Meet SkyWalker, Palestine's First Female DJ

We talk to the 26-year-old electronicist about her work, the affect of the occupation on nightlife cultures, and how she's challenging perceived gender roles daily.

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Mar 22 2017, 2:30pm

If you walk into any bar in the West Bank city of Ramallah and mention Sama Abdulhadi, there's an immediate buzz. Abdulhadi, who goes by the moniker SkyWalker, is Palestine's first female DJ, and for the past decade she's been anything but shy when it comes to challenging patriarchy and traditional stereotypes in the dance community. The 26-year-old has helped create an underground techno movement in the Middle East and is keen to encourage other girls to take a step in the same direction. Born in Jordan and raised in Ramallah, Abdulhadi was unaware of house or techno until she took a trip to Beirut aged 18 where she caught pioneering Japanese house DJ and producer, Satoshi Tomiie. "Seeing him live was so unexpected—I just stood there in awe," she recalls. "At the time, I didn't even know what deep house or techno sounded like."

This chance encounter changed the course of her life. First she set off to Amman in Jordan where she studied music production. As luck would have it her lecturer was also a DJ, and regular at Montreal's Stereo nightclub. He soon became her mentor—not only were many of his classes steeped in electronic music (which he'd explain and dissect in detail), but he also taught her how to DJ. It was a particularly formative period for the nascent music maker. Following Jordan, she jetted off to Beirut to take a course on analogue synthesizers, before moving to London to do her BSc in audio engineering. It was here that she really started messing with music in earnest making her own samples and creating songs which eventually led to the release of her first two albums, Life's Pace under London label Itchycoo Records in September 2013, followed by the self-released Quantum Morphosis two years later. Each incorporated the raw sound of her influences Nicolas Jaar, Nicole Moudaber, and Dubfire to name a few.

Since then, Abdulhadi has been busy. Last year, one of her highlights included playing Paris' Palest'In and Out Festival, an event that paid homage to the Palestinian art scene, while this year she has a six-month residency in Cité Internationale des Arts in France and the release of an as yet untitled album to look forward to. (It's release has been somewhat delayed because she was recently robbed, and the losses included her laptop which contained said album.) Most recently Abdulhadi took part in a show at La Gaîté Lyrique alongside five other female Arab artists to celebrate the diversity of women in the electronic scene from her region.

But Abdulhadi's life as a jobbing DJ, living and working in the West Bank is a world apart away from that of an artist living in other metropolitan cities with thriving a thriving night life. Palestinians in the West Bank struggle with daily life due to Israel's occupation, which for decades has crippled the economy and severely restricted movement, resulting in a lack of opportunities for young people. A new and frustrated generation of Palestinians looking to pursue art and music as careers find themselves looking at a future with no prospects because there aren't adequate facilities to help them progress. Those who can afford to leave, go on to study abroad, seeking opportunities elsewhere.

For Abdulhadi, her music is shaped by plenty of life experiences—from living through the Palestinian intifadas to discovering techno in the peak of the Arab Spring. Being Palestinian, there's always a lot to talk about when she calls me to have a chat about the growing demand for techno in her hometown of Ramallah and what effect Israel's occupation of the West Bank is having on Arab youth culture.

For a start, she thinks people in other countries take freedom of movement for granted. Going out and dancing for an evening isn't as simple as stepping out the door and getting a car to the nearest club. If you're from the West Bank you must obtain special travel permits before heading through military checkpoints to reach cities such as Haifa and Tel Aviv where electronic music is in high demand. On the few occasions when Abdulhadi was able to get permission to pass through Qalandia checkpoint on the outskirts of Ramallah to perform in Haifa, the arduous process of lugging heavy equipment under the watchful eye of Israeli security was "very annoying," but that was the least of her worries. Soldiers sit behind bulletproof glass and depending on their mood, can enforce lengthy waiting hours or send Palestinians back. As a result, the restriction of movement continues to obstruct ravers wanting to get to venues on the other side of the Israeli-built wall which surrounds the West Bank.

Because freedom of movement is so complicated, Abdulhadi has only played in Haifa a handful of times in the last 10 years nevertheless she still collaborates with the city's biggest music collective, Jazar Crew, whose members played a key role in forming the underground music scene for young Palestinians looking to discover fresh sounds. In 2012, the collective started Mukti Gathering—an annual music festival aspiring to mirror Germany's Fusion Festival—and hundreds attended. The event was popular and served a greater purpose to show that politics and borders cannot divide people's love for good music.

Noisey: When did you meet Haifa's Jazar Crew and what's your relationship with them?
Sama Abdulhadi: Well I can't get into the Israeli side so I've only been there a few times when I was able to get a permit. I met Jazar Crew in 2011 and knew instantly we would be doing a lot of events together. A year later they organized Mukti Gathering, which was a three-day festival up on the hills of near Haifa. Back then I got a permit but most of the people in the party didn't have one and were there illegally. It was just insane. The Israeli police kept coming and told us to keep the music volume down. I stood there and tripped out because I thought we would all be arrested. All they asked really was for us to lower the music a bit.

