Revolution and rhymes were in the air at the University of Maryland at College Park’s concert “Tick Tock Revolution” last Friday.
The event was sponsored by the University of Maryland chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine and headlined by Libyan-American hip-hop artist Khaled M. It also featured other artists including D.C. native Radio Rahim and poet Remi Kanazi.
“The purpose of the event was to energize the student body about social revolution in general,” Jon Cohen, a senior at UMD and member of its SJP chapter, said. The concert’s theme echoed the recent revolutions and ongoing uprisings of the Arab Spring and connected such social movements to the issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Cohen admits that the name of the event was inspired by the Ke$ha song of the same name.
The organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, promotes “justice, human rights and self-determination for the Palestinian people,” according to its mission statement. The advocacy group supports divestment of funding in Israeli companies and calls for a two-state solution, or an end to what they call Israel’s “apartheid state.” At the same time, the group rejects equating its criticism of Zionism with anti-Semitism or discrimination.
As with any discussion about the Israeli-Palestine conflict — especially one on a college campus — the conversation can quickly evolve into a heated political debate. Cohen grew up Jewish, and prior to joining SJP, he described himself as a “liberal Zionist.”
“I was always the left-winger at Hillel,” he said about his regular attendance at the university’s Jewish community center during his freshman year. After several protests on and off campus, Cohen found his view changed and now describes himself as a radical anti-Zionist. On Maryland’s campus a few years ago, relations between pro- and anti-Israel groups were quite heated, but Cohen said that the antagonism has thawed in recent years.
“I think a lot of antagonism on campus derived from the fact that the word ‘Palestinian,’ in the eyes of many Jews, was ignorantly synonymous with the word ‘terrorist,’” Cohen said. “I think a general movement, significantly pushed by Palestinian groups on campus, [has] weeded out the political incorrectness left over from the Bush years, where Islamophobia was much more normalized as acceptable into the mainstream consciousness of American culture.”
Tension between pro- and anti-Israel groups still makes headlines today, most recently in a controversial New York City subway ad sponsored by the right-wing American Freedom Defense Initiative that declared, “Support Israel, Defeat Jihad” and referred to opponents of the Jewish state as “savages.”
The discussion on UMD’s campus for the moment has not reflected these national hostilities. Friday’s hip-hop concert was not met with pushback from pro-Israel organizations.
For headliner Khaled Ahmed — known by his stage name, Khaled M — music is a chance to go beyond divides.
“One of my goals in making music is to build bridges between people of different backgrounds, different faiths, different nationalities, [and] different economic backgrounds,” Khaled M said. “I think one common theme people have is struggle. Everybody struggles, everybody fights against struggle and I think Tick Tock revolution summed that up.”
Born in Libya but raised in Kentucky, the hip-hop artist has suffered through his family’s struggles. His father and grandfather were both imprisoned for their involvement in the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, which opposed the regime of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi. After escaping from jail in the early ’90s, Ahmed’s father fled to Tunisia on foot, eventually settling in a Kentucky community of about 100 Libyan exiles. In 1994, Ahmed’s father drowned trying to save him and his brother from a river, and Libyans across America attended his funeral.
After last year’s Libyan uprisings, the hip-hop artist found himself pegged as the voice of the movement, but he said that he tries to avoid deliberately making music that is directly political.
“I think when artists come out with a goal to make political music, it comes out trite,” Ahmed said. “I try to make music that’s really sincere, that’s a reflection of me and the life that I live. It just so happens that I’m fighting against oppression and injustice — these have been consistent themes throughout my life.” His most popular song, “Can’t Take Our Freedom,” doesn’t directly refer to Libya or Qaddafi because he wanted it to relate to people of different nations.
“[The song] is about people who are willing to lose their lives by speaking out — because just speaking out is a crime,” he said.
Featuring Iraqi-British rapper Low Key, the song memorializes victims of authoritarianism “to prove that they didn’t lose their lives in vain, that it’s worth something,” Ahmed said.
In contrast, for Radio Rahim, performing in “Tick Tock” seeks to be political in every way.
“Talking about real issues … and music is crucial. I’ve never been a bullshit rapper or a bling-bling rapper or anything like that,” Rahim said. “I figure if I’m taking my time composing, I want to connect with someone and share something that’s more than just ‘let’s have fun.’”
Inspired by his father’s Persian background, Rahim cites Persian poetry as an influence for his music’s spiritual and political qualities — alongside more standard hip-hop fare like old school and jazz.
“Music is a universal language, and you can go to Bangkok or Istanbul, and if you’re playing something that’s vibing, it’s going to connect with people.”
Rahim’s songs have overtly pro-Palestinian themes, like his single “BDS,” named after the international movement “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.” “I just want to see justice/ So I put my money only where my mouth is/ Whenever I’m hungry I remember how kids in Palestine are living inside crumbled houses/ While we sit on couches drinking Starbucks by the ounces.”
But Rahim argues that his fight against injustices in Palestine isn’t about ethnic or religious issues, but human rights.
“I know plenty of Palestinians who are atheists, homosexuals, Jews and Christians, and they are all saying, ‘When is this injustice going to stop?’” he said. “I know a lot of Israelis, too, with all different backgrounds, and they’re saying the same thing, too.”
Cohen said that a hip-hop concert was natural for a pro-Palestine event because the resistance movement has embraced the culture and art of hip-hop over the last 10 years.
“The lyrical content is all very political, all very radical. It was committed to Palestinian liberation and resistance,” he said. “This kind of music energizes people. People listen to it and start to care about the issue.”
More fundamentally, Cohen feels that music has the ability to spread political ideas.
“It’s what motivates people: It puts a non-visual representation of a movement that you can listen to,” Cohen said. “It can be recorded, you can share with one another [and] it doesn’t have to be on paper.”

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