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One of the first jobs that Shai Haddad landed when he came to Israel in 2001 was that of a shoe salesman at Aldo's. He left a well-paying, three-piece-suit job as a project manager for an insurance/investment company in Montreal to fulfill his dream of living in Israel. But he didn't care. He was willing to do whatever it took to live in Israel, even at the height of the intifada.
Now he's a well-known figure on the Israeli hip-hop scene, and his commercial hit "Kabel" is played regularly on Israeli airwaves and in dance clubs. He never thought that he'd make a living doing what he loves: hip-hop.
"I did whatever it took to pay the rent," says Haddad. "I started from scratch."
Well, not completely. He had already tried his hand at aliya in 1997. During that time he met the then-unknown rapper Kobi "Subliminal" Shimoni, today the prince of Israeli hip-hop. They met at a record shop, recognized their mutual love of hip-hop and became fast friends. In fact, it was Haddad who gave Shimoni his rapper name "Subliminal."
But Haddad knew that to really make it in Israel he'd have to save some money and put his undergraduate education behind him. He completed his degree in business in Montreal, worked and then decided - after a Taglit-birthright trip in 2001 - that it was time to give it all up to make aliya.
While struggling in a string of dead-end jobs in Israel, Haddad perfected his Hebrew rhyming skills and got gigs on local stations Radio Tel Aviv and Radio BU as a hip-hop DJ. He then started DJing in clubs, but a heart problem prevented him from performing on stage. About a year after Haddad arrived in Israel, Subliminal became a hip-hop phenomenon, and Shi360 became part of the elite local hip-hop clique.
Haddad's rapper name, Shi360, epitomizes the essential themes in Haddad's life and music "360" signifies the full circle he completed in leaving Israel with his family at age five and returning on his own to Israel at age 29. SHI is the acronym for Supreme Hebrew Intellect: "Hebrew" as an expression of Jewish pride and "Supreme Intellect" as a reference to smart lyrics.
"When you're battling lyrically, you have to be sharp, you have to battle your opponent," he says.
Subliminal's label, TACT, signed Haddad in 2004, and his album Chai has enjoyed relative success in hip-hop circles. The album is very revealing of Haddad's struggles and opinions.
"I'm very candid about my life, myself. I have a song where I'm very vulnerable and I talk about my experience and things I have to go through."
His lyrics are sprinkled with quotes from the Psalms, references to Judaism and unabashed mentions of God. Haddad considers himself more of a "conscious" rapper than a Zionist rapper.
The music industry in Israel, as most of the arts, is generally associated with the Left, post-Zionist camp, so it's rare to find an artist who is so proudly in tune with his Jewish identity.
"It's sad when people say Zionism is racism - especially coming from Israelis or Jews," he says. "When people asked me if I was Left or Right, I couldn't understand why it's so categorized. I don't consider myself left-wing or right-wing. I just really love Israel and don't think there's any shame in being proud of your country."
For example, when Subliminal's album came out at the height of the intifada with messages of love for his country, some reviewers called him a fascist. "It's cool to tell the army you're a psychopath [to get out of army service - a reference to rocker Aviv Geffen] and to go to India and do drugs, but it's not cool to go out against drugs and say you love Israel."
But even now that his dream is coming true, he has not forgotten his Jewish roots. His connection to his roots has contributed to the honesty of his music. He makes it a point to sing about real issues - the pitfalls and triumphs of the Jewish state such as child abuse, addiction to remote controls and government bureaucracy.
Since being signed, Haddad started his own label called EMeT - the Hebrew word for "truth" and an acronym for "art, music, and culture."
"Too many rappers in Israel try to be like Jay-Z or 50 cent. I'm trying to bring more real hip-hop to the Israel scene, to stay as truthful and honest as we can behind the mike."
And he's not about to let his marketing and business background go to waste, either. He intends to go for his MBA in a few years, once his career is more stable. Like his friend Subliminal, who recently opened a mega bar in Tel Aviv and is coming out with a new alcoholic beverage, Haddad is looking into more entrepreneurial ventures. He wants to create a local hip-hop clothing line called For Real, inspired by "truth, realness - IsReal."
For even with his moderate success on the hip-hop scene, record sales can never make ends meet, and he's still making less than he did at his executive job in Montreal.
While he's aware that making aliya is not easy, he remains committed to this country and thinks more people should be doing it.
"The more we'll be here, the stronger we'll get. I'm all for aliya - if you're ready for it; but it's not for everyone."
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