Israeli Rappers Prove Hip Hop Will Translate into Any Language

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

This article was first published in The Boston Globe on January 4, 2004.

TEL AVIV — At 3 a.m. on a Thursday night, the Soweto club is packed wall to wall, as DJ Jeremy spins the latest in hip-hop, reggae, R&B, and soul music. A slender young man with chin-length dreadlocks, the DJ is also known as MC Jeremy Cool Habash — the leading Ethiopian-Israeli rapper, regularly featured on television and radio programs throughout the nation.

Though he sports classic rapper attire — baggy blue jeans with oversize pockets; a blue, white, and red jersey; and a heavy gold-plated chain with JCH on the pendant — Habash exudes little of the gangster persona associated with mainstream hip-hop in the United States.

To the contrary, his kind eyes, soft-spoken manner, and gentle energy reflect his rootedness in traditional Ethiopian Jewish heritage.

A graduate of yeshiva — an Orthodox Jewish religious school system — Habash steers clear of mainstream rap topics as well, preferring to sing about his love for Judaism, his concern about youth getting lost in alcohol and drugs, and his anguish about the treatment of Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

Ethiopian youth in Israel are listening to his messages. “I’m a star in the Ethiopian community,” Habash says matter-of-factly of his success, which has led to performances in France, Canada, England, and Ethiopia, as well as throughout Israel.

Yet Habash is adamant about using his achievements as a tool for motivating others, specifically Ethiopian youth at community centers throughout the country.

“I have taught 300 Ethiopian kids throughout Israel,” he says proudly, “I have taught them what is hip-hop, how to write a song.” His ultimate dream is to create a recording studio for Ethiopian youth, supplying all the funding and equipment for their musical projects.

In Ashdod, a southern town boasting one of the largest concentrations of Ethiopian-Israelis, Efsharut Aheret (A Different Option) is one of the many youth groups benefiting from Habash’s attention. Like numerous programs of its kind, it offers creative arts activities as a solution to the drugs, crime, and school dropout rates plaguing teens in the Ethiopian community.

Though hip-hop has special meaning to Ethiopian youth, it is popular across ethnic lines and among all age groups in Israel. This was not the case a decade ago, when the now-defunct band Shabak Sameh came out with the first Israeli hip-hop album. At the time, Israeli DJs insisted the genre would never go over well with their audiences.

“They said you just can’t rap in Hebrew; it doesn’t sound good,” recalls Chemi Arzi, one of the band’s rappers, who has since gone on to found his own hip-hop group, Halutzei Halal (Space Pioneers).

In the spirit of their hit song “Nofel Vekam” (Fall and Get Up), Shabak Sameh just kept on keeping on, until their new style of music swept the nation. Today, Israeli hip-hop can be heard in Hebrew, Arabic, English, and French — depending on the group, the song, or even the sentence.

Canadian-Israeli rapper SHI (Supreme Hebrew Intellect), the son of Jewish refugees from Morocco, raps in all four languages. His style of hip-hop, he explains, fuses together all the aspects of his identity — “through the beats, the sounds, the rhymes, the accent.”

American-Israeli rapper Elan Babylon also expresses the facets of his identity through hip-hop: “Any Moroccans from the ‘hood here tonight?” Babylon belts into the microphone, strutting onstage to perform. Standing squarely in front of an Israeli flag hanging from his disk jockey equipment, he is known for shouting, “Raise your hands and make some noise, Moroccans!”

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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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