Not all great art is born of rebellion, but a little angst certainly never hurt. When art evolves to speak to for the disenfranchised, as did rap and hip hop, rebellion is a necessary condition. Yet the core message of mainstream American hip hop has become a casualty of its own success. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before such music strayed from its defiant roots to become a more complacent soundtrack of cars, guns and girls.
But American hip hop always served to inspire oppressed youth elsewhere, not least in the Arab world, now abuzz with many voices eager to take up the mantle. None are perhaps more poised to do so than Sameh Zakout , aka Saz (pictured), a charismatic and verbally acrobatic Palestinian from the Israeli city Ramleh.
Eight years ago, when Saz was an ambitious 18-year-old kid working as a mechanic in his father’s garage, Gil Karni, an Israeli filmmaker, approached him about making a film about him and his music. The result is the award-winning "SAZ", which featured in the 2006 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival to much acclaim, and which screened this past week as part of the Other Israel Film Festival in New York.
Gil Karni struck gold when he found Saz. Unflinching in his critique of Israeli policy and in his own ambition to become a successful musician, Saz carries the film with poise and magnanimity. He describes finding inspiration in the work of early hip hop artists such as Afrika Bambaataa, and he pays respect to old-school masters such as KRS-One and Black Sheep by sampling their hooks in his songs. Rhyming primarily in Arabic but also in Hebrew and English, Saz’s music resonates widely, which helps explain why he is the only rapper from his city to have “made it”. He does not take his success lightly. Rather, he is acutely aware of his responsibility to his music and his message.
Saz proudly proclaims that “there is no better place to be born an artist than in Palestine.” As a citizen of a country that treats him as second-class and as a resident of a community where drugs, crime and unemployment are facts of life, Saz's politics of protest help fuel his huge talent. “If I was born an American I wouldn’t have the same challenge to change the reality and reach the other," he explains. "It gives you a lot of energy.” DJ Alarm, an Israeli who often works alongside Saz, confirms this: “He sounds like he’s gonna eat you up–like he’s going to swallow the microphone and get the hip hop into your face.”