Rap Riffs to Heal the Rifts

Last week witnessed a collection of young rappers, some of whom came bare-headed and others whose ritual fringes dangled rhythmically from under their shirts, who went on stage to rhyme in a variety of Hebrew, English, French and Russian.

It's late on a Thursday night in downtown Jerusalem and a man with sidelocks and a scruffy beard is rapping in quick and rhythmic French. Hardly anyone in the crowd of this small and smoky club can understand what he is actually saying, but that doesn't seem to bother them, or him for that matter.

"Today, we have Jewish hip hop," the Hasidic-looking rapper, who goes by the on-stage name Shmoopie Fly, yells in accented English. He's trying to get the crowd in this small club riled up and with the shouts and applause that respond, he's clearly succeeding.

Part of the Corner Prophets - or Nevi'im B'Pinah as it's known in Hebrew - project, these monthly rap gatherings in the downtown Jerusalem club Daila are some of the most recent additions to the city's music scene. An estimated 350 people flocked last week to the crowded club, and while only a small number vied for time onstage, the monthly events, which take place on the last Thursday of every month, seem to be filling a cultural void in the capital.

"Jerusalem is rich in religious culture, but the level of artistic culture is somewhat lacking, especially for youth," says Corner Prophets founder Dan Sieradski, a 25-year-old from New York. "On a Thursday night, I know that I can grab 350 people because where else will they go? A bar? A cafe? Here, they can come and interact with people artistically in an open forum."

Lofty goal

Corner Prophets, which was launched earlier this year, is aimed at creating a comfortable space for teens and young adults from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, in attempt to create artistic dialogue and promote coexistence. It's a place, Sieradski says, for people on all sides of the political divide to hear and be open to hearing others.

"Israel is a somewhat fractured society and my hope is to unite people through hip hop music," he says. "Hip hop is increasingly popular here and this is the first generation in Israel of kids growing up listening to hip hop as an integral part of their music diet. It's the perfect time to tap into it and use music as a way of repairing those fractures."

The goal is somewhat lofty, considering that the events take place in west Jerusalem and attract an almost exclusively Jewish crowd. Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar appeared at the debut performance last month, but he was too busy for last week's event and says he's not sure how active he'll be in the coming months either. "Music brings people together, but to say that it makes people closer is a bit cliche," he said. "At the end of the night, the Arabs go back to their destroyed homes and the Jews go back to their uniforms. Music doesn't actually bring peace."

But Sieradski says he's happy just bringing Israeli Jews together. And he says that music can potentially repair the various religious and ethnic tensions that often plague the capital in the western, Jewish, part of the city.

And indeed, last week witnessed a collection of young rappers, some of whom came bare-headed and others whose ritual fringes dangled rhythmically from under their shirts, who went on stage to rhyme in a variety of Hebrew, English, French and Russian.

"The religious and secular people in this city are at each other's throats and though we absolutely want to reach out to Arab populations, this is about repairing rifts in Jewish society as well," he said.

Orthodox anarchist

Corner Prophets was modeled in the shape of the Unity Sessions, a festival that took place last summer in Brooklyn and drew a variety of Jewish, Muslim, Israeli and Arab performers. The unity sessions were lauded for the range of musicians it was able to attract. They were sponsored by JDub records, a Jewish record label.

The idea evolved further when Sieradski arrived in Jerusalem last year as a yeshiva student in the Dorot fellowship program and noticed that local teens would get together for freestyle cipher events, as they are known, in Zion Square.

"I thought, wow, this is amazing, why not put this on stage and bring in the rest of the community," he says.Together with Jerusalem rapper Sagol 59, he then contacted the heads of the Daila club, which is run by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and promoted the event.

The rappers rhyme about anything from anti-Zionism to their love of Torah and Jerusalem. Sieradski, who considers himself an Orthodox anarchist, raps about peace and Talmud; Tamer Nafar raps about racism and political injustice and David Levy, a black rapper from London used his time on stage to warn on the impending arrival of the messiah. "It's nice to have an event here that I can relate to as black and Jewish," he later explained.

Corner Prophets is currently looking for funding and though Sieradski says he's considering immigrating here.