Jamila Al-Yousef uses music as a tool to empower herself and others in her private and professional life as a singer and anti-racism coach. Her lyrics are a way of celebrating her Palestinian heritage while calling out the injustices she and the community continue to face. On the album Bazaar Bizarre فلسطين وين انا؟, Jamila Al-Yousef sings in English and Arabic, her vocals bedded in a desert bluesy progressive rock soundscape. Jamila & The Other Heroes are: Leon Sanchez on guitar, Salam Alhassan on percussion, Pier Ciaccio on drums and Felix ‘Fema’ Barth on bass.

Dreams Without Borders

“I often dream about Palestine and my ancestors and put that in my songs”, Jamila says about her sources of inspiration. Her debut album Sit El Kon ست الكون, for example, was inspired by Jamila’s dream of her Palestinian grandmother, who she was named after but never met. She died when Jamila’s father was 1 year old. The song “YABA يابا“ recounts her father’s memories of Palestine after coming to Germany as an orphaned young man in the 70s. On “Fragments of Palestine”, Jamila remembers Juliano Mer-Khamis, the founder of the Freedom Theater in Jenin and a progressive voice in the Palestinian resistance against Israeli military occupation.

Photo by Fabian Brennecke

“Although we fear
We fight to protect
Our minds and souls
Our lands and stones
We won’t disappear”
– Jamila & The Other Heroes “Fragments of Palestine”

“We won’t disappear”, these lines resonate differently since the ongoing bombardment of Gaza and the repression of Palestinian voices in the West. For Jamila, music is also a way to create spaces of community, exchange, and solidarity. Over the past months, she has held several community care workshops for Palestinians and allies in Berlin and South Germany. “I think music and feeling your body using your voice, being aware of your breath is such an important part of connecting and practicing self-care,” the singer says about using music in her workshops. On our video call, Jamila tells me about an exhilarating experience she had facilitating a workshop on protest music at Berlin’s Oyoun: “It was amazing how quickly everyone could sing the songs people shared in six different languages without knowing them before. In such a short period of time, people connected with one another. Through music, common values, and shared spaces, you become part of a community, even just a temporal one.”

Across the globe, music is used to mobilize and create community over a shared cause. Jamila, in your opinion, what role does music play in Palestinian resistance?

In Palestinian society, music has always been a tool of resistance. Recently, I learned of this song (“يا طالعين الجبل”) that was sung by women near a prison during the British mandate. To free their men, they had to communicate to them, when and how they will be freed. However because the British soldiers had already learned some Arabic, they could not just sing in the language. So, they put ‘lililil’ between the words to confuse the British as to what they were saying. By doing so, they were able to give directions and time to their imprisoned men. And it worked.

Later, and especially during the first Intifada, political speech was completely forbidden by the Occupation Forces. So, people put information and political content into lullabies and wedding songs. Like this, they could disguise their political speech. One of the first songs I learned in Arabic from my dear friend Ahmed Eid is such a freedom lullaby: Yumma Mweil El Hawa ياما مويل الهوى . 

Dana Salah’s interpretation of يا طالعين . 

Is music also a way for you to resist?

Yes, of course. A very concrete example of me using music as resistance was in 2021 when I was silenced on a German national radio station. They invited me to speak about Palestinian diasporic music and narratives. I was prepared by the editor and had read the questions beforehand. But without telling me, the moderator ignored all the questions about Palestine. She erased any content connected to Palestine and completely disregarded the music, that she was supposed to play in that single-release format. After that, I used music to get over this experience and made the music video for “Border Syndrome أحلام بلا حدود”. I was so angry. I thought: ‘If you try to erase my Palestinian identity, I will throw it in your face even harder. Within a very short time, supported by amazing friends and people from diverse communities (queer, Palestinian, Syrian, Russian, German), we created a powerful music video. And the song “Border Syndrome أحلام بلا حدود” itself also was a way to resist, after a racist border experience I made and that many fellow diasporic people know too well.

