The Arts

Hip-Hop Speaks to the Reality of Israel

People call it “glocalization,” the rising appearance of artistic hybrids that blend the global and the local. Globalization is not something one-sided, the spreading of a homogenizing Western culture: There is a constant synthesis blending global and local elements. In recent decades, hip-hop has pushed this process everywhere. In Israel, you will find hip-hop groups that follow American patterns. But their language, lyrics, and musical idiosyncrasies are determined by the political and cultural situation in this land.

A hip-hop scene has been developing in Israel since the mid-1990s, and it is becoming commercially and artistically stronger and stronger. Like no other aspect of youth culture before, this music—the most verbose in the country’s pop-culture history—speaks about Israel’s reality and its problems: The economic crisis, rising poverty, criminality, and, not least, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict all come up in its lyrics.

Like everywhere else, in the beginning there were groups that simply copied American hip-hop—but then there was a shift to specifically Israeli hip-hop. The decisive step for this—just like elsewhere around the world—was the use of the mother tongue.

Leron Teeni is the disc jockey for “The Bizz,” the hip-hop show broadcast on the Israeli army radio station. “In the beginning,” he says, “the kids rapped in English. They came on our show and wanted to grab the mike. But we said: ‘No, no way, rap in Hebrew.’  There are about 100,000 American groups that can do it better in English. We want to listen to rap in our own language.”

This man in his mid-30s is the founding father of the Israeli hip-hop scene. He witnessed the rise of the movement from the first legendary attempts to its status as one of the most important genres in the Israeli music market. Teeni calls himself a socialist, and cites the importance of hip-hop in giving a voice to the disadvantaged—a group that is rapidly increasing in Israel.

This socially critical stance is something Teeni shares with his friend Shaanan Street, the master of ceremonies of Hadag Nachash, one of Israel’s best-known hip-hop groups. Street looks more like a hippie than a hip-hopper: a ponytail, sandals, and shorts, rather than sneakers, baggy pants, and a baseball cap. With its song “Numbers,” Hadag Nachash made a surprise hit this spring, one that touched a nerve with the Israeli public.

In it, Street raps: “One is the number of countries from the Jordan to the sea/Two—the number of countries that one day there will be/Three years and four months is the time I must spend in the army/Five shekels buys a bus ticket/I was 6 years old when Sadat came to Israel, 7 when he signed the treaty /Eight is the number of a soccer player I always liked/Nine times was I too close to a terror attack, at least as of now /There are 10 words for Super, the favorite answer to how you doing?”

This is how Hadag Nachash approaches social and political issues; there is no doubt about the group’s leftist sympathies. Street is also behind the recent Remember Ben album. It commemorates the well-known hip-hop DJ, Benny the B, who fell victim to a terrorist attack in the summer of 2002.

The first Israeli hip-hop group was Shabak Samech, which came out with its first album in 1995. The six teen-agers from the provincial town of Yavne did not bill themselves as hip-hop artists, but as rockers who rapped. Even so, they were most responsible for the development of hip-hop in Israel. Rapping in Hebrew, until then, was virtually unknown.

But Shabak Samech achieved platinum status with its second album and thus opened the door to a larger audience. Since then, Shabak Samech has ceased to appear together and its members are pursuing their own individual interests. The most successful of them is the rapper Mook E, who produced the album Shma Israel (Hear, Israel). With his curly locks and an effervescent, enthusiastic manner, he has a dervish-like style. This unique aura and his reggae-influenced singsong fascinate the masses.

Mook E’s mission is love, peace, and fellowship—and this captures the yearnings of many Israelis. Many of the lyrics from his recent CD were interpreted by his audience as political statements. But Mook E plays this down. “In one song I sing, ‘Everyone talks about peace, but no one of justice’—for me, that is more a humanitarian statement than something political. But in Israel you can’t say ‘peace’ without the word having a political meaning.”

The question of war and peace is the omnipresent issue of Israeli political life. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects the discourse of hip-hop as well. Even though the lyrics of the rap groups are overwhelmingly devoted to everyday themes—to issues of identity, to parties and girls—for the public, hip-hop is above all a setting for political controversies.

