The Politics of Israeli Popular Music

In Israel, even the musical is political.

Print this page Print this page

"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."

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Michal Palti is a journalist with Haaretz.