When Rappers Fall Silent: An Open Letter to Leftist Rappers in Germany

Who speaks when those with voices won’t?

Photo by Jon Tyson via Unsplash

As I write, the euphemistically named Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is committing war crimes against Palestinians. The numbers of dead and injured continue to rise. Last I heard, more than 60 children are among the victims. Plenty of women and elderly, too. To get insight on these events, one must turn to Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and other platforms where Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists post footage of atrocities. Ever since the IDF bombed a tower block that housed international media outlets (war crime), social media is the place where people speak in defense of Palestinians, and rightly so. Because no matter what your views might be, one intractable fact is irrefutable: the bloodshed is lopsided. It’s asymmetrical. Palestinians are overwhelmingly bearing the brunt of brutality, which is why people have been speaking up on their behalf.

But not leftwing rappers in Germany. Many of them have chosen to remain silent. Who cares about rappers in Germany or what they think? I do.

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on hip-hop in Germany and the United States. A comparative study, it foregrounded socially conscious artists and paired them along common themes. The material I analyzed dealt with issues such as migration and migrant rights, antifascism, queer/trans feminism, and the violence that is routinely committed against anyone who doesn’t fit into narrow definitions of normative culture: the overlooked and the marginalized. (You know, like the Palestinians.) Given the rise of the alt-right in Germany (AfD), the new right in the U.S. (Trumpism, Q-Anon, and their dangerous corollaries #BlueAnon or #BlueMaga), and my interest in hip-hop and politics, my little study yielded some intriguing insights — some of which I expected, others not. I learned a lot about both countries, neither of which I feel at home in even though I was born in one and have lived a third of my life in the other. Like Advanced Chemistry rapped in 1992, “Fremd im eigenen Land” (A Stranger At Home). No kidding!

This is an open letter to leftist rappers in Germany.

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Liebe Linkies,

For artists who raise your voices so we won’t forget Germany’s history or its troubled present, I find your silence on Palestine deafening, disturbing, and disgraceful. Maybe I didn’t get the memo. Maybe these three Ds are the new reality in D-land (4D!). STR8Up though, 4real. In the face of Israel’s blatant human rights violations against Palestinians, the 3Ds might be called the Unholy Trinity of Deafening Silence (UTDS). Are y’all ‘pleading the fifth’ (the right not to self-incriminate), or are you invoking your Miranda Rights (the right to remain silent) while IDF soldiers are murdering children? Inquiring minds want to know. Last I checked, sich verschweigen was a thing in Germany 80 years ago. Maybe your grandmothers and grandfathers remember.

Lass mich mal persönlich und ganz direkt.

I consider you a titan of conscious hip-hop in Germany. For nearly 30 years you have rapped about violence against ethnic others, including rightwing terrorist violence at Keupstraße in Cologne. The topics you rap about — racism, violence against migrants, antifascism — are all near and dear to my heart. You know I dig your work. With your homies Rossi and Esther Bejarano, you rap for peace in German, Turkish, Italian, and Hebrew. You unfurl nie wieder flags at live shows. It’s powerful stuff. Yet at the moment you are silent on social media about the ultra-rightwing violence the IDF is carrying out against Palestinians. Neden?

Maybe you remember me. We chatted outside AJZ Chemnitz in Nov 2019, and I attended your book tour sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation when it came to town. (Übrigens, tolles Buch.) An avowed antifascist for more than 20 years, you rap about the right for people to relocate, and you do thankless work to help migrants in and outside Germany. You advocate for the self-determination of people in Rojava, yet aside from a few reweets on Twitter you have been silent while the IDF murders Palestinians indiscriminately. As KRS-One once asked, why is that? If fighting antisemitism is your concern, I’d like to remind you that Palestinians are a Semitic people too. What about their right to self-determination?

Maybe you remember me: I helped bring you to Oldenburg for a conference and concert in Nov 2018. You know I love your work. I published an article about you in Transgender Studies Quarterly and presented on you at a conference in New York City in 2014. A fierce feminist and quing of Berlin, you advocate tirelessly for queer/trans rights. Moreover, you are a staunch critic of patriarchal systems of domination, and you rap eloquently about institutionalized oppression and invite people to reflect. Recently on Instagram you posted about the importance of coming to terms with privilege. Did you know the greatest privilege of all is the freedom to look away? (doch, dat is een ding.) You are a mother yet have been totally silent while the IDF murders Palestinian kids — literally babies and toddlers. Women, too. Biste betroffen Sook, oder nicht?

When I saw you perform at Rekorder in Dortmund it quickly dawned on me that you were easily one of the most underrated rappers in Germany. Still true, I think. One of my students turned me onto BSMG’s Platz an der Sonne in 2017. That same student wrote a Hausarbeit that situated BSMG in the Native Tongues movement. (Smart student.) You speak about the need for Germany to come to grips with its colonial white supremacist past (iAgree!), yet you are publically silent about similar supremacist ideologies that lead to Palestinian deaths. I haven’t seen anything on your socials. What’s up with that?

You know I dig your work. I told you as much when I interviewed you in Dortmund. Did you know I’ve written and presented on that work at international conferences? With your homie Ben Dana, you call on listeners to question their role in events that force people to risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life in Festung Europa. Like Amewu, you call out the origins of white supremacist ideology enshrined in Enlightenment philosophy (Kant). In your LMF project, you and your homies rap against rampant militarism and Germany’s role as a weapons exporter. All great! Yet when it comes to Palestinians who are suffering under craven militarism right now, you are silent. Nothing on your socials. Forgive me while I think out loud here. What about asking people to reflect on their roles as ‘silent partners’ in the slow-motion genocide of the Palestinians? You hear me knocking, Klopfer?

