Polly Withers

University of Exeter | Exeter, UK

I’m not a Palestinian Musician, I’m a musician who happens to be Palestinian: Negotiating Nationalisms in Youth Popular Music in Palestine

This paper explores the ways that nationalisms are negotiated both in and through youth popular music in the Palestinian context. It highlights the multiple and at times contradictory relationships between this musical field and different narratives of nationalisms, arguing that musicians’ representations change according to audience. I question Jameson’s (1986) claim that cultural production in non-metropolitan spaces functions as “national allegory”, whereby the story of the individual is used to tell the story of the nation; as well as scholarship that positions cultural production in Palestine as preoccupied with the (re)production of national thought and praxis (eg Bernard, 2013). Historically, the struggle for national liberation has indeed dominated Palestinian cultural production. Now, however, in a moment of general disillusion with the Palestinian Authority’s failed state-building project, critiques emerge and cultural production tells several stories, not only of one sort of nation, and one form of nationalism. However, whilst artists may discursively situate themselves as part of, but not subsumed by, the national when they perform to local audiences in Palestine; this logic is inverted when their performances travel to Europe, or when they are playing to foreign audiences (in Palestine). In these latter contexts, musical performers often appear primarily as embodied national subjects.

Using ethnographic material collected in ca. 60 interviews with young musicians of translocal music, audiences, producers and event organisers in this ‘alternative’ music scene; and participant observations at concerts, gigs, parties, bars and raves in Ramallah (West Bank), Haifa (Israel) and Amman (Jordan) during thirteen months of fieldwork in 2012 and 2014, I show how musical actors oppose being represented under the metanarrative of the nation. Critiquing the nationalisation of cultural production, they emphasise that they happen to be from Palestine (Maysa, singer, interview 26/06/2014), refusing to reduce their complex subjectivities to one: that of being Palestinian. Nationalism is identified with, but it does not function as the sole base on which a politics of identity takes shape. Instead, the multiplicity of political subjectivity is stressed. Whilst actors do articulate concerns about the future of the Palestinian community, these centralise around the notion that the struggle for Palestine is not a national but an anti-colonial struggle, focused on decolonisation of space as well as mind. The critique of these young agents therefore stands in contrast to political agendas at the elite level that call for the establishment of an independent state on the 1967 borders.

However, when performing in non-local spaces and/or to non-local audiences, the emphasis musicians place on the complexity of their political subjectivities is removed. Whether performing in Palestine under the tutelage of foreign cultural sponsors, or in London at Palestine solidarity events, such host organisations (re)nationalise these cultural producers, using the signifier of ‘the Palestinian’ to frame them to their audiences. This is paradoxical, as art in such non-local spaces functions as marketable product, rather than as anti-hegemonic critical process and discourse, as it does when situated more locally (see also Toukan, 2010).

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