I’d think “hope? For what? They’re already bombing and holding the place.” I remember very gradually how my personality became more and more Palestinian, because initially, I used to hate it, I used to think “why? What’s so special about it?” But then I realised it makes me stronger, makes me work harder and gives me a purpose in life and I no longer wonder: “why am I alive?” now. I know why I’m alive, it’s because I’m Palestinian and I have to free the place.
As someone who has experienced this displacement, how important is it to you to be connected physically to your homeland?
S: It’s important and vital to be connected to your ancestral land and with growing up there, I realised that the rules we lived by were so simple and kind. Really, it was only when I was 20 that I had my first experience of being stabbed in the back by a friend. We didn’t have that back home because the experience and trauma really forced everyone to look out for each other and be a strong, tight-knit community. This happens when out of the 18 years of being there, 10 of them we were in war. One of the reasons I keep going back is because I’m afraid that one day they’ll say “you’re not here, so you’re not allowed in” and that really could happen.
What are the realities you face as Palestinian who wants to travel?
S: Travelling and freedom of movement for Palestines is impossible. I first starting moving around for music when I was in Cairo and I was only being invited by Arab and Palestinian festivals to play. Then, I applied for a residency in Paris and I got accepted, but when I came here to get my residency card, they gave me three years instead of three months, and so I just stayed. This is the only reason I can tour, because I’m coming from France, not Palestine. It’s also more expensive to fly from there as well, because you have to go through Jordan, which is one of the most expensive places to fly to Europe from and nobody is going to want to pay that.
Martha, what was your experience coming in and being able to hear about the Palestinian parties?
M: It was incredible and so eye-opening. There are no clubs there. If they want to have a party, it’s invite and word-of-mouth only and that, from the beginning, makes it instantly special.
S: I think this is why Palestinian parties are so fun. Because you always find people who really want to dance and really need a release and want to get on it, because they don’t know when the next party will be - it might be in five years - so they have to make this one count. They take it very seriously and that’s why I think the Boiler Room did so well. By the time I got home on Sunday, I had 500k views.
Can you tell us more about your collective?
S: In Palestine, there are like 30 DJs all across the country and we all know each other, from Nablus to Jericho to Jenin, Haifa, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. That was the point of Union Collective - to create a community of people that would not be able to meet because we’d never be able to go to each other. Also, we wanted to bring together people who were willing to learn from each other, share with each other and really weren't afraid of working all types of jobs when it comes to hosting parties.
M: That reminds me of the logistics of the parties in Palestine I was told about. I was told that everyone had to take turns doing different everything for the party and I think that would contribute to the overall atmosphere, because it’s such a team effort.
How often are you able to host parties?
S: When everything’s okay, we tend to have parties once a week. But we work with other collectives outside of us to coordinate when who’s having a party so that we aren’t having it at the same time. So there’s this respect for each other and it removes the competition. There was this guy who wanted to do a party in the mountains just outside Bethlehem, so he just sent a text out to all the DJs and 20 DJs turned up to play, unpaid, over three days. We tend to play in the mountains when we really wanna run away from everything. In the last year, the Union got an underground kitchen of a restaurant and the DJs were literally playing on the oven with lights coming out of the air ducts. We used this venue a lot last year until the police caught us, now we can’t use it. Venues are always changing, but when we find one where we keep playing, the police always find us and close it down.
How would you describe the landscape in which the collective lives?
S: Things change day by day. Parties close all the time because of bombings and there’s this thing that if someone dies from Ramallah, everybody closes up to mourn the families. There are certain occasions, like if there is a really bad bombing on the Gaza, that people, of course, are just not in the mood to party. Everybody just stops what they’re doing. And that’s what I’ve realised that I can’t stop doing as a professional, when I’m there; whatever Trump or Netanyahu do, I still have to play the party.
And how did you go about finding people to join the collective?
S: The collective is really made up of people who are all close to each other. So it starts with the person who taught me to DJ to the kid who I taught to DJ who was 13. I’m so proud of the people in the collective because they are so proactive and they really learn properly how to be a DJ. I send all of them to my teacher in Jordan - as we always have to pass through there to get anywhere - for 4 days to learn to CDJ. They have to learn CDJ, it’s the basics and it teaches you how to hear properly and beat match. When I teach kids in the summer, I put a paper on the screen and I make them beat match by ear. I used to do that to myself to learn.
How do you feel this movement towards creating space of Palestinian DJs really started?
S: The DJs for Palestine campaign was huge. This movement was brilliant and honestly, it was the one of the biggest movements that gave us energy back home. We stopped being afraid. It created controversy and got an important conversation going. A lot of people who were shut off from the idea of Palestine had to revisit their ideologies and their issues because it became more apparent in the media; this applies on both ends for people for and against Palestine. This was and is good, because speaking to people about these issues is the only way you’re going to solve it. Now, I feel with the annexation and that more people who are starting to stand with Palestine, there are also people speaking up against it as well.
What are your feelings towards politics and music? Should they be separate?
S: Politics and music have naturally intertwined for me. There is nothing I can do that can get me out of politics because I am Palestinian. The two as separate does not exist for me. People are always pushing this ‘techno and politics are separate’ narrative on me and I think “have you forgotten where techno, hip-hop came from? it’s all political! even jazz!” Music and politics come with my identity and who I am. I used to always answer political questions with jokes in the beginning of my career, but now with time, I realised that maybe I should speak about because in my scene, literally nobody speaks about. Being a woman, muslim and from Palestine, it can be a big burden to bear to have to represent my culture, but I am happy to wear many hats.