The Politics of Israeli Popular Music

In Israel, even the musical is political.

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In Israel's politically charged climate, music can often make a political statement.  Reprinted with permission from Ha'aretz Daily. This article originally appeared on March 11, 2003.

Astar Shamir says she wrote the songs for her upcoming album, due to be released in mid-April 2003, out of a sense of urgency. After years of pursuing other interests (she is a voice therapist) and watching from the outside what was happening in Israel, she felt the need to go back and write. One of the results is the beautiful song, "After the Sun Sets," in which she wrote: "Maybe she'll sing a song of peace / In a strong and resonant voice / Maybe she'll sing a song today while they are shooting ... Will our children have paradise / Or will we leave them a hell?"

The song, which Shamir calls "an open letter to the prime minister," joins a large array of songs released in the past few months that may be signaling the start of a new wave of political dissent in Israeli music.

In Your Face, With Style

The songs include Chava Alberstein's "The Shadow," which criticizes the way Israeli society treats foreign workers; "Innocent Criminals," a duet between Aviv Gefen and Israeli Arab rapper Tamer Nafar; and Hadag Nahash's "Numbers Song." Even Tippex, a band hard to accuse of using especially biting lyrics, chose to revive "The Other Days," a Haim Hefer song about Israel at war and under siege.

The bubble in which Israeli singers are accustomed to cloistering themselves seems to be showing a crack or two, and performers seem less wary about rocking the boat of consensus. 

astar shamir

Israeli musician Astar Shamir

NMC Records recently signed Habiluyim, a band whose first album will be chock-full of harsh political statements. The radio stations, especially Army Radio, will be put to an interesting test when one of the songs on the album, "Shaul Mofaz," is released. [Shaul Mofaz is a right-wing Israeli politician and former military leader.] Blunt texts and a desire to make a statement is characteristic of hip-hop, as well, which has picked up a lot of fans in the past year. Subliminal and Hadag Nahash did not shrink from extreme statements even in their first songs released for radio play, sometimes to the chagrin of record company executives.

Gadi Gidor, the repertoire manager at Helicon Records (which produces Subliminal's albums), says: "If we were deterred by the idea of releasing political albums, they would not be released. This in fact happens. If a major, well-known artist has an interesting statement to make, he will make it, even if the record company executives have reservations about the contents."

"We don't gag our artists," says Haim Shemesh, who heads the Hebrew department at NMC. "A song is judged by its quality. But we will never say to an artist: 'Don't go there.' Songs have to create discussion. We sense that there is a change going on now, which seems natural. How long can you go without reacting to what's happening?"

The writing of political songs stems not only from the immediate situation, but also from the proclivities of the artist. Astar Shamir has a past of writing politically-motivated songs, including the memorable "Middle of September," written after the massacre in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps; Chava Alberstein sang about "The Magician" back when Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister; and Shlomo Artzi wrote "New Land," whose lyrics include: "We have a land, why another one?"

"Things just piled up inside me over the past year and wanted to get out," says Shamir. "I had this sensation that I could not wallow in my own business any longer, that I had to work for the general good. I felt I was responsible, as a mother, an artist and a creator, to try to make a change. It's natural for a creative artist to connect with his surroundings, and most certainly as a mother you think about what we are leaving for the next generation."

One performer surprisingly willing to take up political material, if at a somewhat minor scale, is Kobi Oz of Tippex, a band that portrays Israeliness as a uniform whole, full of optimism and humor. "We are gradually internalizing the situation," says Oz. "Now we are undeniably dealing with a state of distress, about a hope that is growing more distant, about the loss of hope." Tippex chose to do a cover version of "The Other Days," says Oz, "because we realized that nothing had changed in Israel's situation from the '50s till now--a realization that really shook us up."

In Oz's viewpoint, artists are not disconnected from the world around them. "I think that artists have always been ahead of the politicians. In politics, they try to sell us all sorts of tag lines like peace and security, and the way I see it, it's actually the artists who try to present things in a more complex way. In "The Other Days," Tippex has updated the words as follows: "We'll see the other days again / immigrants climbing up from the valley will descend to us from the hills ... / We will go out to them again, from blasted buildings / from the shelters and from the blackened fields / We will go out on crutches, from blinding lights / from antennas of war singing like a thousand birds." Tippex's version has gotten a lot of play on the radio. "It is scandalous that this song is still relevant," says Oz, "but we are trying to present the truth."

Will songs with a statement be less well-received nowadays?

