In his hit song "Tikvah," Israeli rapper Subliminal describes a Jewish state besieged by war and terrorism. "I have seen how many of them left," he raps in Hebrew. "Too many of them never came back. Friends were split up, homes were broken, families' tears were shed, budding young lives, flowers that will never bloom." The soulful beat continues, but an upbeat chorus rises to battle the despair: "Let's keep going, we have our whole lives ahead of us. It's not too late, because tomorrow's a new day. The dream will die out if we lose hope, so reach your hand out to love." Though titled "Tikvah," this is nothing like "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem that you learned in religious school.
Hebrew hip-hop has taken Israel by storm, but it's noticeably different than the American sound that gave birth to the pounding rhythms of urban life. Unlike Eminem, who uses his hit song "When I'm Gone" to lament being a celebrity, or Pink's exhortation to "get this party started," Israeli hip-hop artists confront serious issues in their songs. Their lyrics are filled with shock, anger, and despair about the fragile political and economic climate between Arabs and Israelis, and yet, they hold on to the dream that justice will prevail and life will improve.
"Rap gives the individual the ability to speak his or her mind clearly, without being tied down by the music or form," explains Danny Niv, better known as Israeli rapper Mook E, whose albums have topped the charts in Israel. "The words dictate the music, letting you say what you want to say, and much more so than in rock or pop."
Mook E is skilled at speaking his mind. In one of his popular songs, labeled a "protest song" by critics, he complains that "everyone talks about peace, no one talks about justice!" His disturbing lyrics describe pulling the trigger of a gun, and murdering land and souls.
"Some people say this song is about soldiers and the Palestinians and territories," Mook E explained when asked about his song. "None of that's true. . . . This song is about how we treat each other and how we treat the land. This is about tzedek, justice, which I see as the opposite of disrespect. It's about life, not territories."
The clash of politics and opinions in Israel manifests itself in "The Sticker Song," a popular Israeli song by rap group Hadag Nahash. All of the song's lyrics consist of Israeli bumper sticker slogans representing the countless political and religious views in Israel. The slogans range from "Draft everybody"-which criticizes a government policy that exempts the haredi (fervently Orthodox) community from army service-to "How much evil can be swallowed?" Though the latter slogan condemns force-feeding geese, it assumes a deeper meaning as the song's chorus, asking, how many opinions can we possibly handle?
"Our lives consist of all of these stickers at a very high volume every day," notes Shaanan Streett, lead rapper for Hadag Nah.ash. "It compromises our mental health as individuals. It's difficult to live like this with everybody yelling all the time about their opinions. I just wish it would be over and we could be concerned with things like education, hospitals, and road accidents."
Yet the protest music often mixes with a sense of hope, as seen in Mook E's new album, which includes a song called "We Won't Stop Dreaming." It's important, notes Mook E, to maintain that optimism.
"I try to live my life by thinking about staying positive, and doing good things," he explains. "I think that gives you the right direction."
Does he think that hip-hop music can change Israel? "It can serve as a bridge," he replies. "I don't think it can resolve the issues, but it can be another instrument to show that things could be otherwise."
Rocking the Holy Land
sraeli hip-hop isn’t the only music that’s captivated the Holy Land. Last summer, tens of thousands of fans turned out for concerts in Israel featuring American and British music stars Black Eyed Peas, 50 Cent, and Sting.
While the singers don’t speak Hebrew, their concerts reflected a unique Israeli flavor. Perfor ming in Tel Aviv, Sting shared the stage with Hasidic reggae sensation Matisyahu. And Black Eyed Peas lauded the Jewish state, even speaking about the possibility of moving to Israel.
“All we hear about you on TV is bad news. This is the first time I’m here,” Black Eyed Peas rapper Will.I.Am told cheering crowds, “and it looks to me like the most beautiful land on earth.”
Special thanks to Gabe Salgado for his help with this article