The First Thing I Heard was a Gunshot: A Gaza Symphony

Video of 11-year-old Abdelrahman al-Shantti rapping in English while surrounded by his school friends in Gaza has gone viral.


Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, pp. 38-39

Gaza on the Ground

By Mohammed Omer

THE VOICE of 11-year-old Abdelrahman al-Shantti is heard in Gaza—a new voice which he calls a message of “peace and humanity” from a forgotten besieged Gaza, to the world.

“I am here to tell you our lives are hard. Our streets are broken, and bombs lay in the yard,” go the lyrics of his song “Gaza Messenger,” alluding to three devastating assaults that shocked the people and shook Gaza. The singer/songwriter attends seventh grade at a school run by UNRWA in Gaza City.

There is an American lilt in his voice when he sings, yet he has never been outside the 25-mile long by 5-mile wide open prison of Gaza. Inspired at the age of nine by Eminem, Tupac and DJ Khaled, started to put his words to rap music, hoping to be the Eminem of Palestine.

When he discovered his talents, he kept practicing. “I still want to continue to improve and learn how to write more original lyrics,” he says.

Through his music, he hopes to add more of a spotlight on Gaza, while global headlines selectively ignore the protracted inhumane blockade on Gaza and its effect on his people. Another song, “Peace,” stems from early memories of war in 2009. “I was born in Gaza City, and the first thing I heard was a gunshot. In my first breath, I tasted gunpowder,” his lyrics say.

There are limited opportunities in Gaza, but as filmmakers and other observers note, there is no lack of zeal and courage displayed by its children and youth, aspiring for a better future. Sometimes, Gaza kids follow the latest hits even before American kids. When you are locked in, then a smartphone is your only means to connect with the world.

Yet, Gaza still survives despite an 18-hour-electricity blackout and where charging phones with car batteries is common.

Al-Shantti combines both technology and music, and says music is as important as life. For him, music is long, and life is short. It is evidently the explanation of life as a Gaza symphony; the trumpets and drums of war and the harps and strings of short-term peace.

“There’s a chance you can die, we’ll see what the future holds. My life is on the line, right behind the bullet holes,” raps al-Shantti, in one of his most emotional and widely viewed video clips on social media, describing the war-torn coastal enclave.

He sees music as a food to nourish a love that he can’t give up on. The death of George Floyd hit the 11-year-old Palestinian so deeply, he decided to sing for him—his messages were shared by several well-known artists, including the UK’s Lowkey.

Al-Shantti posts on Instagram as @mca.rap (www.instagram.com/mca.rap/) and Facebook as Abdelrahman.alshantti (www.facebook.com/Abdelrahman.alshantti), which are managed by his father. Saudi hip-hop host Ahmad Dennaoui—better known as Big Hass—shared al-Shantti’s video with his social media network. Al-Shantti’s YouTube videos were picked up by Sky Arabia, BBC Arabic and Al Jazeera. The 11-year-old rapper has earned praise from famous music artists around the world, from Palestinian-American rapper Waheeb Nasan, U.S. artist DJ Khaled to Canadian signer Masari to the UK’s Akala and Lowkey.

Al-Shantti has risen from the impoverished streets of the sealed-off enclave, to a global spotlight. He knows the everyday limitations on life that he sees in the fences and borderlines that surround him. Yet, he knows there are people who can hear him and will repeat his songs.

“I know the echo of the songs are heard behind the walls” he says, smiling. “I believe in the spirits of free humans, they are silent, but I know they read us and I know they listen to us,” he says, as he pauses. “Maybe they hear us at night, but I hope the echo of our house vibrates inside their hearts because they love Palestine as much as they love freedom” he said in a reassuring voice.

The 11-year-old schoolboy is keen to send a message to the outside word and to American children, saying, “I want to show them how, as children, we are also supposed to be free, like children from outside the walls, fences and bombs of Gaza.”

Unfortunately, Al-Shantti has plenty of inspiration for new raps. Recently Israeli forces have launched numerous attacks on the Gaza Strip and tightened its disastrous blockade imposed 13 years ago. Gaza hospitals are already overwhelmed as they deal with COVID-19 patients amid a shortage of medical supplies and an electrical power crisis.

Al-Shantti dreams of becoming a professional rapper and touring the United States and already has a stage name, MCA. When asked where he wishes his music will take him, he pauses then says, “I aim to spread peace, unity and love through my music.”


Award-winning journalist Mohammed Omer reports regularly on the Gaza Strip.

 

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