Talking a thin line

The son of a decorated IDF sniper and the nephew of an Iranian general team up in New York to rap.

sneakes and mazzi 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
sneakes and mazzi 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – There’s a long, docile line of people waiting for over an hour in the biting December frost to slip into the jam-packed orbit of the Nuyorican Poets cafe in Alphabet City, New York. They are here to watch a show where two male rappers, one Israeli and one Iranian, team up with two female poets, one Palestinian and the other Jewish, to discuss Middle East politics, religion, identity, racism and terrorism. The crowd is a curious assortment of hip hop amateurs, ladies smothered in glossy lipstick and bundled in headscarves, young hipsters, Jewish mamas with stars of David dangling from their turtleneck sweaters, and startled low-key regulars, stepping into their favorite club for a night out of spoken word.
But beyond the genuine thirst of the crowd to delve into such topics – and perhaps a nagging need to witness some insubordinate scenes – there is a sense of excitement to view the premiere of a show which is the first in its kind. This is just the beginning of the launch of a tour that will hit US campuses in 2010 – as well as a preview into the tracks of an uncommon duo rap album on Muslim and Jewish identities, a hip hop interfaith jam of sorts, scheduled to come out later in the year. The gig stems from the collaboration of the two hip hop artists, Yoni Ben-Yehuda (aka Sneakas) and Mazzi Behi (aka Mazzi), who decided to add an extra layer of political content by weaving in the verses of two poets Vanessa Hidary (Jewish) and Tahani Salah (Palestinian) between their tracks. Upcoming performances include a show on February 16th at the Nuyorican Poets cafe, as well as for students on campus at SUNY Albany on February 22nd. 
All four artists turn their backs on the cliché of epitomizing Jews and Muslims who can only join hands in a message of peace by temporarily agreeing to downplay their origins. “It would be far easier to mirror that idealism, but the aim is to get down in the mud, and express our clashing viewpoints, because that’s where it gets interesting,” says Sneakas. Instead, the artists celebrate their diversity to prove to the crowd that their contrasting views can come together to challenge the commonly made mental representations of the conflict. “The moral of the story, if there is one, is that we are gloriously imperfect. No one is purely a victim nor entirely innocent. Our truth is raw and unfiltered, so it strikes an authentic chord.” Such an approach is novel and refreshing because it urges audience members to recognize each side’s narrative in its quest for peace.
LYRICALLY, PERHAPS the most striking track is from the fictional story of an Israeli soldier who comes face to face with a suicide bomber in an Israeli market. (“You have no idea what it’s like to protect your family from terrorism every night / While other teenagers have fun to pass the time / I serve on the border of Israel and Palestine.”) Homesick and weary, with a seemingly heavy-hearted conscience, the fighter spots a guy who “looks strange” and starts to follow him through the crowd, M-16 in hand. Dripping in sweat, the alleged terrorist is distressed, wrestling with his live-or-die decision. The Muslim rapper plunges into the psychological state of the character: “This is harder than I thought, and I’m having second ones / I’m a man and if I stop, will I be a lesser one?” Finally, the opponents’ eyes meet and the “world [goes] silent.” Did the Israeli soldier shoot the suspect or did the suicide bomber blow up into pieces? The listener is left to soak up the scene of confusion. Both artists claim that writing the song flowed naturally; each author scribbled his own paragraphs, delving into the character that he wished to represent.
Another song tackles the issue of racism, but with a comic twist to ridicule hate speech. Instead of preaching against stereotyping, the MCs blast out dogmatic comments. “By making people laugh about clichés, we’re taking the sting away from insults. It’s the same approach as with African-American rappers who flipped the N-word to remove its stigma,” notes Sneakas. He jokes to the Muslim about the money-grabbing stereotype of Jews (‘We’re not that different…you follow the prophet and I follow the profit’) whereas Mazzi portrays a culturally backward image of the Muslim migrant (‘My uncle works at a 7-11 and drives a taxi cab…he might be busy all up in his harem trizzing (editors note: messing around) with many wives’). The audience bursts into laughter – here its eclectic members can let off steam together, away from traditional, cozy communitarian havens. 
In another track, Mazzi blurts “I’m talented, Persian, Shi’ite and educated.” Why? “People usually assume I am a Puerto Rican kid from Harlem or the Lower East Side,” he says. “They don’t grasp the difference between Persian and Arab, and they don’t expect me to converse with clarity.”
