On Thursday, 9 April, DCAF (the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival) will host a night that will feature, among others, the very prolific Boikutt. The Ramallah-based musician will perform in Sherazade Club.
More commonly known by his Arabic name, Moqataa مُقاطَعَة (Boycott), he refuses to collaborate, support or compromise on anything less than just. While this is his general position on everything social and political, perhaps the fact that he is also Palestinian makes everything seem less ambiguous and not just another artist grandstanding some intangible principle.
Much has been said and assumed about the generally spotlight-averse artist, including his social status and the contradictions between what he raps about and who he is. And he hasn’t helped his case much by remaining at a distance from the media. There isn’t much out there about Boikutt personally in the virtual world, except for his music.
From Ramallah to the Underground
Born in the US, having lived in Cyprus, before eventually ending up in Jordan, with the 1993 signing of the now-defunct Oslo Accords, Boikutt family, like many in the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation), were allowed to return to Palestine.
Before the world of rap, Boikutt grew up around music; his parents being listeners to the likes of Fairouz, Sheikh Imam and the Rahbani brothers. He began playing piano at the age of seven. He didn’t like the piano, however, and eventually moved on to other instruments, like the oud and guitar.
In 1996, like most musicians in the region during this period, Boikutt's access to music came from tapes passed around between friends and travelling relatives. In his case, a major life transition came via a CD from a family friend which introduced him to the infinite possibilities of bedroom music production. Eventually, the debut of the internet in the region and online music sharing sites like Napster broadened his access and got him into trip-hop, electronic, jazzy beats and down-tempo genres.
Meeting a friend in school with similar tastes in rap and electronic music, the talented rapper Asifeh, and along with his brother, who performed under the name Aswaat, eventually lead to birth of Ramallah Underground (RU) band. At the height of its fame, the musical collective RU received both critical and public acclaim for how their music both impacted the local art scene and how it became a voice connecting Palestine to the outside world. In the regional hip hop scene, RU changed how rap was experienced and produced because of how they were able to make it work in Arabic.
Credited with being some of the founding artists in the Arabic hip hop scene, particularly in Palestine, Asifeh, Boikutt and Aswaat were able to fuse a sound made up of down-tempo beats, trip hop, and old school hip hop with traditional Arabic and quick lyrics. The music they produced as a collective isn’t the kind that you experience lightly — it’s not meant to make you dance your sorrows away, but rather think your pains through.
The three explicitly forced the audience to reconsider the truth they lived.
“With Ramallah Underground, it was very important to talk about the situation in a very realistic way. The situation here and around us, not just Palestine. I think this is what made us different; we were not only talking about Palestine, but something global. We were talking about the oppressed person, the colonised subject in the whole world. Of course, we use Palestine as an example, because this is what we see in our daily lives. But it's not just about here. We collaborated with people from all over the world because we were talking about the same things on any given track,” Boikutt told me during our meeting in Ramallah in 2014, adding how, as Palestinians, they were not unique in the struggle, "because people in the Philippines were also struggling against the system, which I think is a world system of a capitalistic package of democracy, that is trying to be spread all over the world, which is not something that we wanted and were trying to fight against.”
In their seven years of collaboration between 2003-2010, before disbanding for many reasons, including geographical distance, Ramallah Underground produced more than 25 tracks, all free for download, and travelled all over the world with performances in Austria, Australia, the UK, Egypt, Holland and the US.
Producer, artist, MC and lots of things in-between
Four years after Ramallah Underground disbanded, Boikutt has become established regionally as both one of the strongest producers in the hip hop scene and an innovative musician in his own right. In 2008, for example, he was approached by the Kronos Quartet, a quartet famed for constantly experimenting with the formal structures of the string quartet, to produce a track. He created ‘Tashweesh’ (Interference), which combines strings, electronics and sampling. The track later appeared on the Kronos Quartet’s 2009 album, Floodplain.
Boikutt has steadily worked towards building himself and expanding his connections with music, which over the long term greatly benefitted his debut album. Besides producing music for both himself (his single track releases), he has also produced for various artists, including ElRass, Far3i, Bukue One, Spiritchild, and Tamer Abu-Ghazaleh, and has been featured as an MC on albums for artists such as Heliodrome, Slovo, Bonnot, and Lethal Skillz.
His artistic CV is one to pay attention to, because when he’s not making music for himself (and others) and producing soundtracks for contemporary dance theatres and both local and international film scores, he’s working on his other side-project, Tashweesh. A collaboration between his brother and installation artist Basel Abbas, and visual artist Ruanne Abou-Rahme, the project mines “the collision between sound and video field recordings, archive material, vocals, breaks and soundscapes.”
All these productions and collaborations eventually led to the much awaited 2013 release of his eclectically inspired album, Hayawan Nateq. Taking two years to finish, the result is a home studio production that on a technical level represented a vast undertaking for Boikutt, as he did everything himself, including composition, production, recording and mixing and mastering — processes that often involve at least three different people. The finished sound is purposely raw, unclean, distorted, and typically characteristic of Boikutt who tends to shy away from the clean, perfected sounds of studio productions.
The album is a statement on many levels. On the technical side of music production, Boikutt wanted to illustrate that the do-it-yourself attitude offers a lot of freedom to artists struggling between the desire to produce and financial constraints.
“You don’t need money or big sound engineers to create your music. Today, it’s possible to build yourself and teach yourself. And, my other statement with this album is that we [as Palestinians] have to strengthen ourselves. We can’t sit and wait for Israel to break down, because it’s not going to happen and they are busy working all the time. We have to be able to stand for ourselves and to gain a certain self-respect for ourselves and, in this way, change how we interact with each other.”
Lyrically, the album is a reflection of society in general, and of Palestinian society in particular, though through a broken mirror.
“With the distorted and unclean sounds on the album, I'm trying to agitate the audience into a conversation. For me discussion is very important because it is the start of anything.”
While the album has received some negative feedback because of Boikutt's experimentation with effects and his straying away from straight up hip hop, the artist emphasises that his work is a lot deeper than just throwing out words and some good beats. "For me it’s really important to actually create a discussion as opposed to saying messages that are one way, you know like one-sided."
The conversation Boikutt has consistently with the audience and through all his projects touches on many issues, including egos in the music scene, the commodification of music, the politics in Palestine, the presence of the Palestinian Authority, the misuse of religion and the brainwashing of religious authority. On a broader level, his art is always pushing listeners to question the realities they think they know.