"You can't run away from reality. I think people are looking for a way to escape, but they will also be looking for things that relate to current affairs. Between the soap operas, people want to hear the news, and music can help them digest it, and pass on the messages. Tippex is about happiness, too, but it is a happiness that emanates from despair."

No Hostile Responses

"When we look at the hip-hop around us, you can't help but be affected by it," says Kobi Oz. Presumably he is referring to Hadag Nahash, one of the bands now signed to Anana, the record label owned by Oz. "Lazuz" (Moving), the band's album that came out six weeks ago, includes the "Numbers Song," which makes a lot of social and political references. This is true of other songs on the album as well, as one might expect from a hip-hop group, which by virtue of its style, is committed to making bold, in-your-face statements, working along the margins but influencing the mainstream.

Indeed, radio stations warmly embraced lines like "One is the number of countries from the Jordan to the sea / Two--the number of countries that one day there will be .... Nine times was I too close to a terror attack, at least as of now / Ten is the most Israeli answer to how's the situation..." Hadag Nahash soloist Sha'anan Street says that in performances, the "Numbers Song" is the band's most popular song. "People don't expect an hour-and-a-half of love songs at our performances. They know they will be getting blunt lyrics that rely on rhythm. We've never come across any hostile responses."

One act that has made it into the mainstream, in an exemplary show of commercial success, is Subliminal--Kobi Shimoni--who has put out two albums so far. "The Light and the Shadow" and "The Light From Zion" have sold tens of thousands of copies. Subliminal sees himself as the founder of a new type of political rap--"Zionist Rap." Shimoni writes about the intifada and about the peace agreements from a right-wing point of view, but the opinions he voices are every bit as sharp and clear as those with whom he disagrees. "If there is any shift in the music community right now, I feel I am one of those who pushed it there," he says.

Shimoni recounts the harsh reactions he got when he released the song "Living From Day to Day" in 2000, from the "Light and Shadow" album, which included the line "The country wavers like the cigarette in Arafat's mouth."

"They called me a right-winger, a madman. What didn't they call me? Now, on the second album, I am more political and more outspoken, and it is being received just fine, and even works in my favor. Maybe something's changed in terms of the acceptability of political songs."

When Subliminal first started out, the folks in Helicon's Hebrew department had a lot of reservations about the words of his songs. "They told me I was throwing away half of the people who might have listened to me," but now, he continues, "I feel that Zionist rap is catching on. Two-and-a-half years ago, they gave me a hard time when I adopted the Star of David as part of the Israeli rap look. Now my production company is launching a line of fashion items that make proud use of Jewish and Zionist symbols. I will make a shirt that says "Hatikva" (Israel's national anthem) on it, and I don't see what's wrong with that. I am very much in favor of representation, and raising morale."

And his own morale is on the way up, too. Along with the many reactions to his nonconformist nature ("I don't care") there are also the moments of gratification: "Today, when I pass by the school where I studied, I see that the graffiti 'We Are an Armed Generation' by Aviv Gefen has been replaced by 'Divide and Conquer' [his own hit]. That makes me a very happy man."

Perhaps the graffiti has been replaced, but Aviv Gefen does not intend to let the change happen without him. The singer who has lines in his songs like "Occupy the peace, not the territories," is now performing a duet with Tamer Nafar in the song, "Innocent Criminals." Written by Nafar following the events of October 2000, when 13 Israeli Arabs were killed by Israeli police, the song contains the lines: "You say the Arabs are primitive / say the Arabs are aggressive / say we are criminals and barbarians we aren't / But just in case we are, this is what the government did to us / Jews demonstrate, the police take clubs in hand / The Arabs demonstrate, the police take their lives."

Tamer Nafar, 24, is a rap singer from Lod. He found his way to music, he says, after listening to the rapper Tupac. "I heard his words and strongly identified with them. After a while, I also fell in love with the rhythm. Gefen heard "Innocent Criminals" on Internet, and liked it, and got in touch with me, which led to the duet."

In spite of the relative openness of record companies in Israel to political statements by performers, Nafar has come up against a variety of frustrating responses: "The record companies are a little afraid to touch my material. They don't see a target audience for Arabs. We perform all the time [Nafar appears with his brother Suhel and his friend Mahmoud Izhrari], but it is holding me back and I have to release songs to stay in the market. After all, I am appealing to an audience of 600 million Arabs. In the meantime, we are slowly putting together the disk, but I am optimistic. Even without a record company we have succeeded in doing a lot of things. We have 20 underground songs in the market."

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Michal Palti is a journalist with Haaretz.