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Hip-Hop Thrives in Israel

A decade of Jews and Arabs rockin' the mike

July 8, 2003 12:00 AM ET

They strutted onstage much as any hip-hop artists would, two buff young men sporting the requisite bandanas, baseball caps, jerseys and baggy pants. "Are you wearing a Star of David proudly on your chest?" Subliminal bellowed into the mike. A sea of hands shot skyward, as half the crowd of 4,000 burst into enthusiastic screams.

Welcome to the tenth anniversary celebration of hip-hop in Israel. The landmark event, which took place July 3rd in Tel Aviv, was sponsored by Shabak Music, the record label of the now-defunct band Shabak Sameh -- pioneers of Israeli hip-hop. "When Shabak put out their first album ten years ago," recalls the event's and label's music producer Dan Piloni Kark, "Israeli radio said rap only sounds good in English." One decade later, however, Israeli youth are mass consumers of Hebrew hip-hop, a music genre that is "just beginning," according to concert producers and hip-hop artists alike.

Israeli hip-hop cuts across lines of ethnicity not only between Arabs and Jews, but within the Jewish community itself -- featuring artists from Ethiopian, Mizrahi (Middle Eastern/North African), Sephardic (Spanish-Portuguese and Latin), and Ashkenazi (Central/Eastern European) backgrounds. And though Israeli rappers are overwhelmingly male, young women are beginning to take center stage, such as MC Shiri, who performed at the event.

"It's very exciting to see female rappers," gushes sixteen-year-old Alma Ne'eman, who attended the concert with her gal pals. "It really got us going to see MC Shiri up on stage."

Among artists performing were three Arab hip-hop groups, MWR (standing for Mahmoud, Waseem and Richard), Dam and Tammer, who sang in a mix of Hebrew and Arabic. "We talk about our problems," Mahmoud says of MWR's message. "As Israeli Arabs, we get it from all sides. To Arabs outside Israel, we're traitors. To Israeli Jews, we're dangerous Arabs. We're stuck between a rock and a hard place. Everyone hates us."

Hip-hop concerts, these artists feel, provide a place where they can be recognized for who they are. "When we come, and the audience sees artists standing before them," Richard says, "they see the positive side of being Arabs."

"Hip-hop is a great tool for building bridges between Jews and Arabs," agree Gabby Baruch and Shani Alder, two young women who attended the concert. "We hear each other's music and message, and we feel closer to each other."

Nitzan Zafran, however, was among the concert-goers who felt differently, stating that some of the Arab artists' messages were combative and "promoting war."

"Instead of fighting each other in guns, they fight with words," explains MC Suleka, a budding female rapper who attended the concert. "I felt it among the Arab artists as much as I felt it among the Jewish artists. I could feel the sensitivity of the audience, but I think it's good the artists expressed themselves." It was hard for people, she says, "but so what."

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