Meet the Multilingual Hip-hop Outfit Born in a Bomb Shelter

System Ali, which is about to drop its first album, sings in Arabic, Hebrew, Russian and English – but don’t call them a coexistence band.

A few years ago, shortly after coming together as the hip-group System Ali, some of its members gave a workshop in a school in Jaffa, their hometown. They were shocked to find “No talking in Arabic or Russian in the classroom” written on the blackboard.

“This was a school where 90 percent of the pupils are Palestinians born in Jaffa or immigrants from the former Soviet Union,” said group member Neta Weiner. “It really showed how people are being systematically and forcibly silenced here.” As a result of the incident, the fight against silencing and racism became System Ali’s raison d’etre.

“Don’t be silent. That’s the message,” says Weiner. “Tell your story in your own language. This message is far from obvious where we live.”

Soon, the band will be releasing its debut album, which is in the mixing stage and thus unavailable for review. But if it captures the momentum and urgency of the concert I attended a year ago at the Tmuna theater in Tel Aviv, it will be an excellent album. And if it succeeds in capturing only 80 percent of the energy of that performance, it will still be one of the best and most important albums of the year.

“So when was the last time you heard a multi-lingual hip-hop ensemble from Jaffa?” read an ad for the show that enticed me to attend. Given that clue, I wasn’t surprised to see 10 people making a lot of noise onstage in four languages (Arabic, Russian, Hebrew and English). But I didn’t expect such an electric combination of fire and intelligence, groove and message, originality and focus.

Every rapper in the group – there are six of them – had his or her own distinct personality and rapped in his or her own language. But they, along with the  accompanying instrumentalists, were like a single body, unified and determined – their music stemming from a clear agenda. It was one of those rare shows that sends you back into the world charged and optimistic.

Born in a bomb shelter

System Ali was born at the youth center in Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood (Weiner is careful to pronounce it “Azhama”), run by the Sadaka-Reut movement in a public bomb shelter.

“The moment we opened the door of the shelter, lots of people from the neighborhood streamed inside,” says Weiner, who was one of the instructors. “There were classes in acting, writing and martial arts, but the most popular was music.” The music classes were so popular that a regular jam session was created where dozens could join, some playing instruments, some spinning records, beatboxing and break-dancing.

From this large group, a smaller one formed with a few of the regulars, made of both instructors and pupils. “The distinction between instructor and pupil got blurry very quickly,” says member Yonatan Kunda. “All of us had the same need to express ourselves.” They chose the name System Ali after a friend of theirs, Scandar Copti, the director of the Oscar-nominated film “Ajami,” came back from a hip-hop show in Jordan and told them that he had seen an enthusiastic little boy shouting, “System Ali!,” which can mean “crank up the sound system.”

In addition to Weiner, who raps and plays the accordion, and Kunda, the rappers in the group are Muhammad Aguani, Muhammad Mugrabi, Amneh Jarushe and Enver Seitibragimov. The instrumentalists are Luna Abu-Nasar (guitar), Liba Neeman (violin), Yehonatan Dayan (bass) and Moti Ben Baruch (percussion).

This is not purely a hip-hop group. It uses rock rhythms and elements of gypsy and Arab music, and some of the members come from jazz or more traditional musical backgrounds. But hip-hop is the band’s main channel of expression and what binds them together creatively.

“I don’t know how to sing,” says rapper Muhammad Aguani. “But I wanted to make protest music, music that opposes the occupation and inequality, and I saw that the best way to do that was through hip-hop.

“System Ali is not just another band of kids for peace,” Aguani continues. “It’s not a band of beauty queens talking about world peace. We tell the truth. We take what you hide inside and bring it out. System Ali is a voice for people who are silent, who can’t speak out. Its purpose is to fight against silence and fear.”

The band’s first show outside the shelter was on a roof in Ajami. “The sound system was really bad, and the audience was made up of locals,” Weiner recalls. “Lots of violence and lots of love.”

“Usually, when people gather in Ajami, it means that somebody was stabbed or shot,” Aguani adds. “Suddenly there was a different kind of gathering. People were gathering together for a good purpose – to see a show.”

Over the next few years, the band performed in a variety of atypical venues. “Not just on the Arab street, the street of the oppressed,” as Aguani describes it, but on the sidewalks of Jaffa, in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood (“Remember how they bombarded us?” Aguani asks the other band members), in a school in Jisr al-Zarqa, in the unrecognized village of Dahamesh near Lod (as part of the struggle against home demolitions there), and even at a vehicle junkyard in Rahat.

The common response to System Ali, both in these venues and in more traditional clubs, is surprise mixed with enthusiasm. “People don’t know what hit them, but in the positive sense,” says Aguani. “That’s true,” says guitarist, Luna Abu-Nasar, nodding. “I reacted the same way.”

Abu-Nasar joined the band after it left the shelter. She studied with Weiner at the Muzik School of Creation and Production in Tel Aviv. When Weiner invited her to see a System Ali show, she was hesitant. “I said, ‘Oh, that’ll be just another band that does musical coexistence.’ But I went in the end. It was on a street in Jaffa. It took me some time to figure out what I was seeing. It was very powerful, and it was a lot of things at once. But at some point I started dancing, and then I got the feeling that I understood what they were doing.” She joined the band shortly thereafter.

Because of the many languages System Ali speaks, “At any given moment in our shows, someone is singing and someone else in the band doesn’t understand what they’re saying,” Weiner says.

“You can ask: How do you deal with not understanding?” says Kunda. “Does it make you angry? Can you trust your fellow band member even though you don’t know what he’s saying?”

One of the strongest moments of the show occurs during what sounds like a cover of Yehuda Poliker’s “Halon leyam hatichon” (A window to the Mediterranean Sea). “After I got to Jaffa/ hope was born out of despair/ I found a room and a half/ on the roof of an abandoned building.” But at that point, the members of the band drop their bomb.

“Abandoned?!” shouts Weiner, and suddenly the innocent-sounding cover is transformed into a burning political protest.

“The album has a few other quotes that get us going, from the Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm to Naomi Shemer,” Weiner says. “Poliker’s song had a strong echo when we started the band. His album "Ashes and Dust" is part of the DNA of my personality, identity and music. I have a lot of love for the original song, but there was also a desire to add that dimension. It’s not a rebuke, and it’s definitely not cynicism. The excitement over Poliker’s song is there and it’s completely honest, but it doesn’t negate the need to give it a slap.”

Guy Prives