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11-Year-Old Scores Viral Rap Hit but Trips on Gaza Politics

JERUSALEM — When the 11-year-old schoolboy from Gaza posted a video of himself rapping the lyrics of one of his favorite artists, he never expected it would make him famous or get him in trouble.

It did both.

The video of Abdel Rahman al-Shantti rapping in front of his Gaza City school in confident English and flawless hip-hop attitude won him more than a million views and praise from famous rappers around the world.

The trouble came when he was asked about his message.

“I would like to spread love between us and Israel,” he told an interviewer from a Russian news outlet. “There’s no reason for fighting and wars. We need to let this relationship become better and better.”

The comment came under fierce criticism in Gaza, whose leadership, the militant group Hamas, advocates fighting Israel — to retake what they see as Palestinian land — not making peace with it.

Many Palestinians lashed out on social media at the budding rapper and his father, whom they accused of failing to properly teach his son about the Palestinian cause.

When a young boy “doesn’t study his homeland’s history enough, it’s very easy to plant these ideas in his head,” Saad Yaghi, 23, a resident of Gaza City, wrote in one typical comment on Facebook.

The Russian outlet, Russia Today, removed the video at the request of Abdel Rahman’s father, Saleh al-Shantti. Mr. al-Shantti also posted his own video contending that his son didn’t mean peace and love with Israel specifically but peace with the world.

“The boy is 11 years old and he misspoke,” Mr. al-Shantti said. “He was very tired. It can happen.”

Calls for coexistence with Israel are taboo in many circles in Gaza, and are seen as an act of normalization — treating Israel as a normal state with which one could have normal relations. Some acts of normalization, including activities or communication with Israelis, may be considered crimes in Gaza though no authority has suggested Abdel Rahman’s comments crossed that line.

In April, the Gaza authorities arrested several Palestinian peace activists after they held a video chat with Israelis. The primary organizer of the video call, Rami Aman, is still in prison, waiting for Hamas’s military prosecutor to decide whether to indict him.

Abdel Rahman, a seventh-grader at a United Nations-run school in Gaza City, said he taught himself English by listening to music online. He has been rapping since he was 9, recording covers and — in some cases — his own songs in collaboration with artists from abroad.

He likes the N.B.A. and skateboarding, he said in a Zoom interview from his home, with his father by his side. The rapper he most admires is Eminem, and his dream is to become a professional rapper and tour the United States.

The video that went viral was recorded by his father and was posted and reposted on multiple social media platforms. A Saudi radio host posted it on his Twitter feed, capturing nearly half a million views.

Abdel Rahman said his music aims to convey the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, whose economy has been devastated by a blockade by Israel and Egypt, which Israel says is to prevent Hamas from importing weapons or the means to build them. But he also wants to share a message of peace and equality.

“You should treat others as you want to be treated,” he said. “I wish we could stop violence and discrimination from different places and different races.”

Palestinian rappers say he has huge potential.

“He’s got the flow, delivery, charisma and story,” said the veteran rapper Tamer Nafar, a Palestinian citizen of Israel. “With the right training, in one or two years from now, he could rise to the international level.”

Waheeb Nasan, a Palestinian-American rapper who wrote the lyrics in the videotaped rap, praised the 11-year-old for his “strong and inspirational craft.”

“I can see he wants to spread a very positive cause,” Mr. Nasan said. “I see a lot of promise, energy and innocent hope in him.”

It is more than ironic that the rap that led to his trouble was a paean to Palestinians who died for their cause and had strong Palestinian nationalist themes. Mr. Nasan incorporated the rap into his remix of “See You Again,” a hit song by Wiz Khalifa.

“First of all this is our country. Let me tell you how it goes,” Abdel Rahman’s video begins.

Many social media users accepted his father’s claim that the boy made a mistake.

Others, without taking a position on Abdel Rahman’s remarks, argued that it was not appropriate to make a young boy the target of criticism. And a few questioned why it was unacceptable to wish to live in peace with Israel.

“Where’s the problem when we search for peace with the neighbors?” Maha Buhisi, 26, a political activist from Deir al-Balah, Gaza, wrote on Facebook. “The boy’s words were beautiful,” she added. “Peace doesn’t mean giving up on Palestine.”

Abdel Rahman — who was wearing a baggy black T-shirt and a hat that said “NEVER MIND” in his interview with The Times — was enthusiastic and animated. But if his recent difficulties taught him anything, it was to be a bit more guarded when speaking to the media.

Asked if he was dismayed by the reaction to his comments, he weighed his words.

“Kind of,” he began.

Then, his father cut him off before he could complete the thought, saying that he preferred his son not discuss the topic any further.

Adam Rasgon reported from Jerusalem, and Iyad Abuheweila from Gaza City.

Source: NYT > World News

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