Another very important aspect of using my music as a way of resisting is playing live. In my concerts, I talk about the context of the songs, share information, and encourage my audience to act in solidarity with these issues. I also want to mirror what’s happening to us, Palestinians, right now. Standing on stage saying that we will not be silenced, and we will keep doing what we do, is a way of resisting. Especially now, with the situation since October, it is important to use our outreach to educate people, sharing alternative knowledge and news to the German mainstream media discourse.

Taking up space is so important because you need to see yourself represented to know that your experience is not isolated, but collective. It shows that there is a community and we’re not alone. For me, this is also an important part of resistance.

Against Repressions

Over the past few months, we have seen cultural and political institutions in the West, and especially Germany, suppress Palestinian and allied voices. Demonstrations in solidarity with Palestine have been canceled or submitted to heavy police brutality. Allegedly fighting antisemitism, the German government represses Palestinian, Arab, Jewish, and allied voices while supporting Israel’s war on Gaza with continued financial and military aid. Using a misleading idea of antisemitism, their actions deflect the very real threat and fear that Jews living in Germany experience on a daily basis. Germany criminalizes solidarity with a fight against oppression as antisemitic and accuses immigrants of so-called “imported antisemitism” without recognizing the prevailing antisemitic and racist climate post-WWII Germany continues to harbor.

As most of Berlin’s cultural institutions are dependent on state funding, their position has been an echo of German state policy on dealing with Palestine and Israel. Even before October 7th, artists critical of Israel were uninvited from events. In 2022, Berlin banned the demonstration commemorating the Nakba – the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homes by settlers in 1948. Now, the repression of Palestinian voices has reached a new high. Showing any sign of solidarity with Palestine – online or offline – can get you harassed by the German public, the police, or fired. Critics, artists, and intellectuals, Palestinian and Jewish alike, have been censored or uninvited.

You have first-hand experience working with and consulting cultural institutions in Germany. Where did the cultural institutions fail here?

Cultural institutions have the duty to portray diverse narratives, give platforms, and share power with all the different groups of society. Culture can create spaces for alternative and liberating ways of thinking and living. In that, places of culture have a lot of power, and with that power comes responsibility: to reflect on who they invite, who they let curate, and what positions they take. By disinviting people from certain communities, or policing what people can and cannot say, they are acting against the freedom of arts and speech. This is a discriminatory act. Especially when there are „uncomfortable“ positions that don’t represent the common center narratives of discourse, cultural institutions should be the first spaces to foster open and critical discussions.

Photo by Fabian Brennecke

What reaction would you have wanted from cultural institutions? 

I don’t expect everyone to be super educated about this topic but do your work if you want to engage with it. Most cultural institutions are not doing that, instead they are silencing and disinviting people. To have a real discourse, you need to invite people who have been studying these topics for years and listen to their expertise. Listen to experts and people who are affected before making your statements.

Organizers of cultural institutions and events also need to ask themselves: How can we have different perspectives and diverse knowledge respected and represented? They should share privileges and resources if not financial, they can still provide spaces, share know-how, support people to apply for their own funding, and share contacts and networks so people can flourish.

I hope the whole culture around how things are programmed and what debates are held, becomes more diverse, critical, and open. Ultimately, we need more independent spaces and happenings to charge our batteries and collectively fight for our human rights.

Bazaar Bizarre فلسطين وين انا؟ and your previous album were funded by German cultural programs. Many critical artists are afraid now, to not receive funding and gig opportunities in the future. How do you deal with the uncertainty these circumstances create for independent artists?

Indeed, I am concerned. We never had as few bookings for the new year in February. We need support to share our music and message.  I trust in our multiverse communities. There’s been a lot of, especially BiPoC, friends and acquaintances that have been organizing events and inviting us. Also, big festival curators. I hope this will continue. Funding-wise, I hope funding institutions stay morally integer and keep funding good art, freedom of speech, and diverse perspectives. If shit really hits the fan, we would need to finance our music through crowdfunding and savings. Luckily, I am not financially dependent on music because I earn money as a consultant and thus can co-finance my band project. I would not survive on gig incomes only and funding as it is. It might become more difficult in the future, I am aware of that, but I will definitely not stop making music. I won’t let this fear harm or silence me.

With all this going on in Germany right now, can you imagine staying here?

