Yo peace, bo shalom

Hip-hop thrives amid conflict and frustration, so it's no surprise to hear the beat on the streets of Tel Aviv. Sankha Guha meets the gangstas who are keeping it real in a war zone
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Life is good. I hear the words repeated like a mantra in Tel Aviv. I am in the city to find out how rap music has migrated from the mean streets of inner-city USA into a real war zone - albeit one tentatively negotiating a new peace settlement.

But, on first appearances, I can see very little evidence here of tension. Despite the crisp weather, all the fit young dudes are surfing the frothing Med without a care in the world. "This war has not been a major part of our life," says Univ, 24, a bartender. "Life is like in every normal place. People should come and visit Israel, and see it's a very, very nice place to live."

Notwithstanding the prevailing optimism, the endorsement sounds slightly shrill. I am looking across Hayarkon Street at Mike's Place. It was here on 30 April 2003 that a young Brit about the same age as Univ detonated his suicide bomb, killing three others. Suicide bombings are nothing new in the city, but rarely has the subject been addressed in Israel's popular culture - a culture now freshly infused with talk of peace. It's just one of the subjects, along with poverty and religious toleration, that Tel Aviv's rap artists are at last trying to address.

"The main problem here is that people get numb from looking at images on TV and the newspapers - they don't really feel the news inside them," says Quami De La Fox, the DJ and rapper. "All the Israeli showbiz - it's just a way off telling people there's not really a war going on. There is no intifada, no poverty, nothing collides between Palestinians and Israelis - the sun always shines. From musicians to politicians, to models, to TV hosts. Everyone who has that kind of power is getting tons of respect."

Quami's song "Black Dayz" is a satirical assault on the collective denial and mindless celebrity culture he sees around him. In the video, Quami's alter ego, a cold superhero called Captain Hip-Hop, cavorts with beautiful models and leads starship troopers into battle against galactic evil. It is Eminem, but funny (even though the exact meaning of the Hebrew words is lost on me). Eminem's humour may originate in the rage of Detroit's ghettos, but here the laughter springs from an altogether darker place.

Quami is talking in the comfort of his CD-lined living-room studio in an affluent residential district of Tel Aviv. The seafront bombs happened only a five-minute cab ride away, but he argues that even that tiny degree of separation can create the illusion of distance - where trouble happens elsewhere and to other people.

Lod is barely 20 minutes from the shining centre of Tel Aviv. It is nominally a mixed city, where both Israeli Jews and Arabs live together. But the Jews tend to be Sephardic and the majority are Arab Israelis. What they have in common is poverty. The streets are unpaved, the rubbish is uncollected, drains are open and the deprivation is tangible. There are 1.3 million Arab-Israelis (a fifth of the population of the country) and many endure similar living conditions. This is the 'hood of Tamer Nafar and his hip-hop crew called Dam - Da Arabic MCs.

"We chose hip-hop and hip-hop chose us," says Tamer. "We are the Negroes of the Middle East. Hip-hop was born in Brooklyn, in the ghettos of America. Lod is considered the biggest drug market of the Middle East - so it was just a matter of time."

Tamer, 24, lives with his family in a small flat in the run-down area. His bedroom (shared with his brother and fellow crew member Suhell) is dominated by giant posters of Che Guevara and Tupac Shakur, the West Coast gangsta rapper who was gunned down in 1996. Tupac appeals to Palestinian and Israeli youth alike. Despite (or maybe because of) his strutting machismo, misogyny and even his violent death, Tupac has hero status in both communities.

But even though they have a common idol, many Arab and Jewish MCs are as polarised as the politicians they excoriate. "I was born here, my grandparents were also born here - you will not sever me from my roots," rages Tamer in "Born Here", an anthem about dispossession.

Tamer takes me to Samekh-Het, one of the rougher parts of Lod. The cabbie will only drive to the edge of this district; Tamer says he is worried about the gangs. There is a police checkpoint across the road where we are dropped. "They are here on the excuse of fighting drugs," says Tamer.

It is dark now and Tamer leads me to a dingy alley just off the unpaved road. He points to some graffiti on the wall. "You see that - it's an arrow. It says this way for drugs. Look here, it's like an ATM." We are looking at a blocked-up hole in a breeze-block wall. It was once the kind of dead-letter drop favoured by dealers in the South Bronx in New York. It's been bricked up by police. "This was an opposite ATM - it didn't give you money; you have to put money in. And you'd get a packet of whatever you want. Crystal, coke, heroin - the heavy stuff."

As we walk, Tamer points out that this entirely Arab district is separated from an affluent Jewish settlement by a wall. It is a different world on the other side: of municipal services, clean streets and drug-free neighbourhoods. He says on official maps the shantytown we're walking through does not exist. When I refer to the corrugated sheeted dwellings around us as temporary, Tamer says: "It is not temporary, it is homes. This is the way people live here. These are homes."

In such bleak surroundings, it's hard to imagine that Arabs and Jews will ever co-exist within Israel, let alone solve the big issue of Palestinian sovereignty. But despite the tough talk of his lyrics, Tamer must be an optimist. He raps in Hebrew as well as in Arabic, believing that hip-hop may provide a common culture that can open a few minds.

And he has collaborated with several Israeli artists, including Quami, who says: "The effect of a song like Tamer and me did together is that Jews can look at Tamer and say, 'He's a person, he's not Arab to me, he's no different to me'. Maybe Tamer's crowd will look at me the same way - I can only hope so."

Tamer, for his part, has no naïve political expectations, but such projects prove that young people can work together and, perhaps more importantly, play together. "Instead of Muslim, Jewish, Christian - we are both hip-hoppers," he says. "It seems like a fun track - and Quami is my friend. And we just did it."

In Lod, Tamer shows off a cluster of religious buildings within a few hundred yards of each other. "Here you see Muslims, Jews, Christians together," he says. "It's beautiful. You can believe whatever you want. But it's only a symbol - it stops when you go to the basic law of Israel which says [Israel is the] Land for the Jews. They could say "Land for the Israelis" - then we could be Israeli Muslim, Israeli Jewish or Israeli Christian. You could even call this country Palestine - and people could be Palestinian Jews, Christians or Muslims. You could call the country Hip-Hop, or whatever, but when they specifically call it the Land of the Jews, they are cancelling millions of people."

The Republic of Hip-Hop? Here's a radical idea that has yet to get on the agenda of the peace initiative. Tamer grins and warms to his theme: "Yeah - Tupac could be prime minister."