Sneakas firmly believes that you can change people’s mental representations in one night and “succeed where politicians can’t”. The bluntness of the show is admittedly “scary – you’re standing in front of a crowd, not having the faintest idea who your audience is.” He believes it’s vital to be consistent in the message, to overcome the urge to adapt it to the crowd’s temperament or views. The tone must be invariable, whether the show is playing in “New York, Alabama, Teheran, Jerusalem or Paris.”
SNEAKAS AND Mazzi met through a musical project in which DJ Waleed Coyote, of Lebanese descent, and rapper MC Serch, who is Jewish, are developing a compilation featuring Jewish and Muslim/Arab hip hop artists. Serch executive-produced the first two albums of US rapper Nas, Illmatic and It Was Written, which are among the most critically acclaimed rap albums of the 1990s. Coyote and Serch plan to bring celebrities on board for the record. The project aims to advance a message of peace and donate all of the proceeds to orphanages caring for both Palestinian and Israeli children.  
While the compilation CD is still a work in progress, Sneakas and Mazzi have already hit it off and started writing a range of tracks – they have seventeen so far – on themes ranging from religion to racism, peace to terrorism, to produce their own album. In the meanwhile, they have added a new element to their gigs, and a deeper dimension to their message, by including poetry recitals between the songs. “These initiatives are organically growing in all directions,” says Mazzi, adding that no one has yet pulled together ties that connect the hip hop industry with Middle East identity politics. This was more than tempting for both rappers; in fact, it was a dream that each had separately craved for a long time.
Despite being friends on and off the stage, Mazzi and Sneakas clearly disagree on everything, “from food to politics, women and basketball,” the Israeli laughs. But they have striking similarities, albeit from opposing sides: Sneakas’s father is a decorated IDF sniper while Mazzi’s uncle is an Iranian general. They were born in Israel and Iran, respectively, but have both lived most of their lives in New York. They both express deep loyalty to their communities, but each refuses to define themselves as either “Jewish” or “Muslim” artists. Theirs is first and foremost an artistic journey, aimed at enriching the quality of the music. What clearly motivates them is to reach a higher creative level, although “I have no choice but to be driven by the political causes – it is part of me,” Mazzi says. “If I don’t do this, I won’t be complete as an artist.” 
SIPPING ON tea at a Starbucks in Chelsea, Sneakas muses jokingly that he’s an “East Coast college kid and a white Jewish rapper who wasn’t broke growing up.” But that tale reveals an important point: “I represent a minority voice in the hip hop world that doesn’t exist. Generally, the African Americans identify with the Palestinian cause because they see it as a struggle similar to theirs.”
Mazzi also sips tea as he sits in a Dunkin’ Donuts in Midtown, munching on chocolate cake. He agrees that Muslim rappers are indeed more visible on the hip-hop scene than their Jewish counterparts, but in his view they lack the skillful beats and catching tunes that could attract a demanding audience. Therefore, “their political message generally overshadows their art.” He believes that he “can’t sit here and constantly point fingers at the Israeli population” because he himself “lives on a stolen land that the US took from Native Americans.” He considers that “Hamas controlling Gaza is similar to the militiamen who guarded towns and villages in the US during the American revolutionary war in the 1770’s.”
Politically, Mazzi defines himself as a “peacenik theocrat.” He once believed in the Khomeiny revolution, attended a private speech given by Ahmedinejad for 200 selected Iranians living in the US, and now works with charities to help alleviate the poverty of Gaza’s children. Sneakas lives at least three months every year in Israel, believes that Israel “gets a lot of unnecessary criticism” and vehemently objects to the statement that “Zionism is a dirty word.”
Obviously, it takes more than good intentions to transform a politicallandscape where both sides are sorely fighting for the same land. Theshow and upcoming interfaith album may not trigger a new peace summit,but the idea is to impact each individual in the audience. “We want tochallenge anger” says Sneakas. Mazzi, who recently visited the WestBank, Gaza and Tel Aviv recently, saw with his own eyes how “hip hopcan bring together Israeli and Palestinian rappers” who know nothing ofeach other “apart from their music.”
Perhaps in music, as in peace negotiations, there is an intrinsic value to talking – or rapping – after all.