I was born in East Berlin the day the wall came down into the unified Germany. I want to celebrate my alleged freedom and rights and I want to actively shape the society here to become less racist and more inclusive. But of course, in the current climate of cancellations, silencing, disinvitations, and censorship I feel alert. A turning point for me was 2022, when Berlin forbade the Nakba demonstration. In the previous year, the Nakba demonstration was such a big and diverse act of remembering and solidarity. Then, the country that calls itself ‘the country of remembering’ bans an event of remembrance and enforces this ban with such brutality. In that moment, something started crashing in me. But I am part of such a supportive and diverse community here and we keep going to co-create an inclusive society.


How do you look at the future of Palestinian art and activism in Germany?

I am optimistic right now. I don’t want to just look at what goes bad. As an anti-racism consultant, I support cultural entities to create codes of conduct to position themselves against any forms of discrimination like antisemitism and racism. Many cultural institutions and ministries are highly committed to making a change here and that is great! An integral part of the process is including the voices of affected communities as a circle of critical friends. That is why I am content to see that after many protests, the heavily criticized IHRA definition of antisemitism as a prerequisite to all cultural funding was revoked in Berlin. It was encouraging to see that the mobilization by people from the Jewish, Palestinian, and other local and international art really had an impact. There is also more awareness now.

Photo by Pierre M. Beecroft

Already before October, we experienced growing anti-Palestinian racism and repression of Palestinian voices, but many didn’t recognize or see it. Now it’s on the surface and more people learn about it and recognize it. This for me – in the midst of the ongoing repression – is relieving, coz our pain is not invisible anymore.  People suddenly understand something that I always felt alone with. Never before, have I seen as much solidarity and support as in the last months and it is coming from members of the Global non-white Majority.

I am deeply moved by the „Not in my name“ protests by Jewish and Israeli allies all over the globe. South Africa impressed me so much when they went to the International Court of Justice, after experiencing decades-long apartheid. I am fascinated – especially as I am also educating people in my anti-racism workshops about the German colonial history and its continuities till today – that Namibia called Germany out, reminding it of its own colonial, genocidal crimes against the Nama and Herero, and by that challenging Germany’s diplomatic position.

People all over the globe see the Palestinian cause as an integral part of a global struggle for freedom, dignity, and equal human rights for everyone. We are starting to truly recognize our struggles as intersectional, and that liberation is a collective task. That gives me hope that something is changing. It also makes me want to pay more attention to struggles that I was not so involved with and see how I can use my resources to support them.

Has the Arabic title of the Album Bazaar Bizarre فلسطين وين انا؟  (Falasteen weyn ana/ Palestine, where am I?) taken on a new meaning since October?

The title is about being between the worlds. I grew up as part of the large Palestinian diaspora spilled all over the globe trying to connect to the homeland. I, and we are on a quest for home, not only the physical home that has been taken away from many Palestinians by the occupation but also the inner feeling of belonging somewhere. Since the war started in October, the title makes me sad because I don’t know if my family and friends stay safe and when I can be united with them again. But I also feel empowered and more rooted in my Palestinian-ness because I am a part of these collective struggles and supportive communities.

The title is also a question to everybody listening to our music. It is not just about where I position myself and my pain around missing the homeland, but it asks: where is everyone? Where has everyone been in the past eight decades when massive human rights violations took place in Palestine? And where do you stand now? How do you position yourself? What do you do for equal human rights?

In that context, I have also been thinking about what a Palestinian Futurism – inspired by Afrofuturism – would look like. When I look at what has been going on in the past months, I feel so lost and I think to myself: There must be a safe space for us. A hidden island under a protection shield. Another planet? Another dimension? There must be a place where we are not repressed, threatened, or killed. A place where the people who died live in peace and dignity with their beloved. When I am thinking of ‘Palestine, Where Am I’, I imagine this safer space.

I also wonder, who would I be if I weren’t so busy fighting oppression and occupation? Who would I be as a liberated Palestinian person? What would a liberated Palestinian society look like? What kind of music would I make if I was freed of having to sing about this?

Bazaar Bizarre فلسطين وين انا؟  by Jamila & The Other Heroes is out via Springstoff.