These days, it can sometimes feel like all American rappers sing about are “bitches and money.” In Israel, however, the story is different. Lyrics by Israeli hip hop artists are often less about wealth and status, and more about politics and society, like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or minority and women’s rights. Israel’s rappers are themselves often highly politicized individuals. They include right-wing nationalists, Peaceniks, Palestinian Arabs, Sephardic and Mizarahim Israelis, and feminists, among other groups. Each uses the medium of rap to communicate a particular social message, in a country where the saying “all life is politics” is hard to deny.
Messages of Violence, Messages of Peace
Some Israeli rappers give voice to violent, exclusionary, and racist messages. Two of Israel’s most famous rappers, Subliminal and The Shadow, fall into this camp. Both are right-wing nationalists, known for songs like ”Destroy Jenin” – a song by Subliminal that calls for the destruction of the West Bank Palestinian city – and “Burn the Prisons” – a song about how Subliminal would like to burn down the Israeli prisons holding Palestinian detainees. The Shadow organizes a group of right-wing activists, “The Shadow’s Lions,” whose mission is to disrupt and attack left-wing, anti-war demonstrations.
Luckily, Israel also has many rappers who promote messages of peace, like Khen Rotem, a Jewish rapper from Tel Aviv. Using the stage name Sagol 59, Rotem often raps about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “There have been deaths on both sides,” he tells me. Rotem lost a friend during a bombing of the Hebrew University cafeteria in Jerusalem in 2002. ”But I don’t want to rap about the deaths,” he says. Instead, Rotem wants to convince Israeli Jews to work toward peace: “I want to bring a message of peace, unity, and tolerance.”
Rotem is not a fan of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing party, Likud, won parliamentary elections in March 2015. “Fuck Bibi,” he says, clearly annoyed with the election’s outcome. “His method is to scare people into voting for him.” Convinced that Netanyahu will do nothing to end the conflict, Rotem believes “change must come from within society.”
Israel’s Palestinian Rappers
Through Rotem, I meet Sameh Zakout, a Palestinian-Israeli rapper from Ramle, a town in the center of Israel that has a significant Arab population. Zakout has a good sense of humor. Upon meeting, he quickly tells me that he – above anything else – wishes to become the next Arab sex symbol, since, he believes, there are far too few of them. Yet, he also has a serious side, deeply concerned about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like Rotem, he wishes to communicate a message of peace and tolerance to his fans. “Music is an immense, powerful tool,” he tells me. ”I want to use music as a weapon. I want to fight occupation with music, not with violence.”
Zakout’s identity as a Palestinian citizen of Israel also influences his music. Although 20 percent of Israel’s population consists of Arab Palestinians, they are far from equal to their Jewish counterparts. They face a great deal of institutional discrimination, especially in regards to education, employment, and political participation. Zakout is aware that he is among the lucky few Palestinians in Israel to have achieved success in his chosen profession.
“If I didn’t have my music, I’d probably be on the streets selling drugs,” he points out.
Both Zakout and Rotem have been involved in the ‘MasterPeace in concert,’ one of the events by the MasterPeace Movement, a Dutch campaign that aims to promote peace through music, art, and events.
Each September the movement organizes a concert that brings together artists from countries in conflict with each another. This year, the concert featured musicians from Ethiopia and Eritrea, India and Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, Sudan and South Sudan, among others. It also hosted solo acts by musicians from Colombia, Syria, Afghanistan, and Myanmar. Zakout and Rotem were paired together to represent the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Rapping about Intra-Jewish Discrimination in Israel
While Arabs face harsh forms of discrimination in Israel, racism between different Jewish groups, like the Ashkenazi and Sephardi, is also quite common. Dark-skinned Jews, like Ethiopians, face particular socio-economic disadvantages in the country. This is a topic often addressed by the thriving Ethiopian-Israeli hip hop scene. The Ethiopian-Israeli rapper JC sings about this issue:
You judge me by my color, call me nigger/ Believe me, the same Jewish blood flows through your body as flows through mine / Because I’m Black you scorn me, think you’re superior / Instead of focusing on what’s going on around you, you focus on me.
System Ali is another rap group inspired by the ethnic differences in Israel. One of the group’s members, a Russian-Israeli named Neta Weiner, tells me about System Ali’s make up. The group’s members represent four different ethnicities and fully embrace their differences. Instead of having everyone rap in Hebrew, their common language, each member raps in their mother tongue. The result is an interesting mix of Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, and English.
“I grew up in a very segregated way. Before System Ali, I didn’t come into contact with other groups, despite living in a country with so many ethnicities,” Weiner tells me. “System Ali was a true eye opener to me.” Before writing their songs, the group’s members have discussions about the topic they will rap about. “When it’s about identity, the discussions can get pretty heated. But that’s part of the process,” Weiner says with a laugh.
Although women are not as evenly represented as men in the Israeli hip hop scene, they are also far from absent. Their ranks include Safaa Hathot, a twenty-six-year-old Palestinian from Haifa who started rapping at the age of sixteen.
“I rap about what’s important to me and what I want to change in my society,” Hathot tells me over Skype. Her songs often deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, like “Live Forever Khaled,” a song she wrote for a friend in Gaza:
During the Gaza war [of 2008], I was calling him every day. I was very worried he would die. He asked me to write a song about him if he did. Luckily, he didn’t die, but I wrote a song about him anyway. The song is about how different it is, the images you see on the television, versus the reality the Gazans are living every day. The only ones who really [know] what it’s like, are them.
Hathot, who often raps about gender, hates being judged for not leading a “conventional” female life. “In my community, they expect women to get married, be a wife, get kids,” Hathot explains. “But like men, we’re also human beings with dreams. We just want to live our lives the way we want to without being judged.”
Hathot received a lot of criticism from friends and family after she started her hip hop career. After a while, though, they came to accept her chosen path. “In the beginning, they just knew hip hop from the television. With all the girls, you know? But now they know there’s a different side to it. Now they know hip hop can be used to stand up for your rights.”
As a female Israeli Jew, being a rapper is also frowned upon, according to Shorty and Shiri, two Israeli Jewish hip hop artists. Shorty recalls that when she first started to rap, people around her asked her what she was doing and would actively try to stop her from performing. As a result of these experiences, Shorty often raps about her struggles trying to make it as a female rapper:
They don’t like the fact that we have power / They always ask who you slept with to get the job.
Making a Difference
One thing is clear: in the face of Israel’s many political and social problems, hip hop artists feel compelled to speak their minds. They actively use their music to influence society, and impact the political situation as a whole. While some communicate messages of hatred and division, others are promoting tolerance and peace. Their impact is hard to assess – in all likelihood they are more a reflection of existing divisions in Israeli society than active shapers of those divisions – but they remain committed to their craft and making a difference, for better or worse, in their communities.