Israeli Hip-hop Artists Trade Protest Music for Optimism

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Young people cheer at Chris Brown's concert in Rishon Letzion, July 27, 2015.Credit: David Bachar

In the confrontation last year between Cultural Affairs Minister Miri Regev and Israeli artists, an important segment of the artist community was missing: the musicians. Most of those protesting her words and actions were cinema and theater people, who absorbed the bulk of her patriotic fire. Writers and visual artists also protested the slashing of budgets for art critical of the establishment. Musicians, in contrast, huddled in their corner. Unlike theater and cinema artists, they don’t depend on state budgets and their immediate interests weren’t affected. Maybe that’s why they preferred not to give voice to their conscience.

This isn’t very surprising. Protest was never the strong suit of Israeli music, and in recent years even the small crumbs of defiance have disappeared from the table. Nir Matarasso's "Sperm Whale", which won album of the year, is a far cry from protest music. Mizrahi pop almost exclusively deals with male-female relations, and the non-Mizrahi mainstream seems to have been struck with shining optimism. “Fragments of intent, circles of faith” sings Rami Kleinstein in “Small Gifts”, one of the two mainstream non-Mizrahi hits in the last two years. The other giant hit, “Daddy’s child” by rapper Muki, radiates a similar spirit. There is nothing a loving hug can’t fix.

One shouldn’t expect any biting criticism from mainstream artists. But what about hip-hop? Protest is the bread-and-butter of rap music. Israeli hip-hop registered a very successful year. It’s time for hip-hop artists to kick, scream and lash out at everything. However, even rappers turned out to be very optimistic last year. It’s not that criticism was totally missing from the Israeli hip-hop scene. There were voices directed against small politicians and big money. It’s not that their arrows weren’t poisoned or even that sharp. It's that they were shot by artists who had decided to only see the good side of things.

Listen to the major Hebrew hip-hop hits of the year, and note their recurring messages: “Everything will be all right” by Kafe Shahor Hazak, Hebrew for strong black coffee (“I know everything will be okay / Never mind what others say privately / We’ll manage with the help of God"); “This too will pass” by Tuna (“Time heals everything, it heals everything / If not all, then most of it, and this too will pass”); or “A bit of luck” by Peled (“Life is so hard but never mind / Friends become enemies but never mind / I try to be good, not bad / But sometimes you’re left with no choice”); or “Towards the light” by Subliminal (“Oh-oh-oh we broke through the door / Oh-oh-oh hope returns, towards the light, returning to the light”). Light, hope, it will be all right, doing good, it will pass.

Israeli rappers look on the bright side since it turns out that they are believers. “With God’s help” says the song by Kafe Shahor Hazak; “I believe there is someone up there who looks at me from above” raps Peled; “Someone up above sees and hears so when I go, I pray that he’ll protect her” sings Subliminal, and “not everything is from Allah” states rapper E-Z: “He looks after me, yes he does but leaves the choice up to me If we don’t accept one another even He who sits up high won’t save us from ourselves.”

Hip-hop is supposed to be down-to-earth but Israeli rappers cast their eyes to heaven. They too are their Father’s children. It’s no wonder that overall they are optimistic. There is no one to rely on except for Him.

And yet, in comparison to the escapism that dominates Israeli music, rappers at least vent and talk about what’s happening on the ground. “I have no future, I can only run away, I remember how they brainwashed me at school” sings Peled. “I’m officially Ethiopian, don’t say you didn’t know, they wouldn’t give so I took” sing Kafe Shahor Hazak. These songs speak to the youth. The sight of hundreds, if not thousands of young people singing along with Kafe Shahor Hazak as they opened for Chris Brown’s concert last month was one of the most beautiful scenes of the year. Perhaps there is good reason to expect good things.

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