Arts & Culture Israelis Using Hip-hop Music to Express Their Cultural Identities

“Any Moroccans from the ‘hood here tonight?” Ilan Babylon belts into the microphone, strutting onstage.

Standing squarely in front of an Israeli flag hanging from his disk jockey equipment, he shouts, “Raise your hands and make some noise, Moroccans!”

Close to half the crowd hollers enthusiastically, and a sea of hands shoots skyward.

Welcome to hip-hop, Beersheba style.

“We brought a new rhythm and style of music to Israel,” says Chemi, a former rapper for the now-defunct band Shabak Sameh, the first Israeli group to perform and record hip-hop. “It took us 10 years, and only now is it entering the mainstream.”

Today there are Israeli hip-hop artists from all sectors of Israeli society — Ethiopian, Arab, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, or Eastern — with each band sharing its own lyrical message and blending its own signature musical style.

“The messages of hip-hop are very individual,” Chemi says.

Some believe hip-hop has gone bad in the Jewish state.

“Because hip-hop comes from the States, it got a bit lost in Israel,” says Sivan, who was one of 250 people at a Remedy/Killah Priest show in Beersheba three weeks ago.

Israeli hip-hop artists, she says, “are trying to do black music, and they lost a bit of the message.”

Chemi disagrees.

“Hip-hop is a tool,” he says. “Everyone uses it to say what they want. The subjects that we choose are things that we are close to. I don’t live in New York. I grew up in Yavneh. I live in Tel Aviv.”

The experiences of Israeli youth, he continues, are different than those of African Americans.

“My father is from Iraq, my mother is from Romania,” Chemi says. “It’s a totally different history and reality.”

Jeremy, an Ethiopian rapper, fuses traditional Ethiopian music and hip-hop.

“Ethiopian youth are attracted to hip-hop as the new expression of our identity,” he says, explaining that it is only natural to turn to African-American culture for cultural cues.

“We dreamed of Israel, reuniting with our Jewish brothers and sisters, but the dream was broken when we got here,” he says. “We got hit in the face. These were not the brothers and sisters we expected.”

Many Ethiopian hip-hop artists address feelings of betrayal and alienation in their songs.

“What happened in the 1960s in New York is happening now in Israel,” Jeremy says, citing racism and poverty.

Seeing “black people succeeding” in hip-hop, he says, “encourages and strengthens us, helps us deal with issues facing Ethiopians in Israel.”

An Israeli-born Canadian, Shi — both his name and an acronym for his rap handle, Supreme Hebrew Intellect — got into hip-hop through his Haitian friends in Montreal.

“I took what I felt they were talking about: a lot of positive messages, a lot of conscious hip-hop, political stuff. I took that and told my side,” he says.

He connected to hip-hop, he says, the same way he connected to Mizrahi music.

“It’s a symbol of the people; it’s the music of the street,” he says.

Now living again in Israel, Shi incorporates his Moroccan heritage into his music.

“I bring my Mizrahi identity through the beats, the sounds, the rhymes, the accent,” he says. “When I rhyme in French, you can hear a Moroccan accent. I even weave Moroccan words in and out.”

Tammer, an Israeli Arab rapper, also draws on Middle Eastern musical motifs.

As with hip-hop in America, however, ethnic identity is just one of the issues to croon about.

“The idea is to develop your own language,” says Sha’anan, a rapper from Hadag Nahash, a popular Israeli band with several hits.

His band sings about racism, violence against women and the economic situation in Israel.

“I write about being a woman in society,” says Shiri, Israel’s first female rapper.

“There were people who supported me,” she says of her entrance into hip-hop, “but there was a lot of discrimination because I was a woman in the hip-hop community. People tried to stop me.”

Sha’anan says male dominance of Israeli hip-hop may be an outgrowth of general male dominance in Israeli society.

“There are less women CEOs, less women in Knesset, and so on. It’s hard for women here,” he says.

American hip-hop artist Remedy, an Ashkenazi Jew, headlined at a Beersheba concert to perform his hit song “Never Again.”

He says the song, which has sold more than a million copies worldwide, was inspired by the plight of family members who were deported to Nazi concentration camps, never to be seen again.

Given the threat of terrorism, Israelis appreciated his decision to perform here, Remedy said.

“A lot of people came up to us, said how grateful they were that we came now,” he recalls.

“We came to spread hip-hop from New York to Israel,” he says. “It’s how the new generation communicates.”

Hip-hop, he notes approvingly, “is getting big in Israel now.”

Israeli rapper and producer Shulu, who has created several hip-hop compilation CDs, explains that hip-hop is popular in Israel because it provides an opportunity for people to say what they think.

“Israelis like to talk; Jews like to talk,” he says with a laugh. “It works.”

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