Jewish, Arab rappers in Israel find common ground
Samekh Zakout and Chen Rotem couldn’t have had more dissimilar backgrounds. Zakout, an Israeli Arab, grew up in the rough and tumble working class Tel Aviv suburb of Ramle. Rotem, an Israeli Jew, was raised on a kibbutz – Ein Hahoresh – considered an ideal setting for children.
But today, Zakout, now known as SAZ, and Rotem, who goes by the moniker Sagol 59, have found common ground between them. They use the modern sounds, rhymes and rhythms of hip hop to espouse their frustrations with society and their hopes for future peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Recently, the Tel Aviv basement nightclub, Levontin 7, was packed with fans bouncing to the beats of SAZ, Sagol 59 and other rappers who gathered for what was advertised as a Hip Hop Sulha.
The event was part of a series of Sulha performances that were launched last year at the S.O.B. club in New York City to urge Arab-Israeli dialogue and reconciliation. In trying to create a musical platform for coexistence and understanding, the performance was named after the Arabic term for a conciliatory agreement between two parties facing a dispute.
The crowd consisted of Arabs and Jews; hipsters and techno-junkies; dread-locked hippies and intellectual types peering through thick black-rimmed emo glasses, creating an atmosphere far from homogenous but almost unanimously liberal and conducive to dialogue.
But as idyllic as the initiative was, conversations with the rappers reveal restrained realism about the problems facing the region.
“I’m not here to do “Kumbaya, Kumbaya” with Sagol,” SAZ told ISRAEL21c. “But I write music as a minority in Israel with hope. Sulha is just another way to spread the message out. My music is not just for Arabs, my music is for the world. I participate in the Hip Hop Sulha because besides being a Palestinian or a Muslim, I am human.”
Sagol 59, whose 2000 release Blue Period, was the first album by a solo hip-hop artist in Israel, subscribes to a similar understanding about the goals of the sulha.
“We’re trying to have a simple dialogue. We’re not delusional. We’re not trying to solve all the problems in the world. Everyone should do something within their capacity to initiate progress,” he said.
The rappers believe their endeavors should be seen as a microcosm for Palestinian-Israeli coexistence. If Muslims and Jews can abandon exaggerated ethnocentrism and focus on shared universal values, good things are bound to happen. It is imperative, the artists argue, to find the common ground, and music is just one example.
“SAZ has been rhyming about his struggle since the age of 16. Through his music, he hopes to give the Palestinian people inspiration to turn away from drugs and violence and pursue an education. He says he encourages Palestinian pride both within Israel and in the territories while disdaining violence as a means for Palestinian statehood. Through his contact with Israeli Jews like Sagol, he’s come to support a two-state solution while calling for equal treatment of Palestinians living in Israel.
SAZ’s performance radiates tremendous energy onto the crowd. He races through nifty lyrics poking satire at his neighborhood and at the state’s policies then pauses, tells the DJ, “slow down the tempo,” and swaggers sinuously on the dance floor at ease with the microphone and the crowd at his feet.
He is not afraid to be introspective and to assign criticism onto his people. One of his songs Meen Yoom (Since that Day), bemoans what he detects as apathy for inner social change, “We’re standing-still, close mouthed and ignoring what’s around us, Instead of blaming ourselves, We blame everybody else.”
But in the same breath, he also spells his grievances at the Israeli government, “The sound of a lifetime struggle of a nation struggling, Against the occupation,
For corruption has eaten our bones; what is left of our heart,From hunger we eat ourselves.”
Sagol 59 takes a more reconciliatory approach. Through Corner Prophets, a cultural initiative he co founded, Sagol seeks to inspire Israeli and Palestinian children to use music as a channel for finding a common ground. Corner Prophets organizes several hip hop and art-related events in Jerusalem to provide an outlet for the engagement of the city’s diverse youth within the realm of performing arts. Sagol and SAZ have performed numerous times together as vocal supporters of coexistence.
Sagol could, however, just as easily have lost hope. In the gruesome 2002 bombing of the Hebrew University cafeteria, he lost Benny Blutstein, his music partner and close friend. But instead of lambasting all Palestinians, he chose to simply honor Benny through his eulogy, Big Ben: “Once again July 1st 2002, Mount Scopus , Jerusalem. Blood pours like water… Meanwhile who is gone won’t come back,
And then on a hot day all was over and not done.
A flight ticket home covered with blood,
And three coffins go on the plane.”
Controversially, during the second intifada, Sagol, along with Shaanan Streett, the frontman for successful Israeli rappers Hadag Nahash, and Arab rapper Tamer Naffar wrote “Summit Meeting” together – the first-ever Jewish-Arab hip hop collaboration.
The song received both negative and positive attention in Israel, a country going through pandemonium at the time. During a period of post-Oslo accords backlash, the song called on the leaders of both nations to stop the violence and resume talks.
When asked about the nature of his friendship with SAZ, Sagol 59 said it was strong, and that their differences of opinions don’t stunt their friendship from blossoming.
We have a lot more in common than what sets us apart,” Sagol said.
SAZ agrees. “Our love for music brings us together,” he said, adding that today his message is a human message, not just a Palestinian one. “I have the same dreams, same nightmares, and the same issues that you deal with,” he explained.