Can You Take the Politics Out of Jerusalem's Hip Hop Scene?

This week's Frontline event showcased local rap and hip hop groups that have been active in the city for over a decade.

Itay Stern
Itay Stern
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Hip-hopper Rocky B. One of the regulars at the Saturday Night Refuge.
Hip-hopper Rocky B. One of the regulars at the Saturday Night Refuge.Credit: Tamuz rachman
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

“Not loyal / to the State of Yehudistan / Not loyal / to the State of Hamastan / Not loyal / to the racist of the moment / Not loyal / Not loyal /to f---g Lieberman.” Those are some of the lyrics of “Not Loyal,” performed by the Jerusalem band Neft, whose members include Rocky B (Roi Assayag) and Guvi Bosch (Evgeny Manitovsky).

The two, who began singing together as a hip-hop duo over a decade ago, performed along with other local bands at the Frontline festival, which ends later this week. The free festival, billed as "Five Days of Off-Stream Music from Jerusalem," is part of the city's Season of Culture program, and it is being held at the Beit Hansen compound. Vulcan, Mesillat Yesharim, Tarakan and other groups were slated to perform as well.

The Jerusalem hip-hop scene has been active since the early years of the millennium. In 2001, after the outbreak of the second intifada, a group of rappers got together and launched a weekly event at Jerusalem’s Diwan pub (which later became Sira), called Saturday Night Refuge.

At these evenings, led by Rocky B, several of the leading hip-hop and rap artists in the city gathered and performed selections in Hebrew, English, Russian, French and occasionally Arabic. Among the participants were Sagol 59, Rabel sun, Walter Einstein (who later formed Hateder) and others. The best show in the capital also traveled every month to Tel Aviv to perform, but maintained the proud Jerusalemite facade.

Mesillat Yesharim.The band's lyrics are political, says Tissar.Credit: yael meiry

“It was an very intuitive encounter that happened, as it were, by mistake,” says Assayag. “We didn’t share the same opinions or the same taste in music, but we were in the same city and the audience in that city was small in any case, as were the places for performances, so we shared the same stage. That gave rise to unique collaborations. There wasn’t wonderful harmony among everyone, but still really nice things and fascinating collaborations were created there.”

The hip-hop evening and the other Frontline events were curated by Gilli Tha Kid, a DJ, producer and musical editor who has lived in Jerusalem for years.

Asked about the local scene, he replies, "I don’t think that the Jerusalem hip-hop scene is more ‘lively’ than other scenes. Since this is an imported culture, the entire scene, both in familiar places and in esoteric ones, is full of mimicry. You know, people who close their eyes and think that they’re Jay-Z. If they’re more trendy, they may want to be Madlib."

Gilli Tha Kid. 'Since this is an imported culture, the scene is full of mimicry.'Credit: Noam Chojnowski

Jerusalem, the producer continues, "is not free of imitation in that sense, but in the course of the past decade and a half, there have been original voices who have succeeded in reacting to the time and the place. We can include two Russian rappers who came out with protest hip-hop in Hebrew, which is not their mother tongue, and in effect reflected in a fascinating way and with heavy accents how they see the 'jargon' of Israeli society.

“Another example of such an artist is Rocky B, who over the years has abused every possible hip-hop convention – a kind of rapper and producer who really and truly deserves to be called ‘experimental.’ That’s reflected in a lyrical composition that draws inspiration from hard-core bands such as Lahakat Yisrael. And it has noise, a disregard for the rules of rhyming and unusual rhythms. In effect it’s a combination of a large number of the styles and voices heard in downtown Jerusalem, which are so hard to catalogue.”

To what extent does the political situation in Jerusalem influence the rappers, in your opinion?

Gilli Tha Kid. Credit: Arik Futterman

Gilli Tha Kid: “The situation has an influence, of course. Walk around downtown for a month and you’ll understand what a screwed-up and tense place it is. The independent hip-hop community of Jerusalem came into being during the second intifada, and of course that penetrated deep into the genome. I think that another element in these expressions of anger stemmed from lack of recognition: In the absence of media coverage and consumer-cultural power in the city, there was a crisis in artist-audience relations. Rocky B has often expressed that in his music.”

Rap with an accent

For his part, Vulcan, an abrasive rapper who was born in the former Soviet Union and grew up in Jerusalem, has expressed his anger at the racism he has encountered in this country through his creative work.

“I remember as a child trying to understand what I wanted to write and not knowing what it was, listening to the House of Pain band and starting to declaim. Slowly but surely, I found my style,” he says now.

Vulcan, like many veterans of the Jerusalem scene, mentions Rocky B and the Sira pub, which became a second home for him when he was looking for a stage and someone to listen to his fresh material.

“I remember the evenings at the Saturday Night Refuge, because there were rappers there who sang in Hebrew that was even worse than mine, and believe me, that was quite an achievement," he recalls. "What was nice about the place was that people who didn’t know one another got onstage and shook hands, and there was no chance that they could have met anywhere else. In that sense, Jerusalem was a good place in which to develop.”

Ofer Tissar, of the Mesillat Yesharim band, explains that the texts for their songs are written by his partner Alex Kon, whom he describes as a very political person. “Alex is an activist, a conscientious objector, and a lot of the content we sing about comes from those places. That’s why there’s almost no separation for us between the personal and the political. Everything is mixed together.”

To what extent is Jerusalem reflected in their musical creation? “I don’t think it’s the Jerusalem scene," says Tissar, "rather, more the fact that you’re doing something alternative in this place called Israel. It’s true that when you create art in Jerusalem it makes you feel that you’re creating some kind of alternative, because you know what’s on the other side. In Tel Aviv that feeling is more elusive.”

From your knowledge, to what extent is this alternative hip-hop activity still bubbling and active today?

Tissar: “There are lots of things that are happening below the radar. A lot of really interesting beat-makers are walking around in Jerusalem. In a sense, some of them, the fringe, also reach the mainstream and radio. You can see how suddenly Nechi Nech received the spotlight on radio. I believe that it will only increase because there’s a creative movement going on all the time.

"What makes me even happier is that there are also people active in East Jerusalem and outside of Jerusalem, in Ramallah, who do great rap in Arabic. I only hope that we’ll have more access to them and they to us, in the near future.”

Another phenomenon that has sparked lively discourse surrounding the Jerusalem Season of Culture, including the Frontline festival, relates to the issue of the audiences. While the summer program takes place entirely in Jerusalem, many claim the people who attend the events come mostly from Tel Aviv.

“Both from inside and outside, and that’s what’s nice,” replies Gilli Tha Kid when asked who the target audience is. “The Season of Culture people decided to present Jerusalem creativity as it is, without the usual filters you have in establishment organizations, and it’s about the beauty and the ugliness – the honey and the sting."

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