Mixing Desk

Levantine Hip-Hop 101

Who’s who in the Middle East rap game.

When the 20-year-old son of Israeli writer David Grossman was killed in Lebanon last Saturday, shortly before the cease-fire took effect, commentators in Israel noted the irony. In 2004, Grossman, a prominent leftist, was tapped by left-leaning rappers HaDag Nahash for a collaboration. The result, “The Sticker Song,” had lyrics composed entirely of bumper-sticker slogans seen on Israeli highways:

A Whole Generation Demands Peace
Let Tsahal [the Israel Defense Forces] Win
A Strong Nation Makes Peace
Let Tsahal Play Hardball
No Peace With Arabs
Don’t Give Them Guns
Combat Is the Most, Bro
Draft Everybody Exempt Everybody
There’s No Despair in the World
The Territories Are Here!

Formed in 1996, HaDag Nahash (literally “Snake Fish”—a pun both on urination and “Nahag Chadash,” the Hebrew word for new teenage drivers) were part of the first wave of Israeli hip-hop artists to hit the mainstream. A nascent Palestinian scene grew alongside them: Homegrown rappers sprouted up in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while Palestinian-American artists, such as Oakland’s Iron Sheik and Los Angeles collective the Philistines, made releases aimed at the Palestinian diaspora, and Israeli-Arab rappers openly identified with the struggles of Fatah and Hezbollah.

Israeli pop has traditionally been dominated by two different genres. There are artists such as the late Ofra Haza and the transvestite/disco singer Dana International, whose lushly melancholic love songs combine Yemeni and North African folk with the aesthetics of the Eurovision Song Contest. Opposite them, earnest light-rock singers, such as David Broza and Arik Einstein, have created a uniquely Israeli brand of rock that, well into the new millennium, still indulges both the synthesizer and sartorial excesses of Rod Stewart circa 1982. As for the musical counterculture, it was, and still is, dominated by Goa trance, an instrumental, highly danceable strain of techno beloved for its lack of lyrics and a seemingly apolitical stance.

Palestinians, on the other hand, were unable to create an independent pop music. Economic deprivation, travel restrictions, and hostility from Islamic fundamentalists opposed to Western music led to an environment so intimidating that the vast majority of Palestinian wedding bands had disbanded by the early 1990s. Palestinians made do with black-market cassettes of Egyptian and Lebanese pop, or with homegrown Arab classical music.

In late 2000, the Al-Aqsa intifada took place, and the deteriorating political situation dashed any hopes that the Oslo Accords would lead to a permanent peace. Prior to that time, Israeli rap was dominated by acts like Shabak Samech, who combined early Beastie Boys frat humor with hard rock a la Limp Bizkit. The riots in Jerusalem and Ramallah quickly changed that: Both Israeli and Palestinian rappers shelved the Beastie Boys albums and discovered Public Enemy.

Israeli-Arabs jump-started the Palestinian hip-hop scene. Descended from those Palestinians who stayed within Israel’s borders during the 1948 war of independence, Israeli-Arabs occupy an unsure place in Israeli society. Though full citizens, they are exempt from military service and commonly suffer from job and housing discrimination. * Acts like DAM (Da Arab MCs; “Dam” is also both the Hebrew and Arabic word for blood) wrote lyrics that openly sympathized with the Palestinian cause while rapping in a mix of Arabic, Hebrew, and English over tracks peppered with samples from Egyptian pop and Western funk. * In the song “Born Here,” DAM raps (in Arabic) about their mixed Jewish-Muslim hometown of Lod:

It’s just that the city didn’t care for the Arabs
because the government has a wish:
maximum Jews—on maximum land
minimum Arabs—on minimum land
this house didn’t get approved by the law
and you will not erase!

DAM proved massively influential to Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza. Soon after, groups such as Gaza’s RFM and PR (Palestinian Rappers) were created. They faced unique challenges: RFM were once attacked at a concert by Hamas members who were angry that the group was playing Western music. Despite the hostile environment, hip-hop scenes came into existence in Gaza, Bethlehem, and Ramallah.

One of DAM’s members, Tamir Nafar, has a tangled relationship with Israel’s most popular rapper, Subliminal, who took Nafar under his wing in 2000, shortly before the second intifada. After that, Subliminal, formerly apolitical, became an outspoken Likudnik who wrote songs with lyrics like, “Israel is dangling like a cigarette in Arafat’s mouth,” while Nafar made a conscious decision to switch from performing in Hebrew to Arabic and started comparing the IDF to Hamas in his songs.

The documentarian Anat Halachmi’s excellent film Channels of Ragechronicles the fallout between the two as Subliminal stops producing Nafir’s records and ceases bringing him on tour. Halachmi attempted to have both Nafir and Subliminal perform together one last time for her film, but her efforts failed. Channels of Rage was one of a crop of recent documentaries examining Palestinian hip-hop. The Arab-American filmmaker Jackie Salloum’s Slingshot Hip Hop profiles DAM alongside other Palestinian rappers from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Her subjects face obstacles unfamiliar to most American rappers: Arapeyat, a female rapper from the Israeli city of Acre, has to deal with disapproval from family and community members because she is a secular Muslim woman onstage performing, while a young rap group in Gaza scrambles to make backup plans in case the power is cut during their show.

Most Israeli rappers come from the left. In Jerusalem, a city not known for its night life, a rap scene coalesced around the Corner Prophets collective, who sponsor a monthly freestyle event that attracts Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, and English-speaking rappers. Corner Prophets acts include Sagol 59, an ex-kibbutznik with song titles like “Summit Meeting” and “Current Events,” and an African-American convert to Judaism who calls himself Rebel Sun. The latter moved to Israel several years ago and is currently the target of a deportation effort considered by many to be racially motivated. (Check out this video for “Fight Rebel Sun” in which he performs with a cross section of the Israeli rap scene.)

Despite the gulf between them, the hip-hop communities in Israel and the Palestinian territories largely get along. DAM regularly toured with Jewish acts, while Sagol 59 takes pains in interviews to illustrate his lack of enmity toward most Arabs. During the recent fighting in Lebanon, musicians on both sides notably avoided inflaming the situation or, indeed, making any political statements in the media whatsoever. At the height of the conflict last week, an “Israeli and Palestinian Hip-Hop Showcase for Peace” was announced in New York for September. Acts scheduled to appear include Sagol 59, members of HaDag Nahash, and the Israeli-Arab rapper Saz alongside members of Palestinian-American hip-hop crews the Philistines and the N.O.M.A.D.S.

In the face of the orchestrated pop that dominates Israeli airwaves, hip-hop in both countries is distinctly underground. But that very underground nature allowed it to report honestly on the slow-motion conflict in Israeli-Palestinian relations since 2000. The overtly political rappers who dominate Israeli and Palestinian hip-hop have shown a unique talent for translating the nuances of the conflict into terms familiar to American ears. Much like their respective nationalities, neither hip-hop community exists in a bubble, and their struggle for coexistence offers hope. Or, less loftily, it could just be that both Israeli and Palestinian rappers have discovered that samples from Middle Eastern pop make for some damn good rap songs.

Correction, August 18, 2006: This article originally misidentified the meaning of the word “dam” in Hebrew and Arabic. It means blood, not fire. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, August 21, 2006: The article originally and incorrectly stated that Israeli Arabs are forbidden from serving in the military. In fact, although they are exempt from mandatory military service, they can volunteer to join the Israeli army. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)