Hip Hopping Mad in the Holy Land: Sagol 59

In “The Land of No Hop” the rapper Sagol 59 (Khen Rotem) lays out evidence to justify his belief that despite a number of successful Israeli hip hop groups, the genre has not yet been born in Israel.

His reasons range from the fact that the most popular radio station is owned by the government and run by the army to the fact that swearing doesn’t sound as good in Hebrew as it does in English.

The points he makes are intriguing and each one opens up wider discussions. Hopefully, he’ll keep writing about this: To what degree does Galgalatz play music that is critical of Israel or the army? If the goal is to make Hip-Hop catch on, should Israeli hip-hop be sampling from “the pensive folk songs” that Israelis used to establish the state instead of less well known catalogues of Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes? Why can’t Israelis accept the alter-egos of rappers allowing for hip-hop myths to be created — why is sincerity so important?

As a cultural artifact, Sagol 59’s essay may be more telling about his own feelings of inauthenticity than the notion that Israelis will always prefer Eric Clapton to well crafted tracks. What is “always” and who are “Israelis?” It might be comforting for him to believe that these concepts exist, but this is probably wishful thinking or perhaps the indoctrination that he laments creeping back in to his own thoughts. Why must hip-hop achieve national cultural status in order to be thought of as “born”? If it manages to teach one lonely kid in Afula that his thoughts about life are reasonable and in need of expressing, might that not be enough?

Furthermore, there will always be a “next” in Israel as there is everywhere (although it is odd that one can still predict, with relative certainty, that if you sit long enough at a cafe in Israel, you will hear a Tracy Chapman record. And if you beg for the disc to be changed, you will then hear Bob Marley or the Doors).

Israeli hip-hop could help itself by giving up its penchant for unconsidered atavism. Sampling old songs is essential to the genre. But why must old American hip-hop phrases be recycled (often in translation) in Israeli rap? Self respecting rappers need no longer “come to the hood” or refer to the audience as “y’all.” Hip hop artists in israel will be championed when they tap into expansive specificity, not lingo.

As for whether an English word like “motherf***|er” inherently flows better into the ear than a Hebrew “benzona” a conversation that took place at a dinner party I recently attended is instructive:

When the evening’s talk turned to politics, one of the guests forgot himself and let out a string of indelicate profanity, only realizing after that the elegant hostess across from whom he sat may have regarded his manner as boorish and offensive. With his eyes agape, he apologized profusely. But she assured him:

“We don’t mind if you swear here… as long as you do it well.”

The graceful audience for Israeli hip-hop might just be waiting for the same.

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