Israeli Hip-hop: All Flow, No Edge?

A new book about Israeli hip-hop finds that it uses the genre’s form while ignoring its substance.

Nirit Ben Ari
Nirit Ben-Ari
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Nirit Ben Ari
Nirit Ben-Ari

For a moment in 1993, right after the signing of the Oslo Accords, it seemed it was allowed to be young in Israel. Though teenagers were still drafted at 18, the years after that famous handshake between former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat changed youth culture in Israel.

Alongside trance parties, the Boombamela alternative culture festival every Passover, and trips to India, the Israeli hip-hop scene was born. Kids reinvented themselves as rappers and learned to say “flow” and “battle” in Hebrew. They transformed the slang and four-letter words popular in rap into their Hebrew equivalents.

At first, attempts to craft rap in Hebrew seemed forced and artificial. But the rappers’ determination – and that of the radio DJs who believed in them – was contagious. In the end, lines from rappers such as Shabak Samech such as “Yes, all the girls, yes, they know how to faint, they all want the banana from the guy who bends them” [a nod to the 1968 Israeli classic “The Banana Bender,” lyrics by Meir Ariel, music by Shalom Hanoch] came naturally into Hebrew and found a permanent place in Israeli music.

The outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 ended the party, but rap remained. The soundtrack to the beginning of the genre’s second decade belonged to Subliminal and The Shadow (Kobi Shimoni and Yoav Eliasi), a duo of angry rappers who took black American culture and injected new meaning that was right-wing, nationalist and pro-establishment into it.

This intrigued academics, including myself, who pounced on this new anthropological field. Since then, rap as rad fad in Israel has ebbed, but the book “Real Time: Hip-Hop in Israel/Israeli Hip-Hop,” which is based on Uri Dorchin’s doctoral thesis, sheds light on a scene that is now part of Israeli history.

Dorchin’s contribution to research on Israeli culture is the complex way that he addresses the connection between hip-hop culture in its Israeli incarnation and “blackness” – the black body and black culture. Particularly these days, when a fear of Africans determines the current political agenda, how Israelis perceive blacks bears investigation.

How Israeli rappers perceive "black"

The starting point of “Real Time” is the assertion that there is a connection between the physical body and artistic text, and that the body itself – the black body, hip-hop culture in this case – serves as a social, cultural and political text. Dorchin probes the world of Israeli rappers and the way they imagine black music and hip-hop, particularly the significance of being black.

Using interviews with young Israeli rappers – most of whom came from well-off families that were not neglected by the state – and the rappers’ public statements and lyrics, Dorchin describes how they imitated black rappers with admiration and even envy, but without perceiving the world from a black perspective. Israeli rappers maintain their Jewish and Israeli identity within a stereotypical understanding of American ghettos’ black culture.

By insisting on a connection between music and ethnicity, “Real Time” analyzes musical creations without removing them from political reality or from a perspective of “pure art.” He does not deny the problems that are liable to arise in Israeli hip-hop, such as cultural theft and cultural exploitation, in which white people take black culture, adapt it for their own use or even ridicule it.

But Dorchin does avoid self-righteousness by expressing skepticism about whether “real” rappers must be black or from the ghetto. After all, doesn’t such a requirement contain hidden racism? For example, why do we expect all rappers to be black but do not expect all ballet dancers to be French? Is European art a “pure” art form that is above politics, while all non-white art is of necessity an expression of life experience, particularly oppression?

That is a complex question. To answer it, Dorchin examines the body of Israeli hip-hop, including Arabic-language rap created by the country’s Arab citizens. In doing so, he probes the “authenticity” and “truth” of the creators of Hebrew-language hip-hop, as both these characteristics can (or cannot) exist as a cultural product outside the context in which the rappers create.

After all, as the rapper Quami de la Fox (Eyal Friedman) wrote in the epigraph that appears at the beginning of the book, “Tell me, am I deceiving myself/Or is Nelly the greatest rapper next to Eminem?/Does anybody really think/That that makes more sense than a rapper who’s Israeli?” (Eminem, considered one of the greatest rappers, is white. Nelly is Black. Quami is asking: If the greatest rapper of them all is white, why shouldn’t there also be Israeli rappers?)

Stripping hip-hop of the subversive

The strength of “Real Time” is that it deals courageously with the “alienness” and exceptionality of Israeli hip-hop, and with its contradiction-filled existence in the local cultural landscape. There is an inherent contradiction in the existence of Israeli hip-hop because it is an expression of American blacks, a reality that is foreign to the Israeli experience.

One example of this contradiction can be seen in the performance by Jewish rappers of a song in honor of Israel’s 60th Independence Day together with the Gevatron (a well-known vocal ensemble from Kibbutz Geva, founded in 1948, which usually performs classic Israeli songs).

Another is the Jewish rappers who come from affluent suburbs and sing about block parties in the suburbs – but it is unclear whether they are joking or serious. These rappers are far from the character of black America's underdog rapper, who rhymes about breaking the law that oppresses him.

Dorchin writes about the contradiction between the proud, pro-establishment position of Subliminal and the artists represented by his music label, TACT Records, and the hip-hop counterculture that developed in underprivileged black ghettos on the U.S. East Coast. He exposes the problematic nature of creating hip-hop that has no connection to the deep cultural layer from which it sprang.

This paradox at the roots of Israeli rap is described as the “a lack of congruence whose components are jumbled on top of each other with no ability to create a logical connection.”

He criticizes the way in which Israeli artists strip hip-hop culture of the subversive or alternative dimension that it represents elsewhere in the world, uproot its messages and blatantly seek to avoid unpopular politics or annoying people. On the contrary – they see themselves as pioneers and the creation of hip-hop in Hebrew as an act of true Zionism: making the cultural desert bloom, yo.

Dorchin identifies the absence of any clear political statement and the transformation of hip-hop in Israel into “inclusive speech” that produces an apolitical identification, in sharp contrast to the aggressive, belligerent speech common to American hip-hop that Israeli artists imitate. He also points to the nostalgia and idealization of the past that exists in Israeli hip-hop (“Gabby and Debby” by Hadag Nachash, above, is a clear example of this). But he does not appear to criticize these acts, even though nostalgia in Israeli culture is fraught with disaster. A culture that clings to an imaginary past does not move forward or change. In this way, Dorchin misses an opportunity to criticize Israeli youths for favoring the de-politicization of culture.

Dorchin appears to be giving the rappers a pass regarding their lack of social or political criticism and often goes so far as to credit them with a more critical attitude than they deserve. “Real Time” clearly shows that “the main force that motivates the creation [of hip-hop] in Israel is not a subversive force but rather a fundamentally conformist one.” In this sense, hip-hop is no different from Israeli music as a whole.

Maybe now that the original Hebrew hip-hop scene has vanished, an opportunity will present itself to invite new rappers onto the stage. Perhaps they will not only adopt the genre’s style and form, but also its history and awareness – and ultimately serve as catalysts for social change.

“Real Time: Hip-Hop in Israel/Israeli Hip-Hop,” by Uri Dorchin. Published by Resling (in Hebrew). 297 pages. NIS 89.

Dr. Nirit Ben-Ari wrote her doctoral thesis on rap music and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli rapper Subliminal performing on Israeli Independence Day, 2009Credit: Tomer Neuberg
President Clinton presiding over the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.Credit: AP



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