Hip-hop music might be aggressive but it can still be a uniting force. Hip-hop is an increasingly popular art form in Israel. Strolling along in Jerusalem, Haifa or Tel Aviv, you never know when you might stumble across a group of kids standing around on a streetcorner, beatboxing, freestyle rhyming, and even breakdancing, as they’re surrounded by dozens of onlookers, smiling, dancing, and cheering them on.
The current generation is the first to grow up regularly hearing hip-hop on the radio and watching it on television. As popular Jerusalem underground MC Sagol 59 has said, what took twenty years to happen with hip-hop in the U.S., has happened here in only a few short years.
Every month, I organize a freestyle event called The Old Jeruz Cipher under the banner of promoting cultural diversity and dialogue between the various ethnic and religious communities of this fair Holy City.
Most older folks generally tend to get hip-hop wrong. “It’s too violent,” they say. Or, “it promotes sexism and negative stereotypes.” That has been the slant of articles in the mainstream media covering the trend here in Israel, and my events in particular.
However well-intentioned such remarks tend to be, they generally ignore the fact that hip-hop is much more than just music; it’s a reflection of the social circumstances from which it emanates. While not always level-headed in its expression, the goal of such music is ultimately to confront and challenge the listener, and to provide them with alternative viewpoints which lead them to question their own personal assumptions about issues such as race, class, and sexuality.
True, rap lyrics can contain sometimes shocking or disturbing language and imagery. Some hip-hop artists are known to offer rhymes which are certain to cause outrage when offered out of context. But such lyrics are not necessarily intended to advocate in favor of the content expressed, nor to incite the public, so much as incense them. Many hip-hop artists seek to raise awareness of the issues that inspire their lyrics, drawing them to the surface in the fevered intensity these artists often exhibit on stage, bringing attendant crowds to nod and bounce in concurrence. These lyrics are internalized by audiences who later reflect upon them in more depth, who perhaps learn and grow from what they have heard.
Alienation is a theme most often touched upon, and one to which all youth can relate, and Israeli youth live in an especially complex and trying society that often leaves them confused and stressed. This has the potential to lead to depression, low self-esteem, criminal activity and drug abuse. These concerns affect Israelis across the spectrum of society, within the religious and secular communities, the Jewish and Arab communities, the Russian and Ethiopian communities, and so forth.
The organization I have initiated, a hip-hop collective called Corner Prophets, which facilitates these monthly concerts, was created with the intention of bringing aspiring young hip-hop artists from throughout Israel’s divergent communities together on a stage to share their art with one another and to hone their skills in the process. Further, it provides them with a positive, artistic outlet through which to express their thoughts and emotions.
Seizing upon the rising interest in hip-hop in Israel, we take advantage of hip-hop as a means to address the issues Israel’s youth find themselves faced with by accepting them for who they are, encouraging their exploration of hip-hop, and welcoming them into a community.
So far we’ve enjoyed a great amount of success. We’ve brought together European Hareidim with Israeli Arabs, Modern Orthodox women with secular Russian men, African-American olim with lower-class kids from Ofakim, Tel Aviv punks with Jerusalem yeshiva students, and all sorts of folks from around the country. They come together to share a unique experience and explore this new art form which is attracting an ever-growing audience of teens and young adults from across religious, political and ethnic lines.
Sure, they’re not always being enlightened or even necessarily civil with their lyrics. And due to the fact that we encourage artists to participate in their native tongues, sometimes the majority of the audience don’t have a clue as to what an MC might be saying. But this is irrelevant, because ultimately, our goal is just to get these folks to hang out with one another and have a shared experience built around a common interest. Beyond a doubt, we have succeeded in accomplishing this goal, and this is what believe makes hip-hop a truly uniting force unlike most others.
Thus regardless of the content – whether Palestinian MC Tamer Nafar gets up on stage and rages against the Zionist entity, the French Hasid Shmoopafly awkwardly boasts about Jewish unity, neo-Hasidic feminist hippie Oshra rhymes about the other artists being sexist jerks, Russian immigrant MC Klin fantasizes about vigilante justice for victims of police brutality, or A7 throws a fit because some white kid thinks he can get away with saying “nigga” – we’ve got them all hanging out and talking with each other, having a good time with one another, and forming friendships and relationships. Together we’ve built a real community.
At the end of the day, I’m happier to see these folks blowing off steam and taking their frustrations out on a microphone than out on each other, contributing ever more to the tensions which would otherwise drive wedges between these individuals and their communities.
It may not always be pretty, but I think it’s beautiful, and I will forever be proud and privileged that I could be a part of making it happen.