Hip Hop and Rap have quickly grown in popularity among artists on both sides of the Arab Israeli conflict. In the following blog post, we will examine two hip hop artists who express their pain, struggle, and the complexities of the conflict in their lyrics. First, Hadag Nachash, the Israeli rap group that has gained popularity among Israeli youth as well as Jewish youth around the world. Then we will look at Shadia Mansour, the “First Lady of Arab Hip Hop” who fights with her lyrics for the freedom for the Palestinian people.
Hadag Nachash literally translates to Fish Snake but is a play on the Hebrew word for a new driver. The group was founded in Jerusalem in 1996. The group focuses their music on the controversial issues of Israel such as the peace process, the political atmosphere of Israeli society, and the recreational drug use throughout the country. Much of the groups work involves protest songs surrounding issues and actions of the Israeli government.
The group has made tremendous contributions to the hip hop and rap scene in Israel. With seven albums, the group is still among the most popular artists in Israel today. It is not uncommon to hear in their lyrics protest against the government, issues of corruption, violence against women, Israeli wars, and even views towards different religious sects. No song better describes the groups “voice” than their 2004 hit Shirat HaSticker (The Sticker Song), written by famed Israeli novelist David Grossman.
Israel is a very small country. With a population just over seven million and a land not much bigger than the state of Connecticut, this country is small but loud. When someone takes a political stance, it is like they are identifying the core of their being. Many Israeli’s do this through bumper stickers on their car. It is not uncommon to pull up behind a car like the one below, drowning in political messages of support or protest.
On November 4, 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated as he was leaving a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Rabin had been working with the Palestinian’s to reach a peace agreement between the two sides. Many of the opposition party strongly condemned Rabin for his negotiations with the Palestinians. A right wing Jewish extremist shot and killed Rabin in protest. This shook the nation. The first presidential assassination of the country, Israelis had a hard time coping with the idea of a Jew killing another. The country went into a state of mourning. A few days after the assassination while driving down a rural road, Israeli essayist and novelist David Grossman noticed a man scraping off a bumper sticker from a car that read “Rabin the Murderer.” It was then that Grossman realized the important role bumper stickers play in Israeli society and embarked on a project to share this with others.
After meeting with members of the rap group, Grossman transformed 54 bumper sticker phrases into rhythmic lyrics for the rap group to put to music. The product was “The Sticker Song” which sold over 15,000 copies in the first two months. As Samuel Freedman describes it in his 2004 New York Times article, “In the hands of Mr. Grossman and Hadag Nachash, the words speak to the almost unbearable passion of political debate here, which, as with Rabin’s killing, can shift from verbal violence into the lethal sort.”
The song exposes the volatile political environment of the time with a sort of Jamaican dub beat in the background. In John Streets book Music & Politics, he notes that “explicitly political music is not the preserve of the fringes of the musical culture. It is there in the mainstream.” This song by one of the hottest rap groups in Israel was explicitly poitical and absolutely in the mainstream. Youth were able to connect with complex political issues through the lyrics of this song.
Before diving into some examples of bumper stickers, one must first understand the meaning behind. There are essentially seven groups that the various stickers could be categorized under. First is the “leftwing” movement which typically advocate for peacemaking through diplomacy. The “rightwing” messages promote peace through strength, denounce Arabs, and express skepticism towards peace treaties. Then there are the religious and secular categories. Religious believe in God as the ultimate power and are waiting for Messiah. The secular movement holds opposition towards the integration of religious Jewish law into Israeli law. The Zionist movement is expressed through support for Israel and its military. The final category could be described as “humorous,” poking fun at the previous six categories.
The following are three examples of bumper stickers taken from the lyrics. First, Gius L’Chulam (Draft Everybody) is based on the secular bumper sticker demanding that everyone be drafted into the Israeli Army. While army service is compulsory in Israel, thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews have been entitled to full exemption from service. This created friction between the secular and religious communities in Israel. Today, the laws have changed and orthodox Jews must do some form of service.
The next example is in the lyric Yesha Zeh Kan (Judea/Samaria/Gaza is here). Yesha is a Hebrew acronym for Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip. This refers to the West Bank & Gaza, the territories that are likely to one day be given as land for a Palestinian state. This bumper sticker refers to the views of the far right who believe the land belongs to Israel.
