Hip Hop Breaks Out in the Middle East

by Loolwa Khazzoom • August 26, 2012 • Jewish Multicultural Corner

This article was first published in The Baltimore Sun, on August 10, 2003.

TEL AVIV — “I want to tell people about the racism I experience,” says Tarik Malko, 16, who aspires to be a rap star. “It’s hard for me to talk about it, because people don’t understand. But when I sing, I say what I love, what I hate. I even curse. I get everything out of myself, everything inside me. I love this music!”

Malko and her peers from Efsharut Aheret (A Different Option), an Ethiopian-Israeli youth group from Ashdod, Israel, were among the 700 concertgoers at the recent third annual Hip Hop in the Park in Tel Aviv, sponsored by Yaga Production House, a studio promoting up and coming Israeli hip-hop artists.

“Through hip-hop, we look at black people in America succeeding,” Malko continues, “and we know that we can succeed, too.” Ethiopian-Israeli rappers Bar and Jeremy assert that scores of community youth are drawn to hip-hop for this very reason.

Like their Ethiopian-Israeli peers, Arab-Israeli rappers such as MWR (Mahmoud, Waseem and Richard), Dam, and Tammer use hip-hop as a medium for discussing their struggles with discrimination and poverty, as well as the drug and crime problems arising from these struggles.

Arapiot (a hybrid Hebrew word for Arab female rappers), apparently the only Arab female rappers in the world, additionally sing about their struggles as young women in the Arab community: “We have families that don’t give us our freedom to determine our fate, to get an education, to go out with friends, to choose whom we will marry,” says Arapiot’s Safa. “In our songs we demand our freedom.”

Shiri and Shorti, Israel’s first female rappers — together a mix of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern / North African Jewish), Sephardi (Spanish-Portuguese / Latin Jewish) and Ashkenazi (Central / Eastern European Jewish) backgrounds — focus mostly on gender issues.

“I give my point of view as a 20-year-old girl in Israel, with her own problems,” says Shorti.

Most men in Israeli hip-hop, she says, focus on general issues, such as politics and economics. “I’m talking about subjects I haven’t heard here yet. I’m taking it in your face, really personal, really out there.” Shorti’s first single is about her experience having sex with another girl — not yet a subject of mainstream Israeli music.

The messages of Israeli hip-hop are “very individual,” explains Chemi, a member of the now-defunct band Shabak Sameh, which pioneered hip-hop in Israel 10 years ago. “Hip-hop is a tool. Everyone uses it to say what he or she wants.”

Chemi’s new group, Haloutsei Halal (Space Pioneers), frequently works with Arab-Israeli rap artists in concerts and on recordings, promoting messages of tolerance. As the words of a recent single in Hebrew and Arabic state: “Look into my eyes. We both have the same blood. In the end, they will bury us both the same way. Come, let’s be neighbors and not enemies. Because there is nothing more important than life.”

In addition to the messages of hip-hop being diverse, hip-hop cultural norms — such as clothing and body language — also vary from artist to artist. “Look at me, I’m dressed in a dress,” says rap and soul artist Me2qa, who performed at Hip Hop in the Park. “I’m not trying to look like ‘Yo, yo, whassup?’ I’m being myself.”

Subliminal, Israel’s leading hip-hop group, strictly adheres to the bandanna, baseball cap, sports jersey, and baggy pants get-up associated with mainstream rap in America. But whereas the Subliminal artists may look as if they jumped straight off the set of MTV, their message is unique:

“Are you wearing a Star of David proudly on your chest?” Subliminal bellows into the mike at the opening of a concert, as thousands shoot their hands skyward, screaming enthusiastically.

“Once it was a shame to walk around with a Star of David,” says MC Hatsel, who like the other artists in the group comes from an Iranian-Jewish family. “Jews have been ashamed of our symbol because of what we learned from generations of oppression. We, however, are not ashamed. In our CD, everyone gets a Star of David as a gift.”

Whatever their message and style, young Israeli women and men of all ethnicities are finding a venue for self-expression in hip-hop.

“It’s how the new generation communicates,” asserts MC Remedy, who flew from New York to Israel for a tour in the early summer months.

“I think Israelis like rap music because a mike is a very powerful tool to say things,” adds Momi Levi, who is the producer for some of Israel’s biggest hip-hop artists. “And here in Israel, we have a lot of things to say.”

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Loolwa KhazzoomLoolwa Khazzoom has worked with leading media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. In addition, she has published two books and has lectured at prestigious venues including Barnard Center for Research on Women, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Harvard University. Loolwa is passionate about health, music, dance, multiculturalism, and Judaism.

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