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Multi-ethnic Israeli Hip-hop Band Rocks U.S. Audiences with Reality

November 18, 2004
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“I can’t believe we’re here!” Sha’anan Streett exclaimed, standing before a screaming, sold-out crowd in a large hall at George Washington University. “More importantly, I can’t believe you’re here!” Streett — lead rapper for Hadag Nahash, a popular Israeli hip-hop group — and his band-mates were making their first appearance in the United States in mid-October.

“They were floored by the energy of the concert,” recalled Simon Amiel, executive director of George Washington’s Hillel.

“We barely did any publicity for this,” he said. “Tickets sold right away, by word of mouth. Selling out close to 600 tickets by word of mouth for an Israeli event is really incredible.”

The GWU crowd included both Jews and non-Jews. Hadag Nahash continued to draw diverse audiences throughout a tour across the United States.

For Claudia Santangelo, 21, the Hadag Nahash concert wasn’t just a rocking good time — though she did dance enthusiastically throughout the group’s third U.S. performance, at a San Francisco night club. It also was a learning experience.

“I hadn’t read widely enough about the issue between Israel and Palestine,” she said. “It was important for me to come, because these guys are a voice that is pro-Israel.”

The nexus between quality hip-hop and Jewish identity, community leaders across the country agree, has two main benefits: It reaches out to Jewish students who otherwise might not be interested in Israel, and it provides a bridge-building opportunity between Jewish youth and youth of other ethnic backgrounds.

After opening for Hadag Nahash at GWU, Juan Calvin Turner, a senior at Howard University and a hip-hop artist, stuck around for the Israelis’ show.

“Hadag Nahash was really hot,” he said. “I was impressed with them. Being a Jewish band, I didn’t know what to expect.

“I was surprised. They really opened my eyes to Israeli hip hop.” Jason Benkendorf, officer for public and academic affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, one of the many co-sponsors of Hadag Nahash’s tour, said the embassy had reached out to Howard because “we thought this was an appropriate opportunity to build bridges with a traditionally black university in Washington.”

“There is not usually a lot of interaction between Jewish students” at GWU “and students at other campuses. We are looking for these opportunities,” he said.

Hadag Nahash’s tour, Benkendorf adds, also has provided “a great opportunity to reach Jewish students who are uninterested in the political side of what’s going on in Israel, or are interested but it’s come to the point that enough is enough.”

“Some of them,” he added, “are hip hop fans, which has brought together their Jewish identity with their interest in music — which they have never really perceived as being connected to their Jewish identity.”

Chris Delamadrid, 21, who saw the band in Berkeley, Calif. — where the Wheeler Auditorium’s 750 tickets sold out, leaving about 200 disappointed fans standing outside — was impressed by the band’s vibe.

“The music felt positive,” he said. “The fact that they had a live band made the music itself seem more alive, as opposed to drum machine beats or what-have-you. Also, they had smiles on their faces, seemed upbeat.”

During another sold-out show — at the Knitting Factory in New York — a long line extended down the block even after the nightclub was packed.

“I wasn’t that surprised by the turnout,” said Yossi Fein, the band’s producer, who opened the evening with an electric bass solo. “They had such a good buzz that not only Israelis came to see it.”

Numerous Israeli-Americans were in the New York audience, singing along with the band at full volume.

“The whole show was one big sing-along,” Fein said.

Almost every American show reached fever pitch, with audience members climbing on shoulders, vigorously jumping up and down during fast-paced songs and waving cigarette lighters and glowing cell phones for slower numbers.

“I didn’t realize there was this kind of pop culture in Israel, and that it would translate here so well,” Joshua Concepcion, 22, said after the show in Berkeley.

“A lot of people here are obviously into them,” he added. “If this was on a scale of 20,000 people, it would be pretty wild. These fans are really passionate, more so than I’ve seen at regular” American concerts.

The music translated well for Santangelo, who saw the San Francisco show, despite the fact that she didn’t understand one word of their lyrics.

“I could feel the power behind the words,” she explained.

“It was a great fusion of ska, reggae, hip hop and jazz, and they were all really good musicians,” she said. “Usually with a band, it helps if you have prior knowledge of the music, but this band just flowed. It was fantastic!”

Yaya Cohen Harounoff, bassist for the seven-member band, said the band’s reception had been surprising.

“It’s like that a lot of the time in Israel, but here they didn’t even know the language, yet they had such great energy,” Cohen Harounoff said.

According to Hillel’s Amiel, “This isn’t some sort of cheesy shtick band, but they take their hip hop and funk seriously.”

“If you listen to their CDs, they’re really good,” he said.

Gabriel Salgado, youth director at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, Calif., incorporated Hadag Nahash’s music into his curriculum for a similar reason.

“My goal is to teach about Israeli reality — politics, culture, society — in a way that students will connect to and feel personal identification with,” he explained. “Young Jews need to understand that Israel is theirs, and that they have a crucial stake and role in its fate. What better way than through top-quality Israeli music that articulates this reality?”

Seventh-grader Allison Blumenfeld was one of numerous children who responded as Salgado had hoped. Learning about the band, she said, was “a lot more fun because I really like music,” adding that “I think it gave me insight into Israel.”

“One of the songs says, ‘Israel is the only place where I feel safe when someone is standing outside with a gun.’ It made me realize how different Israel is from America, that there has to be a guard with a gun outside a café,” she said.

In addition to reflecting the reality of Israeli life, Hadag Nahash reflects the diversity of Israeli society.

Four band members are the sons of Jewish refugees from Morocco, Yemen, and Iran; two trace their families back 500 years in Jerusalem, where their ancestors fled after the Inquisition and expulsion of Jews from Spain; and three have at least one parent from Eastern Europe.

Beyond educating crowds, however, Hadag Nahash’s 11-city tour, initiated by the Israel Center of San Francisco, showed Americans a good time, leaving them hungry for more.

“Go Hadag Nahash!” cried Gavriel Matt, 15, a student at the Jewish Community High School in San Francisco. “I hope more Israeli hip hop is coming!”

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