Liebe Linkies, Ihr seid alle betroffen, oder?

Aside from Chaoze One, none of you have spoken out about the atrocities the IDF is committing against Palestinians. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, you lent your voices to the Black Lives Matter movement. Lots of us did, myself included. Many of you correctly draw connections between police brutality in Germany and the same supremacist ideology and behavior that ended George Floyd’s life. (For more on those historical connections, check out Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People.) Meanwhile you are silent on the supremacist ideologies and actions leading to Palestinian deaths right now. So let me start. My home country provides nearly $4 billion to Israel every year. Do you know where that money goes? To US weapons manufacturers who provide the IDF with material support to kill Palestinians with impunity. Can you maybe say something about that? I do. In fact, I do more than talk. I take action.

Seriously, what’s up? Is it not fashionable to acknowledge the murder of Palestinians, or are you not allowed to speak about it because of the Holocaust? Have you lost your voices like Germans did when their neighbors were rounded up, put on trains, and sent off to concentration camps? That’s not an unfair comparison. Do you not see the correlation between Occupied Palestine, which human rights observers call an open-air prison, and the camps European Jews and other ‘undesirables’ could not leave under Nazi rule? If there is a difference, please enlighten me. No really, bitte schön. I’d love to know.

You might be thinking “ach, Terence, komm. You’re not German. You don’t know the burden we have to carry.” Let me tell you what I know. Henry Ford, Prescott Bush, and other American industrialists did business with Nazi Germany through WW2. IBM provided Hitler with the punch card system to make sure the KZs ran like clockwork. I didn’t learn about any of that in school; I had to educate myself. Was that the case with you? I speak those historical facts every chance I get because it’s my responsibility as a decent human being. But guess what? The impetuses that caused those past atrocities are the same ones that are causing the demise of Palestinians: rabid nationalism, supremacist dogmas, a sense of inherited entitlement, gross profit, and a predilection for violence while the world sits back and yawns.

Noam Chomsky, an American dissident you may have heard of, wrote about the responsibility of intellectuals in 1967 within the context of the US-Vietnam War. Like it or not, you are what Rudi Dutschke called, following Antonio Gramsci, organic intellectuals. You and other leftist rappers are the political conscience of a generation. That duty carries a burden not just for the past, but the present — and not just for the convenient, politically correct present, but the uncomfortable present. I watched Norm Finkelstein, another American dissident (and one of the most vocal Jewish American advocates for the Palestinians), shout down people who tried to silence him at the University at Buffalo in 2011. Not only was his integrity impressive, I got the feeling he could spit some bars if somebody dropped him a beat.

Consider this open letter a beat.

In your creative output you have called attention to numerous issues, all important. But where are you now? What is your position on Palestine? Do you have one? Are you allowed to have one, or were Kaveh and Tharwa right when they released “Tahya Falastin” back in 2015? If not, prove them wrong and articulate your position. Palestinians are one of the most oppressed and marginalized peoples on Earth. Gazans get 4 hours of electricity a day, and 85% of their water is undrinkable. Check your privilege, yo. The Palestinians need loud and vocal advocates. Seriously, where are you?

If you are unaware of their struggle for basic human dignity, watch Abby Martin’s documentary “Gaza Fights for Freedom.” Read award-winning war correspondent Chris Hedges. Follow Richard Medhurst, a British Syrian who speaks passionately on this and other issues, on Twitter and YouTube. If you are unaware of the violence Palestinians endure on the regular, check out Dan Cohen and Max Blumenthal’s “Killing Gaza.” Trust me, there’s a hip-hop connection. At the 1hr 25min mark of that film, three Palestinian youth breakdance on bombed out ruins. They turned to hip-hop culture to express themselves, feel joy, and find hope in a hopeless situation. As hip-hoppers yourself, maybe you know where they’re coming from. The least you could do as conscious rappers is post something — anything — about the Palestinian struggle on social media. You know, raise some awareness and take a stand. But that would mean not looking way, finding courage, and speaking out.

Könnt Ihr Mich Hör’n?

I know it’s not easy for you given Germany’s history and the Holocaust. But if you found some courage, you might be able to break through the propaganda that states it’s not possible to be critical of Israel without being anti-Semitic. That’s a lie. In a sense, Germany and Israel are like family. It’s not impossible to criticize family. I can, and very often do, criticize my own family. You know what? I love them, too. Maybe I criticize them because I love them — you know, just like I’m criticizing you.

What happens when rappers fall silent? The same thing when anyone falls silent: crimes continue unabated, people die, and the people those crimes don’t affect are free to scroll, like, click, and shop while remaining blissfully unaware of what’s going on. You built your careers on social justice issues. The Palestinian plight for self-determination, not to mention the right to live in dignity, has been going on for multiple generations. That raises two questions: are you deliberately building unawareness on social media, or are you only allowed to comment on certain ‘safe’ issues? If the former is true, that’s gross. (← kein falsche Freund.) If the latter is true, then you don’t live in the free society you think you do.

What happens if both are true?

Germany’s past crimes and deep shame should never prevent the necessary and uncomfortable work of the present to build better futures. If that’s not true, how would any political progress be possible?

Y’all are free to do what you want. I wish I could say the same for Palestinians in Gaza. The longer you stay silent on their plight, the sooner I’ll stop looking to you for moral or political guidance.

Mit freundlichen Grüßen

Terence Kumpf

Earthling. Skeptic. Transculturalist. Future corpse. https://terencekumpf.bandcamp.com/follow_me