Given that reggae has borrowed Zion, maybe the equation can go both ways? A recent crop of Israeli-bred beats is refracting through the idioms pioneered by Judaism’s estranged black brothers and sisters: a bit of Jamaica, lots of rap and funk. Recently subject to outside attention with a summer festival in Prospect Park that paired Israeli and Palestinian MCs, Israeli rap in America is the stuff of JDate’s junior set and of journalists looking for a new angle on the bloodbath. Despite a loyal core following of these rappers’ peers, anecdotal evidence suggests that the average age of Israeli rap fans at home is about 11. Dominating the scene is Koby Shimoni, also known as Subliminal, a Star of David-brandishing, right-wing creature who fancies himself Israel’s patriotic Eminem. The sprawling, seven- to nine-man Hadag Nachash would like to be the Roots. So far, Hadag Nachash hold the record on songs we chosen people aren’t embarrassed to play in front of the goyim.
Their latest album, Chomer M’Komi, boasts the genre’s most transcendent track thus far. “Chalifot” (“Suits”) kicks off with Dre-style high piano, and its grinding beats are bolstered by the exquisite, Middle East-inflected wails of guest singer Liora Itzhak. (Lead singer Sha’anan Streett has said that his native Jerusalem, lacking Tel Aviv’s port and general outward orientation, prompts musicians to look a few miles inland, across the border, i.e., to the Arabs. But some suggest that the band’s recent Middle Eastern influence is meant only to drum up authenticity in a country where the Sephardic working class prefers music closer to that of their Arab neighbors than that of their elite Jewish counterparts.)
“Chalifot” borrows a refrain from the Passover ceremonial song marking exodus and redemption: dayenu. In the religious service, dayenu enumerates each of God’s miracles, repeatedly proclaiming that “it would have been enough” to have received each of the miracles, to have been eventually delivered to the homeland. Hadag Nachash’s dayenu is wistful and barbed, like much of the album, which even through the band’s odes to pot smoke mourns the squandering of hope in their embattled strip of land.
In a country bitterly divided between secular and religious—polarized such that red state-blue state looks like kumbaya in comparison—Jehovah is still the common vocabulary. Entreaties are addressed to none other than God himself (and sometimes herself): The first track of Chomer M’Komi is called “B’raishit” (“Genesis”), and the final song greets the almighty with a “What’s up?” and then lets loose with the rap-rock of reckoning.
Between genesis and indictment are tracks that suggest, believe it or not, that Hebrew is a consummate hip-hop language. By the rivers of Babylon, we sang the song of the Lord in a foreign land and language, but in the last century Hebrew was revived from slumber and dragged into daily usage—even if Israeli rap’s particular wake-up call makes purists wince. The language’s lack of vowels/lets/acronyms makes for loaded words; its structure is uniquely predisposed to multiple entendres. Nowadays the language’s cadence moves freely from sanctified to profane contexts, dotted by biblical references.
“Shirat Hasticker,” the near famous “Sticker Song,” compiles verbatim political bumper stickers into a track laden with robotic thuds and imitative fierceness. Beyond its musically rudimentary quality, the song is also profoundly depressing—the degeneration of political rhetoric made manifest. Its writer, novelist David Grossman, told The New York Times in August that the song was “like a capsule of Israeliness, all the brutality and aggression and the need to get out of this situation.”
Building the song from bitter quotations also reminds the Hebrew speaker that each slogan is a pearl of untranslatable wordplay. Hear, for example, “Medinat halacha, halcha ha’Medina”: A state based on religious law is one gone to shit. (Or, in the more decorous Web translation, “A State based on halacha is no State at all.”) Later, the word for faith is, in context, the word for security. The refrain, in this song and in any language: Father, have mercy.
For all their wit and scripture and generational regret (because of it?), even Hadag Nachash are unbearably awkward and self-conscious about their own claim to legitimacy. It’ll be a rainy summer in the desert before Israel produces a Tupac. Not for lack of trying: These days, every bourgeois peon is a would-be rapper (I’ve heard of a café- dishwasher-turned-rapper who calls himself “Kerach”—”ice,” apparently with no intentional reference to Vanilla).
Still, there are gradations of awkwardness. Gilded by a foreign-ministry subsidy, Hadag Nachash took its government criticisms and stoner ditties on the North American road in October. Inside a Jewish frat house in Washington, D.C., wrote Yuval Ben Ami in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, the band is “plainly out of place, and they can sense it. Some of the band members have never been to America. ‘They look a little nerdy to me,’ comments bassist Yaya Cohen Harounoff, referring to his hosts.”
Even if Hadag Nachash aren’t too pleased with being the post-bar mitzvah bar mitzvah band, they grimly await de-liverance. As “B’raishit” has it, even if it’s tongue in cheek, “redemption is around the corner/and the messiah will come tomorrow and redeem the nation.”
Or as another local rapper, Sagol 59, put it in an interview with a Harvard senior writing his thesis on Israeli hip-hop, “When the messiah comes, we’ll have a subway in Israel, and then we’ll have graffiti.”