One of the most popular musicians in Israel is getting lost in the Nickelodeon parking lot. Hatzel, or in English, "the Shadow," is circling in his supped-up black SUV looking for the back entrance of the film set for which he is already ten minutes late for. "It’s ok," Hatzel reassures, "we are operating on Israeli time. Being late is like being on time." Hatzel is an imposing, hulking individual. With multiple tattoos running up and down his muscular arms (including two Stars of David on each elbow), it would be easy to mistake him for a bouncer of a trendy bar or a teen pop star’s bodyguard. He is dressed in standard hip-hop garb; a black extra-large Roca Wear jersey, baggy black pants that are constantly sliding down, a doo-rag wrapped tightly around his head and he is adorned with an impressive display of bling-bling, most notably another Star of David prominently worn around his neck. Not exactly the sort of jewelry you’d find in your synagogue’s gift shop.
I ask him why he is so insistent on finding the back entrance. I naively suggest that we park in front and then ask someone where to go.
"That would be suicide," Hatzel retorts. "If we went through the front, we would never make it in." And it is at this moment that I begin to grasp what he means. We drive alongside a group of Israeli children, the ones lucky enough to sit in the audience for a live performance of their newest heroes, Hatzel and his partner, Subliminal. The group curiously looks into the car and notices the Shadow. They instantly begin to--for lack of a better term--freak out. I am reminded of the footage of the Beatles arriving for the first time in America. Girls are screaming for the man of their dreams, standing mere inches away. Boys bang on the car and point imposingly as if this was their way of communicating, we wish we were you. Hatzel is noticeably happy with this feverish reaction. After all, just a couple of years ago, he was a nobody—just an ex-soldier with a passion for hip-hop. Now, along with Subliminal, he is one of the most influential figures in Israel today. Teens hang on to their every rhyming word. Fans know their strong right-wing lyrics by heart. Apathetic youth across the land are now taking great pride in their Jewish heritage thanks to the pro-Israeli messages of Subliminal and Hatzel. Carefully, Hatzel pulls away from the mob of his fans. "Oh, ***," he says with a sense of relief as we view the children frantically chasing the car in the rear view mirror, "I will never, ever get used to that."
In a small country known for its sentimental folk music and patriotic sing-alongs, a major cultural transformation is taking place. Teens, who once sat around a campfire and sang about sowing the land and almond-bearing trees, are now hanging out on street corners and rapping about the kind of hoes not necessarily used for harvesting. When asked about the role models they had growing up, the older generation speaks about Moshe Dayan, David Ben Gurion, and Golda Meir. Inquire their more progressive youth and they’ll speak with great reverence of Tupac, DMX, and Jay-Z. "They’re living like they’re in America," says Shlomo, one of my taxi drivers. There’s a longstanding truism in Israel that if you want to know the direction in which the country is heading in, ask a taxi driver. "These kids are naive for thinking about a future in this rapping business when there is no market for it. We are a very small place." In spite his pessimism, Shlomo concedes, "I also have never seen anything become this popular in this country before. It makes sense though. Israelis love to talk a lot and rapping is like talking, no?"
"Rapping is the language of the streets," says controversial underground rapper, Rocky B. "And the government is no longer representing us, so we have to express our opinions this way." Rocky B, whose real name is Roi Assayag, is a tall, lanky 24-year-old with an impressively fluffy afro and a permanently glazed look. He is wearing baggy generic clothing and outdated glasses and a mischievously goofy smile as I walk into his Jerusalem apartment. "Welcome to the ghetto," he says as we walk up the poorly lit stairs. Upon walking into Rocky’s apartment, I am greeted by a refrigerator standing in the hallway. "Excuse the mess," he says. "We don’t clean that much." Calling his home "a mess" is an understatement; his apartment would qualify as unlivable. Clothes are haphazardly strewn about, dirty bowls are resting in random places and some filled with cigarette butts. Although Rocky B meant it as a joke, his apartment is indeed a slum, a decrepit version of the ghetto. Rocky then introduces me to his d.j., Walter the Einstein Frog. Walter, also Itay Drai, 19, sports a similar afro and sits lazily in his chair as if a hint of wind could blow him over. Before the interview even begins, they offer me some weed. I decline but that does not discourage them from partaking. In a cloud of smoke, I ask Rocky B. about discovering rap and he shares with me his affection for political musicians such as Public Enemy, Body Count, and Rage Against the Machine. "I had so much to say and when I heard these guys, I was like, wow. This is how I can communicate my philosophy."
Rocky B is very proud of his potent lyrical content but he beams with true accomplishment when we talk about Miklat ("Shelter"), a frequent gathering at a dingy Jerusalem bar that brings together Arabic, Israeli (like Israel’s first recording rapper, Segol 59), American, and Russian rappers for an United Nations-like hip-hop performance. "The capitalization of this state…Arabs and Jews throwing rocks at each other in the streets…I needed to wake up, man" Rocky B says frantically, as if his response was being timed. For someone under the influence of a mind-altering drug, he is quite alert. "F***, I needed to wake up, man. [And then] I found a book about the Black Panther movement in Israel. I saw them and I saw now and I decided that I was a Black Panther. We are in a state of emergency." With his new frame of mind, Rocky B then hooked up with a local d.j., Caress, and put on a hip-hop show called "Car Bomb" Some reacted with horror and disdain especially in a hostile environment where car bombs were not so uncommon. I ask Rocky if people reacted negatively.
"Of course they did," said Rocky, "but I am a terrorist. A lyrical terrorist. Just like Chuck D (of Public Enemy)."
The anti-establishment rapper shares with me his prickly beliefs, which revolve around a distinction that grows with popularity in Israel. Ironic that a state once founded as refuge for Jews is becoming a refuge from Judaism. "Look, I do not see myself as a Jew. I am an Israeli," he continues. "I am tired of this militant bull****. I am tired of mother f***ers talking about being Jewish and shouting ‘f*** Arabs’ like Subliminal and his crew."
But isn’t this just a different form of Black Power? This emergence of Israeli/Jewish pride, I ask.
"There is a big difference because the Black Power came from a movement of the underdog," interrupts Walter. "And we are not the underdogs now. A guy like Subliminal says he is keeping it real. But he is unreal."
"I see a great deal of hypocrisy of the Jews here because we are making our own Holocaust. But it is a slow Holocaust against the Palestinians," Rocky is genuinely annoyed. He speaks quite passionately, waving his arms around as if he was conducting an orchestra. I also take note of Rocky’s contradiction--moments ago, he spurned the yoke of religious affiliation. Now he uses "we" as he groups himself in with "the Jews." Appropriately enough, Rocky B’s most lyrically powerful song on his album is called "Enemy." The first verse’s narrative tells the listener that "I am the enemy of myself" and then ends with the rebuking message that "we are the enemies of ourselves."
I ask Rocky if he has dreams of a better place, if he has seen an Israel that would not need his lyrical revolution.
"I want to go to place where people have no race, no religion, no king…just independent thoughts. Where children on the street aren’t afraid of something."
But do you love being here? You sound so frustrated and tired.
"S***, yeah. This is my land. There is so much diversity here in Jerusalem. But to make connections in Israel between the ghettos is so hard. But places like the Miklat bring us together. The hip-hop unites us and that is why it is getting so popular today."
Rocky B takes out a cigarette, lights it and takes a long, satisfying drag. I tell him I need to go but I appreciate his time. Playing the hospitable-yet-stoned host, he walks me to the door and gives me a commonly used handshake that involves multiple hand positions.
"Keep it real," he says. I promise that I will.
TO BE CONTINUED.