Rapping up Birthright

Birthright youth join Israeli hip-hop star Shi360 in singing the praises of Israel.

rapper shi360 88.298 (photo credit: )
rapper shi360 88.298
(photo credit: )
When Taglit-birthright participant and aspiring rapper JAYO heard that their group would be meeting Israeli hip-hop star Shi360 to record a song, he took the task seriously. On the way over to the Boca club on Rehov Carlebach in Tel Aviv, he dashed off on a torn piece of paper a rap about his first trip to Israel. Little did he know that he'd enjoy more than six minutes of Israeli hip-hop fame. On January 9, Taglit-birthright alumnus Shai Haddad, aka Shi360, hosted a Taglit-birthright group consisting of 38 Americans age 18-25, as well as 10 Israeli soldiers with backgrounds in the arts, for a round of raps about their trip to Israel. Every year, Taglit-birthright sends thousands of young Jewish adults on a free trip to Israel to ensure their connection to the country and their Jewish identity. Israel is hosting some 10,000 young Jewish adults from 29 countries via the program this winter. To date, more than 88,000 participants from 45 countries have traveled to Israel for the first time on Taglit-birthright trips. And while the event at Boca wasn't a ghetto, Eight Mile style hip-hop battle, Haddad pledged to use the best of the ditties as the hook-line of a new single produced by Shai360 about Israel, Taglit-birthright and Jewish identity. Before opening the stage to the birthright participants, Haddad described his aliya experience to the group, pulling no punches about the difficulties of living in Israel - particularly since Taglit-birthright programs generally emphasize the jewels of Israel rather than its warts. Born in Israel but raised in Montreal, Haddad left a high-powered executive job in 2001 to return to his roots. Shi360 saw this as a unique opportunity to give back to the program what he described as "the last nail in the coffin" of his decision to make aliya, and to get the word out about Taglit-birthright to Israelis and Jews abroad. "I wanted to do something different - something that had a long-term impact," Haddad told the crowd, flashing his gold metal chain and flag of Israel pendant. "Keep it real, keep it street, keep it gangsta. Israel really is gangsta, it's really tough." While he thinks Taglit-birthright is a great program, he doesn't think it shows enough of the Israeli "street." It was clear, however, from the atmosphere at the Boca club, where Haddad deejays hip-hop every Monday night, that this event was a jewel in the program's crown rather than a real revelation of the thorniness of Israeli life. Several of the participants came up with thoughtful poems or raps, while some sang the standard Israel-is-our-home message. JAYO was the first to perform his ditty to music prepared beforehand by Shi360's musical collaborator, Asaf Kotler. Clad in gangsta wear, elbows bouncing in true hip-hop style, JAYO sang: "[Yo]… I have seen the souls of my people through their eyes, the wisdom of the wise, the cries and the lies, the wives and the knives, from Eden to Israel what happened to the happy tales, the holy message or the grail, the sacrificial nail, now we need security details, M-16s to save lives…" Though Haddad could tell that he's a natural and talented rapper, it would be tough to make it as an English-speaking artist in Israel. "You got to speak the language that the people understand. It's very important in hip-hop." Then visual arts student Rebecca Harris, 18, from Morristown, New Jersey, took the stage, singing: "Take a look at these soldiers, their strength like a blue blanket enfolds us, a spring water in a wintry water…" Harris told Metro that she felt completely changed by her trip. "I feel a lot stronger in terms of myself, seeing Israel and being in a place where things actually have meaning." She has now committed herself to traveling more and possibly living in Israel for a month or two. While about 4,000 Taglit-birthright participants have made aliya since the program's founding, it is not a declared aim of the program but rather a valued benefit. Arthur Kenigstain, 24, of Brooklyn, said that initially "CNN scared my parents, scared me," regarding Israel; but now he doesn't "trust that crap anymore." So he sang: "Jerusalem, the holy city, praying at the Kotel, bringing Jews together, then partying at the Novotel. Taglit makes Israel look real cool, showing us that CNN is a big fool." But leave it to an Israeli soldier to sing a ditty that didn't mention Israel at all: "Look at me, look at you; we're all together now; now if you're wiling to unlock your heart, so let us show you how," sang Naomi Lwow, 19. The song expresses the transformative experience she had as an Israeli Taglit-birthright participant. "It was mind-blowing," she said. "I didn't know it would change me - I actually saw Israel through their eyes, and it was so powerful. I realized how much value we have here. I didn't understand profoundly why I'm here, and I came to understand why I want to be a Jew in Israel." Many Taglit-birthright programs now include Israeli soldiers as a way to burst the bubble and bring Jews abroad in contact with Israelis who live day-to-day Israeli lives. The following day, some of the participants met Shi360 at his studio in Ramat Gan to record the song. In the end, Haddad admitted that the rhymes of the novice rappers "didn't really work out." Instead, he took inspiration from them to create an original hook-line. The kids crammed into the recording studio to sing the chorus. For some, it was the first time recording in a studio. "It was really hands on. You feel like you're right in the middle of something," said Harris, who had never recorded professionally. Fortunately, however, the song was professionally mixed and completed in time for the following day's video shoot at the Quins club in Tel Aviv. The video follows Haddad's journey to Israel and culminates with the Taglit-birthright participants carrying him to the nightclub's stage and partying together. JAYO even performs a short rap he wrote. Shi360 thinks there's a good chance the song will be broadcast on Israeli radio and on Channel 24 - Israel's MTV. "Problem with radio in Israel is that they want a lot of fluff." For example, he said, Israeli radio stations are less open to his songs that deal with real-life issues such as child abuse, a theme he covers in his song "Break the Silence." But he's more hopeful about the Taglit-birthright song. "The song has a very strong message and content. I think it'll work because it's a strength that can't be ignored; it's not a right- or left-wing message - united we stand, divided we fall. Radio needs to get its act together and play some more real."