Hamilton and hip-hop have a message for Jerusalem

Hamilton and hip-hop have a message for Jerusalem.

English rapper Little Simz (left) with Palestinian rapper Saz (photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)
English rapper Little Simz (left) with Palestinian rapper Saz
(photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)
Spring had finally come to Jerusalem when the Forbes 30 Under 30 summit played host to around 600 young innovators at the Israel Museum on April 6.
Part of a four-day event in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, many of the participants showed up in sunglasses and sporting hangovers, they reclined on bean-bag chairs splayed out in front of the iconic Ahava statue on the museum grounds.
On stage, Forbes editor Zack O’Malley Greenburg moderated a discussion of the role of hip-hop as a social movement with panelists including English rapper Little Simz, Palestinian rapper SAZ, and Okierete Onaodowan, part of the Grammy-award winning cast of the Broadway rap musical Hamilton.
“I was listening to a podcast… [by a woman who is an] activist from Bahrain, and she was saying how she grew up listening to pop and how, in the struggle of black people, that helped her in her activism,” said Onaodowan.
He sees a universal message in the music that gives a voice to the oppressed and those without power.
There is also the strength that people derive from it.
“The beats are primal and it’s like you are going to war.”
For Onaodowan, who is often known as “Oak,” playing both president James Madison and Hercules Mulligan, an American who spied on the British, has allowed him to channel hip-hop into an unlikely place: the American Revolution.
On Broadway, Hamilton has been sold out since it opened in 2015.
(While speaking with Oak, one man came up and complained he couldn’t get tickets.) One of the innovations of Hamilton, besides using hip-hop as a medium for the musical, was to have a cast that includes numerous people of color, and depicting a period in American history when black people were more likely to be slaves than free. Madison owned slaves. Oak argues that we need more images of minorities in popular culture and musicals like this and more accessible forms of hip-hop.
In some ways, his life story is an example of this kind of minority success.
Born in New Jersey in the 1980s to a Nigerian immigrant family, he was a football player. “I got in trouble in New Jersey; I played linebacker and got in trouble a lot.”
Then one day he got injured and, unable to play, he took up acting because he could sing. Initially he auditioned for the role of George Washington in the play, but ended up playing the spy Mulligan.
“He was a tailor who spied on the British and was involved in the Sons of Liberty secret organization. He would get info and give it to Alexander Hamilton; they had lived together [before the war].”
Mulligan himself was an Irishman who actually owned a slave who helped him in his spying endeavors. After the war, Mulligan became a member of an abolition society, but his fate is unknown to history.
“I wasn’t interested in history,” said Oak, but he said the characters themselves are interesting.
“It’s not difficult to approach people as individuals; they can be white or black, that’s the way you can understand one another.”
This is Oak’s first time in Israel. All he knew before came from the media, but he doesn’t seem reluctant to be here.
“It’s beautiful, and Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are very different. Jerusalem has a reverence for culture and history and artifacts.” He was astounded, on a tour in the Old City, to see ancient walls dating to the First Temple period.
“Then there are kids playing nearby… in some places you might worry about kids vandalizing, but people here acknowledge the sacred and it’s beautiful.”
He found Israelis and Palestinians he met warm and friendly.
One of the messages of the Forbes event at the Israel Museum was the issue of coexistence. In subsequent panels, members of Seeds of Peace and Yala spoke. On the stage with Oak was a Palestinian rapper.
“I am super confident of [the ability of] hip-hop to reach out. You don’t need to have an ear for it, it’s primal...
the music of the time. Hip-hop resonates and it has a power because of the youth,” he says.
Walking toward the drinks table, he said he was happy to be on break from the musical. In mid-March he had the chance to meet the Obamas.
“It was amazing at the White House,” he said. Nevertheless, some of his main messages have to do with the power of poetry and music.
“I’m a poet, and its mainly things to myself; something I try to say is ‘find your truth and then find me.’ In terms of communication, it is important to do that, to look within yourself and to teach people how to love.
“I have to learn how to speak your language… to coexist you need to understand each other’s language, and in hip-hop that is something people understand, but it could also have been an AC/DC track.”