“It was interesting how quiet the American entertainment industry went during the election,” muses Marcus Mumford. “Now, it’s a lot louder.”
The Mumford & Sons frontman is phoning me from a small town in what he calls “Trumpland, Oklahoma,” where he’s been shacked up for the past month ironing out some new tunes. Quite a lot has transpired since we last spoke in April 2015. Back then, one of the biggest things on the musician’s mind was the Declaration of Independence-themed launch party for Jay Z’s streaming music service Tidal, which he appropriately ridiculed. Little did we know that two months later, a pussy-grabbing ex-reality show host with a chip the size of Queens on his shoulder would announce his presidential candidacy, all but erasing the line between politics and entertainment.
Though Mumford is British, he was born in Orange County, California, and has thus retained dual U.K. and U.S. citizenship—affording the 29-year-old the opportunity to vote in American elections, including this, the latest and craziest one.
“It’s totally mad… totally mad,” he mutters, reacting to Trump’s shock win in the most British manner possible. “As an outsider who grew up in England, it’s very easy for us to generalize America, and it’s such a vast country so it’s dangerous for us to generalize it too much. I know people who voted for Trump, which personally upsets me because I think he is morally so questionable, his relationship with the truth is shockingly fluid for a potential statesman and the leader of the free world—and that scares me. His treatment of women in the past and the way he talks about them really scares me and as a role model I think he’s terrifying.”
The occasion for our chat isn’t the chaotic election, but a rather unique one: Mumford’s collaboration with the Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar. As part of New York City’s 10th Annual Other Israel Film Festival, which presents films and panels “about history, culture, and identity on the topic of minority populations in Israel with a focus on Arab citizens of Israel/Palestinian citizens of Israel,” the duo performed in concert together at Le Poisson Rouge, blending Nafar’s Arabic hip-hop rhymes with Mumford’s folksy ballads.
Mumford was introduced to Nafar through Mike Skinner of The Streets. The rapper hosted an online series in conjunction with Vice called Hip-Hop in the Holy Land, which featured Nafar and his Palestinian rap group, DAM. So, when he visited Israel to DJ the Bet Lahem Live Festival—which he calls “a peace and justice festival” put on by his friend in Bethlehem this past summer—Mumford took the time to visit with a group of Israeli artists in Tel Aviv and Palestinian artists in Ramallah. Nafar was one of the artists in Ramallah, and the two immediately hit it off whilst hitting the hookah pipe.
The musical pair kept in touch, and Nafar eventually put Mumford in contact with the Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni, whose provocative pro-Palestinian film Junction 48 played at the Other Israel Film Fest. Nafar stars in the film (which he also co-wrote and scored) as a version of himself: an aspiring Palestinian rap MC navigating nationalist Israeli thugs and oppression in the city of Lod.
“Me and Udi were to host our movie Junction 48 at a special screening that Marcus helped set in London, and we just flew there and screened the movie, and had a deep conversation,” says Nafar. “That’s the fun part. We started focusing on the most important thing, in my opinion: the creation of what we do, and how geography shapes your artistic persona. Art is the thing that binds us all.”
They are an unlikely duo, to say the least.
Mumford grew up in the posh enclave of Wimbledon Chase in southwest London. He is the son of John and Eleanor Mumford, who founded the Association of Vineyard Churches—an organization of more than 100 churches across the U.K. and Ireland. Young Marcus grew up playing in church groups, and his band Mumford & Sons’ repertoire tends to explore Christian themes. Nafar, meanwhile, was born to a poor family in Lod, Israel, and began writing raps in the late ’90s about the everyday struggles of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. He formed DAM, the first Palestinian hip-hop group, in 2000.
“This is the start of our musical collaboration together. We haven’t gotten in the studio yet, but we’ve just been sending each other things,” says Mumford. “The reason I’m excited to collaborate with Tamer is I think he’s one of the most gifted rappers I’ve heard in this day and age, and the way he can rap in different languages is really enjoyable for the audience. I also think of him as a hip-hop artist who really understands songs—which I do as opposed to straight-up rapping—so I’m excited for what we can do musically, combining songs and Tamer’s lyrics.”
Nafar is a controversial figure in Israel—and has become a prime target of Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev. The feud began at the Ophir Awards—the Israeli Oscars—in September. As Nafar and the Jewish artist Yossi Tzaberi read an excerpt from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “ID Card,” Regev walked out, as boos rained down on her by those in attendance. When she did, the two men onstage each raised a single fist in protest.
“What she did is—imagine if at the Oscars a black guy came onstage and said, ‘I’m an African-American,’ and one of the white ministers of culture walked out. That’s what she did,” says Nafar. “When she doesn’t want us to say we are Palestinians, she just wants us to be Uncle Tom Arabs who obey their master and play their role without their own narrative.”
Darwish’s poem ends as follows: “I do not hate people / And I do not steal from anyone / But if I starve, I will eat my oppressor’s flesh / Beware, beware of my starving / And my rage.” Though Nafar and Tzaberi didn’t read this section, Regev later accused them in the Israeli press of advocating for Palestinians to eat the flesh of the Jews.
“Why the fuck would a Jewish guy say that? It’s not an innocent mistake. They are just blaming minorities. That’s the world we’re living in now,” says Nafar.
It didn’t end there. The following month, Regev petitioned the Haifa municipality to cancel Nafar’s concert, which was set to take place during the Haifa International Film Festival.
“It’s unfortunate that the Haifa Film Festival, a symbol of quality and closeness between people and countries, has chosen to give a stage to an artist who takes every opportunity to go against the State of Israel and its existence as a Jewish state,” wrote Regev.
She further cited the lyrics to Nafar’s song “Who’s the Terrorist” as evidence of this: “Democracy? Why? It reminds me of the Nazis / You’ve raped the Arab soul / And it became pregnant, giving birth to a child called terror attack / And then you call us terrorists.”
“They don’t want to take responsibility for what happened in 1948—they don’t even want to discuss it,” says a heated Nafar. “Every time we try to go there, they try to censor you. And that’s what she’s trying to do. It’s not just this, either.”
Our talk—like all talks these days—eventually drifted back to President-elect Donald Trump. Mumford, who’s visited the West Bank twice in the last few years, sees similarities between the “culture of fear” employed in Israel and by the Trump campaign.
“I do think there is a culture of fear that’s really damaging,” Mumford says of candidate Trump’s rhetoric. “I experienced it a lot in Israel and Palestine as well—this culture of fear, particularly of the ‘other.’ The barriers between communities are scary to me. There are a lot of parts of the United States where it seems like the narrative was fear—particularly fear of the other. There was a smaller narrative like that in the Brexit campaign, but I don’t think it was as powerful as the one in the U.S. As musicians, we can try and address that fear of the ‘other’ through songs, but trying to make musicians into political spokesmen when they aren’t naturally so like Tamer, I just try to sit on the side and get my head around it as best I can.”“With elections, you only have two sides,” adds Nafar. “The whole world is black and white. It’s either Hillary or Trump, it’s Hamas or the occupation. It’s very sad that it’s narrowed down to two columns, and we don’t see other columns. Something that is very special about Junction 48 is it shows that there are other columns. You have Muslims who are not ISIS, and at the same time don’t suck up to the West but are critical of the West. It implores this generation to see beyond the two columns.”