Palestinian rapper Majdal Nijim dreams of a world without borders. It makes sense: Nijim, who performs under the stage name Makimakkuk, lives in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Since 1967, the Palestinian population of Ramallah have lived under an Israeli military occupation that has denied them even the most basic of human rights—they cannot travel freely, and their access to healthcare is limited. They live at the whims of a military regime that Amnesty International has characterized as “unlawful and cruel".
Nijim is one of the stars of a new documentary into the Palestinian music scene, released this week by Boiler Room with local music magazine Ma3azef. Palestine Underground depicts the vibrant and thriving DIY music scene between the non-occupied city of Haifa and the West Bank. Musicians climb walls and dodge Israeli military checkpoints to connect the Palestinian grassroots music scene in Haifa with the West Bank, partying together in defiance of the restrictions placed upon them. It’s an uplifting look at the little-known Palestinian music scene, a scene that’s barely recognized outside of the country, largely because of the travel restrictions placed on so many of its artists.
Nijim requires special permits to travel internationally, and these are issued at the discretion of the Israeli authorities. In addition to international travel papers, she must show that she’s been invited to perform at a venue and provide documentation from venue owners and promoters. Palestinians cannot travel freely between the West Bank and Gaza to Haifa, which has a large Palestinian population. Families separated by quirks of geography or history may go years without seeing each other. “Freedom of movement is one of the most important things for me to talk about,” Nijim tells me down the line from Ramallah. “A lot of people don’t even understand how the movement works here.”
It wasn't always like this. Palestine was once a crossing point for visitors hoping to travel to all of the Middle East’s nations. “This region has always been open to people,” she tells me. “You used to be able to go from Jerusalem to Beirut freely, through Damascus. You could go to Cairo.”
Unlike those who hope for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Nijim dreams of a world with no borders. “I don’t see this as a two or three or four state thing,” she tells me. “The more you divide, the more you conquer. That’s not the way I see the future of this region [...] I don’t want to have all these borders. I don’t want to see checkpoints. I don’t want to see anyone getting checked when they move from one place to another.”
Nijim began performing as a child, but took up music in earnest whilst studying at university in the West Bank. She began connecting with acoustic musicians and electronic DJs in her local scene. (In addition to rapping, Nijim also DJs house and techno music.) “I started to feel like, OK, this is something I want do, music—this is it,” she remembers. Ramallah, Nijim informs me, has a vibrant nightlife scene, although competition amongst promoters is high as venues are scarce. “It’s an original scene. There are many different genres of music, from pop to hip hop, drum and bass, techno, or grime.”
She raps about the daily life of a young woman living in the West Bank. “My music is inspired by Ramallah,” she says. “I talk about harassment, being under oppression, sex, drugs, anything that comes to mind.” It’s important, she says, to speak honestly of her experience with the Israeli military occupation. “It’s what we live, it’s what we see, it’s what we feel. What I live, and see, and feel, I have to let out and not keep it inside of me.”
Nijim raps and sings in Arabic but speaks English fluently, peppering her speech with the Arabic word yanni ("you know") liberally. She's currently doing sessions in the studio ahead of the release of her first album. But even if it takes off, touring will be a complicated and involved process. “I would love to play where I get invited to play, in big cultural cities like Jaffa or Haifa. But it’s not easy.”
She wonders what kind of creative potential would be unlocked if Palestinian musicians like herself were able to travel freely. “We don’t just have a physical border. Over the years, it’s built a mental border as well. If the Palestinian cities were open to each other, and it was easier to organize things in other cities, maybe my music would already be popular, you know?”
For now though, Nijim will continue to hope for a freer future and sing her music of resistance. “I don’t have a solution for the occupation,” she says. “I don’t think anyone does. But through music and culture it’s possible to work within yourself, build your community, and see what that takes me. The occupation is a huge force that’s been built to stay, But that doesn't mean it will stay, because all systems that are built on such inhumane bases must collapse. It’s unnatural. It’s bound to go. But how, and when—we’ll see.”