Finally, the bumper sticker Shalom Chaver (Goodbye Friend) refers to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. After his assassination, then President Bill Clinton ended an address about his death by saying the Hebrew phrase Shalom Chaver, “Goodbye Friend.”
In addition to the wide array of lyrics across the political spectrum, one can notice that in the video, the rap group depicts all sorts of charged stereotypes of citizens involved with the conflict. This song and others by the group show the importance that music plays in the political spectrum of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Turning to the Palestinian narrative, we will look at the female rapper Shadia Mansour. Born in London to Christian Palestinian parents, Mansour fell in love with music at a young age. As a child, she would sing at Palestinian protest rallies and quickly became known among the community within London. Mansour began to make a career out of her passion for music and began touring in 2003. She considers herself to be a part of a “musical intifada against the occupation of Palestine, the oppression of women, and conservatism within her own community.”
One of her most popular songs, Kufiyah Arabiah (The Kufiya is Arab) deals with the struggle of the popularization of the Arab scarf, the Kufiya. While on tour in America, Mansour came across a blue and white Kufiya with a Star of David on it. These are the colors and symbol of the Israeli flag. Mansour expressed her anger and disappointment at this ironic contradiction of a symbol of the Palestinian protest movement and Arab pride in this song. She began a concert in New York by saying, “You can take my falafel and hummus, but don’t fucking touch my Kufiya.”
The lyrics are filled with strong political statements tied to the personal narrative of the artist. “They began playing a long time ago by wearing it as a fashion accessory. No matter how create they become, no matter how they change its color, an Arab Kufiya will remain Arab.” Mansour expresses the frustration at seeing this scarf being worn as a “hipster” item in America. The lyrics go on, “Our kufiya: they want it. Our culture: they want it. Our dignity: they want it. Everything that’s ours: they want it.” There are two meanings perceived behind these lyrics. The more surface level meaning references the American’s taking the kufiya and misrepresenting it. But looking deeper, a second meaning could see these lyrics as referring to the occupation by the Israeli government. Mansour uses analogies like this one throughout her song.
Later in the song, Shadia Mansour identifies herself and her outright connection with the struggle. “I am Shadia the Arab. My tongue stabs like a knife…My words are a letter. Record it! I am Shadia Mansour and the kufiya is my identity.” Mansour makes her lyrics personal, bringing a large complex conflict down to an individual level. Here once again we can see the dynamic relationship between music and politics within the Arab-Israeli conflict.
John Street refers to the idea of an “invisible republic” in making music and making history. He notes that music can bring people together and effect “not just the lives of individual fans, but [also] the fate of nations.” The Arab-Israeli conflict is a complex struggle well beyond the reach of fully understanding by any individual, group, or nation. Artists like Idan Raichel, Hadag Nachash, and Shadia Mansour have used music as a means for understanding, protesting, and coping with the intricate political environment surrounding the conflict.
“Biography.” הדג נחש Hadag Nahash. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.
Donnison, John. “British Palestinian Rapper Conducts a ‘musical Intifada’ – BBC News.” BBC News. BBC, 7 Sept. 2010. Web. 01 May 2015.
Freedman, Samuel G. “Honk If You Love to Sing Bumper Stickers; Israeli Author Turns Slogans Into Rap Hit.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Aug. 2004. Web. 01 May 2015.
Hadag Nahash. Shirat HaSticker (The Sticker Song). 2004. MP3.
Mansour, Shadia. Kufiyah Arabiah. Shadia Mansour. 2010. MP3.
Street, John. Music and Politics. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2012. Print.
 “Biography.” הדג נחש Hadag Nahash. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.
 Freedman, Samuel G. “Honk If You Love to Sing Bumper Stickers; Israeli Author Turns Slogans Into Rap Hit.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Aug. 2004. Web. 01 May 2015.
 Freedman. Note: 15,000 copies in Israel is equivalent to roughly 750,000 copies sold in the US.
 Street, John. Music and Politics. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2012. Print.
 Hadag Nahash. Shirat HaSticker (The Sticker Song). 2004. MP3.
 Donnison, John. “British Palestinian Rapper Conducts a ‘musical Intifada’ – BBC News.” BBC News. BBC, 7 Sept. 2010. Web. 01 May 2015.
 Mansour, Shadia. Kufiyah Arabiah. Shadia Mansour. 2010. MP3.
 Street 98.