It’s been 25 years since hip hop rappers Hadag Nahash appeared on the Israeli music scene, introducing their brand of feel-good Middle Eastern groove with a hefty dose of Israeli left-wing politics.
They’re still writing, singing and performing. Frontman Shaanan Streett has continued to celebrate his six-way partnership, alongside solo ventures including his first novel, “A Moment of Eternity,” which is about Jerusalem skateboarders and graffiti artists.
Streett spoke with The Times of Israel for a recent episode of the weekend podcast Times Will Tell, discussing his book, his decision to continue living and working in his hometown of Jerusalem, and his decade-long effort to learn Arabic.
The final song of Streett’s latest album is “Arabiyaty ElMaksura,” (“My Broken Arabic”).
Like each of the 11 songs on the album “Ideals,” the track was made by a different producer, in this case one from Nazareth.
In the chorus, Streett sings, “I’ve lived here all my life, and I’m happy to share my words with anyone who’s willing to hear just how broken up my Arabic is.”
Streett, 50, was born in Israel to American parents and is fluent in Hebrew and English, but didn’t begin learning Arabic until he was 40.
He said that while Israelis are learning Arabic in greater numbers than ever before, there’s something unique about studying it in Jerusalem, whose Arab neighborhoods, in East Jerusalem, are a world apart from the Jewish areas of the capital.
“When you study in Jerusalem, you take your car and you cross an unseen line into another world and you park your car in the other world where everybody is now speaking Arabic, where you are now a minority,” said Streett. “And if you want to go and buy a beigele, which I do and I do it in Arabic, everybody knows that this here is now the Jew coming to speak in Arabic.”
It is the diversity found in Jerusalem that has kept Streett in the city, he said, despite his Hadag Nahash bandmates and many friends having migrated to Tel Aviv.
“[Jerusalem] reminds you every day that numerous people lead a very different everyday life than you do,” said Streett. “And you can dip your toe in that for as deep as you want. So the old, the new, the religious, the secular, the different religions, the different languages, the different cultures. It looks very nice on a postcard. It’s sometimes very difficult to live through, but it’s always interesting.”
Hadag Nahash tackles those difficult situations in its music, for example in the award-winning “The Sticker Song” with lyrics by Israeli author David Grossman about political slogans on Israeli bumper stickers. It also became the soundtrack of the 2011 social justice protests. But the band has learned that the music has to entertain as well, he said.
“When we were writing songs 20 years ago, 25 years ago, 15 years ago, we wanted to be honest about who we were and what we think is the right way to go and where the country went wrong and where society should reassess its opinions. And that’s still the deal today,” he said. “But somewhere along the way, I really understood wholeheartedly and not only as an idea, but also not only as ideal, but also as something that I try to live by, that it needs to be fun.”
Israel, said Streett, can be “incredibly fun together with being incredibly difficult and screwed up.”
His hometown, Jerusalem, also features in Streett’s latest project, his recently published novel, “Rega Netzah,” about skateboarders and graffiti artists, which initially began as a screenplay but grew into a book as he worked on it for over a year (available in local skateboard shops too, usually the only book on the shelf, noted Streett).
He took on the subject after noticing that some of his friends were former skaters, and because he often connected with skateboarders, despite having never skated.
Streett began interviewing local skateboarders, aiming to understand their stories and their determination to jump despite the risks. He also examined the natural connection between skateboarding and graffiti artists.
“In a way, I understand these people jumping staircases and graffiti,” he said. “They live that way by that code. And even if they break a bone, whatever they break, they’ll be back once it heals and try to jump the same staircase.”
Another of Streett’s projects is the Dream A Dream podcast, which he co-hosts with Elran Dekel and Bryan Steiner. The trio interprets their guests’ dreams, and are all about trying new things, without pretensions of expertise, said Streett.
There’s a natural connection between all of it, said Streett, from his initial decision to make hip-hop music in Hebrew to writing about skateboarding, graffiti and even dream interpretation.
“It’s like you need less of a necktie,” said Streett, using a popular Israeli saying that means “come as you are.” “You take off the tie and you were a painter, but now you’re a graffiti artist. So hip-hop has the same element.”
Ditto for dream interpretation or anything else he may take on.
It’s all fun to do, Streett said. And “once again, no necktie.”
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