Making a Scene: Multi-Ethnic Hip Hop Rocks Israel

by Loolwa Khazzoom • August 8, 2012 • Jewish Multicultural Corner

This article was first published in Pacific News Service/New California Media, Aug 27, 2003.

Editor’s Note: A vibrant hip hop scene in Israel reflects the country’s diversity — and its tensions.

TEL AVIV, Israel–Jews and Arabs are getting along peacefully in Israel. At least, that is, on the stages of hip hop concerts throughout the country, where male and female rappers of all ethnicities come to strut their stuff.

But the struggle for justice — within Israel and the greater region — is still foremost in many rapper’s minds.

“Think with your head, girl, not with your heart / You should have left from the beginning / The first time he laid his dirty hands on you / The first time he raped you and called his friends / The first time he hit you and said it’s out of love.”

Shiri, Israel’s first female rapper, addresses gender issues in her music and in her day-to-day life as a young woman hip hop artist. “People tried to stop me,” she says of her entrance into the scene four years ago.

“They don’t like the fact that we have power / They always ask who you slept with to get the job,” belts out Shorti, who began rapping just a few months after Shiri. “When I first took a mic,” she says, “people looked at me like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’”

Safa and Nahwa entered the scene three years after Shiri and Shorti, and are billed as the only female Arab rappers in the world. The two young Arab-Israeli women of the group Arapiot (a hybrid Hebrew hybrid word for “Arab female rappers”) find their uniqueness to be a boost: Hip Hop party organizers “invite us a lot,” Safa says, “specifically because we are women, the only female group” in the Arab community. “This is our edge.”

The group got exposure through established Arab-Israeli artists MWR (Mahmoud, Waseem, and Richard), Dam, and Tammer, who among other things address the frustration of being hated by everyone: “Who will I go to, who will I talk to? / About the anger that has been suppressed inside of me for years… / If I go here or go there, I always lose both ways.”

“As Israeli Arabs, we get it from all sides,” Mahmoud from MWR explains. “To Arabs outside Israel, we’re traitors. To Israeli Jews, we’re dangerous Arabs. We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

In Israel’s vibrant rap scene, Ethiopian-Israeli artists address struggles of Jew-on-Jew racism. Rapper JC sings: “You judge me by my color, call me nigger / Believe me, the same Jewish blood flows through your body as flows through mine / Because I’m Black you scorn me, think you’re superior / Instead of focusing on what’s going on around you, you focus on me.”

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

Adding to the diversity of themes addressed in Israeli hip hop, the group Subliminal cranks out songs encouraging Israeli youth to be proud of their Jewish identity, heritage and nation. “We talk about building unity among the People of Israel,” shares Hatsel, one of the rappers in the group, “about mending the rift between the Left and Right, which are currently fighting each other.” The group offers a Star of David necklace in every album they sell.

Most Israeli hip hop blends the standard beat-box sound with musical motifs from different ethnic backgrounds. Shi, the son of Jewish refugees from Morocco, incorporates his Mizrahi (Middle Eastern/North African Jewish) heritage into his music: “I bring my Mizrahi identity through the beats, the sounds, the rhymes, the accent,” he explains. “When I rhyme in French, you can hear a Moroccan accent. I even weave Moroccan words in and out.”

“I can’t say there is something that unites all hip hop artists,” says Chemi, a tall, thin rapper in his 20s and one of the founders of hip hop in Israel.

Chemi sees hip hop as a tool for conveying more personal messages. “I’m just happy that there is something new happening now. Lately, almost all hip hop artists have succeeded and are accepted. Hip hop has become part of mainstream culture in Israel.”

Oded Giladi, 26, is one of 700 concert-goers at the recent, third annual Hip Hop in the Park. Taking in the crowd of excited youth, many wearing baseball caps, baggy pants and bandanas, he concludes, “There is definitely a scene here.”

PNS contributor Loolwa Khazzoom (loolwa@loolwa.com) is a freelance writer and editor of “The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage” (Seal Press, Winter 2003). Lyrics are translated from Hebrew.




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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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