Rap for the Frats

A bunch of sleepy looking young people stand around in front of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity house, wearing Lacoste shirts and munching on hamburgers.

A bunch of sleepy looking young people stand around in front of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity house, wearing Lacoste shirts and munching on hamburgers. Jewish students at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. live, drink and hang out together here, in keeping with the finest traditions of the members of American fraternities. Mingling in the group, however, are seven tanned, thin, jet lagged, long-haired men. They are Israel's Hadag Nahash, the creators of Zionist hip-hop.

The Sunday afternoon barbecue at the fraternity is one of the band's first stops on its American tour, which will include a dozen concerts (eleven in the U.S. and one in Toronto). Now, a few hours before their first concert, which is going to be held on the college campus, they are leaning against the railing of the front steps, making faces at the camera of Roi Florentine, who is documenting them.

Notwithstanding the image the band has gained of late following the discovery in Israel of soft drugs in their car, the cartons of beer left scattered around the area are quite full. They don't mix into their surroundings at all. They are plainly out of place, and they can sense it. Some of the band members have never been to America, and have certainly never been inside a college frat house. "They look a little nerdy to me," comments bassist Yaya Cohen Harounoff, referring to his hosts.

Nearly every attribute of the concert planned for that evening is disengaged from the world of the Jerusalem-based groove machine. The event is supported and partly sponsored by the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry, in other words the government of Israel, whose corruption and media ostentation are the subject of acrimonious attack in the band's songs. The concert was held at the university's conference center, which is usually rented by corporations to launch new lines of cosmetics or celebrate business mergers. When Greg Dubin, head of the Student Alliance for Israel at George Washington, approached the band members after a concert in Haifa and invited them to play, in his mind's eye he saw them performing at this hall in front of a full audience. His vision has come true - all 500 tickets were sold.

The moment Hadag Nahash gets on stage for the sound checks, they take control of the auditorium. Passersby crowd the doors and move to the sounds of the band's celebrated "Sticker Song." The song "Vacation," which was written in English especially for this tour, evinces vigorous nods from the crowd. "I'm on vacation, no responsibility, no limits," sings Sha'anan Streett with his oversize sideburns, but basically he and his colleagues are looking at some long weeks of hard work. Following the rehearsal, they are taken from the hall, this time to Hillel House, the home base of the Jewish student association. The surrounding commotion seems not to bother them.

Language barriers

While gently avoiding conversation with Jewish American Princess groupies, who one doubts have any prior knowledge of the band, they talk about their shock at the death of Uzi Hitman, whose song, "Ratziti Shetaida" (I Wanted You to Know) they recently reworked for a song of their own, and they express sadness at not having been able to take along on their tour the rappers Johnny Hakatan (Little Johnny) and MC Shiri, who record and perform with them in Israel.

Aren't they afraid of trying to sell hip-hop to Americans? Sha'anan Streett, who is pleased with early ticket sales, says in response, "I have no doubt that there is more hip-hop here, and that the hip-hop is more varied. Of course there are more rappers in the U.S. than there are Israeli citizens. But the crowd wants to hear, and that's what's important."

Language is another potential obstacle, and the material - like the title of their last album, "Mikomi" (My Place), is not necessarily intended for this audience. "I hope that we are doing something Israeli that is also universal, and not something that is pseudo-American. That we're doing something that stands on its own. There is no doubt that they won't get the texts, but Hadag Nahash is more than texts. It's the whole atmosphere, the whole package. They will definitely get some of it."

One last concern remains and it is that the foreign ministry and Hillel, which provides support to Jewish college students in the U.S., are liable to suddenly realize that the band is opinionated, political and anti-establishment. If they also discern that the band sings in one song: "Money on the side not for the lotto, a bag of good mood is obligatory, that's the motto," they could decide to rescind their sponsorship from the entire concert tour.

Aviva Raz Schechter, who is the counselor for public and academic affairs at the Israeli embassy in Washington, rebuffs any such concerns. She and members of her staff are aware of some of the dubious messages of Hadag Nahash's lyrics. The purpose of the subsidy, she says, is to present Americans with the bouncy, contemporary Israel that exists beyond the conflict, and present it as is. "I think that every country that wants to showcase itself brings in artists, authors and poets. Sure, there are things that we do not see as public relations slogans, but the intention is not to be so caught up by the minutiae of the lyrics, but to create an atmosphere of peace. Pay attention to the big, bottom-line message - that we need peace like we need air to breathe."

Wowing the locals

Before the first concert, members of the band were expecting a pretty homogenous audience. "I figure they would bring in American Jews and Israelis," says Sha'anan Streett. While he does not seem displeased, when the band goes to Boston, New York and San Francisco, they will play at clubs, where they are also hoping to perform for fans of alternative hip-hop, the sort of people who would also go to see French hip-hop or something like that. Streett seems interested in such an encounter, which might provide the band with a good idea of its standing among the nations.

The audience of several hundred waiting to take their seats in the auditorium this evening includes a few wearing skullcaps, as if it were a conference of Bnei Akiva counselors. A few Israelophilic concertgoers are wearing T-shirts adorned with IDF or Gold Star logos, and even one declaring, "Hebron, always and forever," but the sartorial cliches all disappear when the lights go down in the hall, in which everyone begins to sway to the sounds of the warm-up performance by a local black rapper named Shaq-C.

Hadag Nahash comes out on stage, and after only one song, "Halifot" (Suits), the objective journalistic walls of this reporter come down. Flute and saxophone, trombone and turntable, physical humor and energy join together to perform the impossible, and conquer Washington long before Kerry or Bush. Shaq-C himself stands in the crowd dumbfounded, wearing a gray kerchief and thick hip-hop necklace. "I don't understand what they are singing," he says, "but this mix is simply the greatest thing I've ever heard."

The calls to the audience by band members evidences a slight lack of confidence. "Did you understand anything of what I sang?" asked DJ Guy Mar And Sha'anan Streett: "It's hard for me to believe that we're here. It's even harder for me to believe that you're here, and harder still to believe that there are so many of you."

The next day, at Rutgers University in New Jersey, they are already feeling more at home. This time around, the surrounding atmosphere is more buttun-down. Hanukkiyot are on sale in the hall next door to the concert hall, Zionist literature is being handed out, and Arvit evening prayers are in progress. The band is ecstatic. "Toda, toda," Streett says in Hebrew. He explains to the crowd who David Grossman and Uzi Hitman are, and even admits from the stage how happy he is.