The life and times of a Palestinian punk-rocker-turned-hip-hopper in New York City
One hot summer night on the west side of Manhattan in the early 1980s, on the roof of the boisterous, four-story nightclub called Danceteria, a group of teenage friends stood in a cypher writing rhymes on a notepad. They were an irreverent crew of rascals, the children of Manhattan artists — an aspiring painter, Cey Adams; an aspiring guitarist, Adam Horovitz; and an aspiring actor, Nadia Dajani, along with their friends Dave Scilken and Adam Yauch, who had traveled all the way from Brooklyn to join — skilled in the ways of talking (or sneaking) themselves into clubs that they certainly weren’t old enough to be in. As they basked in the smoke of cigarettes and the club’s (probably illegal) barbecue grill, another crew caught Dajani’s eye from across the rooftop. She stepped away from the cypher to get a closer look. Under the light of the moon and the rooftop’s neon signage, their faces came into focus: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Madonna.
“They were at the top of their game, and they were all so famous,” Dajani says. “And I looked back at my friends and thought, ‘Well, I wanna be an actor, Cey is a graffiti artist, and Adam Horovitz and Adam Yauch wanna be musicians; I wonder if one day we’ll be them, and some young kid will be looking at us.’”
It’s a Dajani sense of ambition that runs centuries deep.
The Dajani family is one of the most storied families from Palestinian Jerusalem, originating from a village just outside of Jerusalem called Dajaniya. It’s believed that the Dajani family are direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him.) The first to carry the family name was Sheikh Ahmad bin Ali, who, according to the oral tradition, came to the village in the 16th century after leading a diverse caravan from Fez, Morocco, through Jerusalem, and on to Mecca. Sheikh Ahmad presided over a dispute between two families in the village and ruled in favor of the weaker, poorer family. After the stronger family made hostile threats toward him, he sought to leave as he felt he was no longer welcome. Despite the village leader’s best efforts to persuade him to stay, Sheikh Ahmad had made up his mind. In response, the leader requested that he carry the village name with him on his travels, so that all whom he met would associate him and his righteous ways with the village. He then became known as Sheikh Ahmad Al-Dajani.
Centuries later, in a different time and place, Sheikh Ahmad’s descendant and Nadia’s brother, Najeeb “Geeby” Dajani, would leave an enduring impact on New York City’s punk and hip-hop scenes.
By the middle of the 1960s, the Dajani siblings had all arrived on Earth. They were born to a Palestinian father and an Irish American mother — Magda, the eldest, born in America; twin brothers Najeeb and Tarek, born in Cairo; and Nadia, the youngest, also born in the States. In 1968, when the twins were seven, the siblings moved with their mother to New York City and eventually into the Westbeth Artists Housing community, located in Manhattan’s West Village. Over a century old, and originally the home of Bell Laboratories, it was reopened as an affordable housing complex for artists in 1970. Jazz legend Gil Evans lived there and entertained guests like his friend Miles Davis; Keith Haring’s first art exhibit took place at Westbeth in 1981; Vin Diesel grew up there; and seemingly all the important relationships in the Dajani siblings’ lives took root in its halls and on the surrounding streets.