The restriction of movement must get frustrating. How do you cope?
For me, I don't go into the Israeli territories a lot and my parents have a thing of not letting me go without a permit so it's not like I'm always there. Getting the permit isn't easy either. For Israelis to even let you apply for a permit, you basically have to have a special ID that pretty much states you're not a terrorist. It's annoying that I need to go through military checkpoints just to go for a night out. But more annoying than that is not the checkpoint, it's getting the permit. I can't just go anytime I want. But the checkpoint, I'm used to it, it's really frustrating because sometimes you need two hours to get somewhere and it will take you at least eight hours because they decide just to close the checkpoint. It's just stupid also because the country is tiny and so it just doesn't make sense that every five minutes you get a checkpoint.

What is the vibe like in Palestine?
You have to understand the beauty of Ramallah. It's a Christian city, which pretty much means it's filled up with bars and by default everyone is drinking. There are more conservative Muslim areas, but everyone respects each other regardless of religion so there's never a problem. You're not allowed to play music after midnight though so we used to throw parties from midday to 12 midnight. Palestine always has a strong vibe because whenever there is war or bombing happening anywhere in the West Bank or even Gaza—where it never stops might I add—parties come to an end. You can have three months where the mood is somber and nobody parties or listens to music and all of a sudden, there's an event. People will go and dance as if it's the last party they'll go to for months so there's always a unique energy you get in Palestine that you don't feel in other countries and it's amazing.

You must be honored to be Palestine's first female DJ. I'm guessing most people are supportive.
Everybody expects it to be so much worse, but for me society has been supportive all the way. When I started out, I got asked if my parents knew what I was doing, but most people in Ramallah know me well enough not to ask silly questions. I always challenged perceived notions of traditional gender roles anyway. I worked as a delivery boy and shisha boy before I was DJing so people don't really get shocked by what I do. Actually, in France of all places, I had a weird run in. There was an Algerian guy at one of my gigs and after I finished my set, he started shouting at me, saying that I'm not a real Palestinian, that I'm a Palestinian, with an Israeli stamp on my back because I'm a girl that DJs and no Palestinian girl would ever do that. That was an isolated case though.

Does it make you feel empowered?
Hell yeah. It makes me feel proud. As a Palestinian from a Muslim background, doing this is very empowering. In Palestine, it gives me this edge or strength and it gives me something to be proud of, to say I worked hard to get to where I am. I've always been supportive of more girls getting into DJing and it is actually a thing that's growing. I know a few Arab girls interested and it should go without saying but I'm always for women doing whatever it is they want to do.

How does occupation affect Palestinian musicians and artists?
So many ways. You can barely travel, you can't really have a proper gig, you can barely sing, I mean you don't really feel like doing music there. Occupation makes you institutionalized and demotivates you. It's depressing and the fact that everything is closed up and you're in between four walls gets you claustrophobic. It doesn't let you be yourself. The fact that you can't go to the beach in Jaffa annoying and it's only 40 minutes away, but checkpoints and the wall keeps you away.

How does that make you feel then when so many high profile acts play in Israel like Richie Hawtin, Modeselektor, Monika Kruse, and The Chemical Brothers? You love the music but you can't get to Tel Aviv to see these acts.
I'm not against Jewish people at all or even Jewish people living in Israel because at the end, forget about the people who invaded the country, we always had Jews in Palestine. I do, however, have a problem with Israeli settlers and the army. For me a Jewish person who is my age, he was born there, it's not his fault he was born there. He got raised there just like me, that's his home, just like me, and I don't want to kick him out because I don't want him to kick me out. That's basically it. It's not his fault he's from there. What the hell can he do about it? For me if I'm willing to go play in Europe and the US who are fucking everybody up, why shouldn't a DJ go play in Israel? They're not what the government does, they're just people and they like music. The crowd in Israel is insane and they get really good DJs and they do great gigs. They're allowed to have fun.

So, what's lined up in 2017?
Well I got robbed, so that was my 2016, which stopped my everything in life including releasing a new album. I'm going to start a six-month residency at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris and the idea is to put more of a focus on Europe and spend more time working on my music publishing company I launched for Arab-Indie artists. I'm also about to restart making a new album—no idea what to expect, but there will be sick synthesizers and bass lines in there for sure. I was mixing Arabic music with electronica before my equipment was stolen but now, I want to do something completely different. The new album is going to have a poetry base by using the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in my music because he's been a huge inspiration since I was a kid. I know most of his poetry by heart and I've played his voice with the random backdrop of electronic music and that was the best feeling I've ever had.

Follow Zab Mustefa on Twitter.

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