The MC who has most become a media icon is Subliminal. “The country is vacillating like a cigar in Arafat’s mouth” or “I’ll wear the Star of David until my dying day” are lyrics from Subliminal’s album, The Light and the Shadow. Its cover shows a hand covered with mud grasping a Star of David. With such symbolism, Subliminal has captured Israel’s zeitgeist—nationalism is now in vogue among young Israelis, and last season, the Star of David became an omnipresent fashion accessory.

Just how effective this playing with political symbolism can be in the Israeli hip-hop scene was apparent last August during Hip-Hop in the Park, a festival held in Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park. The audience, overwhelmingly teenagers, enthusiastically cheered the performers, both newcomers and old stars. But when Arab rapper Tamer Nafar came on stage, Leron Teeni, the MC, had to interrupt things for a moment. One spectator cried out “Death to Arabs!” and Teeni took time out to publicly scold the man. At Subliminal concerts, this slogan is shouted out, time after time, by thousands.

Tamer Nafar is Subliminal’s political opposite number. He comes from Lod, a small city outside Tel Aviv. When you take the bus there from Tel Aviv, it looks at first like a pleasant middle-class place. But the neighborhood where Nafar lives is run-down. “Lod has the most violence and drug crime of any community in Israel,” says Nafar. “In the past five or six years, we have had more than 70 killings of young Arab men, most of them under 25. These were my classmates, neighbors, friends, relatives, people on my soccer team. This is a small community, and everyone knows everybody else.” Nafar has studied criminology. His lyrics about the ghettoization of life and gangs, with their rage, are based on profound knowledge.

From many points of view, for Arab rappers, hip-hop has the same meaning it originally did for African-Americans in the United States: an opportunity to express their rage and frustration over the discrimination, violence, and misery of their everyday lives. The feeling of being “a stranger in your own country” is borrowed from Tupac, an American rapper who is known around the world, and especially among rappers from immigrant backgrounds.

“Tupac, when he said, ‘It’s a white man’s world,’ spoke to me, because I live as an Arab in a Jewish world,” says Nafar. “Tupac said, ‘It’s the white man I should fear, but it’s my own kind doing all the killing here.’ I see the same thing here.”

Anger over Arabs’ second-class status is also the driving force behind MWR, an Arab band from Akko in northern Israel. Even its somber rhythms, tinged with a cold electronic feeling, speak of disillusionment and estrangement. “At work they fire you and say: ‘You are not qualified.’  ‘Why not?’ ‘Because you’re an Arab,’ ” was one line from their first hit, “Because You’re an Arab.” Richard Shaby, the group’s producer, sees his hometown the way Nafar sees Lod: a life of drugs, crime, discrimination, and violence.

The Arab section of Akko gets its drugs via sea from Lebanon, and the rumor explaining why the Israeli authorities accept the trafficking is widely accepted here: They want the Arabs to sink into addiction and not transform their frustration into violence directed at Jews. As for an Arab-Israeli conflict within the hip-hop world, however, Shaby hears mutual respect voiced by almost everyone in the scene—there is no Middle East conflict in hip-hop. The only one who rejects MWR, and who has sought his niche as a right-wing idol, is Subliminal.

The year 2003 finds the hip-hop scene in Israel in great shape. It is big, multifaceted, and attractive—a success story in a country that is not prospering. New bands are always emerging from the underground scene, which has grown to where it can no longer be overlooked. They are not just rapping about politics and suffering, they are coming out with puns and humor and just showing off.

Hip-hop offers the disadvantaged everywhere a chance to talk about their lives, to present their version of history. This is true for hip-hop in Israel, too, says Teeni: “I see the future in every poor neighborhood. The future will come from Ethiopian kids, who have just gotten enough to eat, and from Russian immigrants and the foreign workers from all over the world. And when they come out and rap in order to tell what they know, the way they know it, hip-hop will get even better and be more real than it is now.”