Hip-hop, that rhythmic, rhyming speech pattern that has become one of the most popular music forms worldwide, provided a way of life for the three musicians sitting under the hot Jerusalem morning sun on a recent April morning.
The three artists, London star Little Simz, Okieriete Onaodowan from hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” and Arab rapper SAZ, were on hand at the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa). The summit is part of the Forbes magazine annual 30 Under 30 events, bringing together 600 young entrepreneurs from the US, Europe, the Middle East and Africa for five days of collaboration and exposure to Israel this week.
“Three-quarters of the people here have never been in Israel before, so for them to come to a summit and experience this entrepreneurial place adds to the experience,” said Randall Lane, editor of Forbes magazine.
The 30 Under 30 participants were sprawled on bean bags and pillows in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum sculpture garden. Onstage, next to the iconic Robert Indiana Ahava/Love sculpture, the three artists — moderated by Forbes senior editor Zack O’Malley Greenburg — talked about the genre of hip-hop, and how each of them became inspired by it at different points in their lives.
Hip-hop, pointed out Greenburg, is having its global moment in the mainstream, given its exposure in Broadway hits like “Hamilton,” in which playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda tells the story of American revolutionary Alexander Hamilton in rap form; television show “Empire” about the hip-hop industry; and the 2015 film “Straight Outta Compton,” depicting life in southern Los Angeles, where the genre was first created.
Oak, as Onaodowan calls himself, said he discovered hip-hop on his own as a young teen. His family is Nigerian and while he was raised in the US, his family’s culture was more influenced by their native land than American culture.
“I discovered things myself,” said Onaodowan. “I just loved listening to hip-hop, I love the words. The angry words resonated with me.”
In “Hamilton,” which has grossed $61.7 million since moving to Broadway from Off Broadway last July, Onaodowan plays the roles of President James Madison and Hercules Mulligan, a tailor who spied on the British. (The video below is from a performance of several “Hamilton” actors at The White House; Lin-Manuel Miranda, the “Hamilton” playwright, is second from right, Onaodowan is to his right.)
Little Simz, a North London hip-hop artist who self-released her critically acclaimed debut album “A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons” — named one of the best albums of 2015 by Vogue — said she first heard hip-hop when she was around nine years old. She’s now 22.
“I was listening to [hip-hop artists] Missy Elliot and Ludacris, and what drew me to it was the visual,” she said. “As I got older, I got more into the concept of it and the storytelling and what people actually had to say.”
Lauryn Hill, said Little Simz, referring to the former lead singer of The Fugees, was an early influence, quoting Hill’s line from her song “Lost Ones”: “It’s funny how money change a situation/Miscommunication leads to complication.”
“That will never get old for me, there’s so much truth in that bar, right there,” she said.
SAZ, who was raised in Ramle, a mixed city of Arabs and Jews, said he hadn’t heard of hip-hop until he began doing a freestyle kind of rap as a young kid, and was sent some discs by his cousins who lived abroad.
For all three artists, hip-hop resonated as a musical form for people who felt they didn’t have a voice.
“As long as there are those paradigms, people will gravitate to the music,” said Onaodowan. “The beats are just primal, if you think of banging on the drum, it’s almost like a war cry.”
The genre also operates as an entire culture, pointed out Little Simz.
“There’s dancing, DJing, there’s so much that kind of fits under the umbrella of hip-hop,” she said. “Hip-hop was the only thing I was good at and felt I could be 100% me and be expressive. Another 22-year-old can hear what I’m going through and connect to it and relate to it.”
SAZ felt the same way when he first heard hip-hop, he said. There was an instant connection with the words and meanings, despite the fact that he was an Arab from Ramle and the artists he was listening to were African-Americans living in the US.
“I felt a lot of similarity and more in common with black people that I do with Israelis who live around the corner from me,” said SAZ. “I got beaten by the police when I was 14. When I heard what [hip-hop artist] Tupak said, to take this misunderstanding happening in my life, so hip-hop for me was a place where I can express myself and take this rage to help change my life.”
The Ramle rapper currently tours in Israel and around the world, and was a celebrity contestant in the 2012 second season of “Chai be La La Land,” an Israeli reality show about singers hoping to achieve that near-mythical dream of celebrity success.
He wasn’t the only Arab gaining strength from the rhythms of hip-hop. Tupac Shakur, the famed rapper who was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1996, is famous in the Palestinian world, said SAZ, and “every second home has a CD of Tupac because even if they don’t understand English, they understand the meaning and the vibe.”
The speech of hip-hop, said Onaodowan, is the essence of the genre, and therefore is accessible to anyone who can speak.
“It’s just speaking, something you do every day,” he said.
“With ‘Hamilton,’ what’s cool about the show is that even super-old white people come to see the show and hang on every word, it’s that good,” said Onaodowan, “and I’m like, ‘it’s just talking, it’s hip-hop,’ and you just have to find the right things to say and be willing to listen. They were willing to listen to what we were saying.”
The success of “Hamilton” demonstrates that it needs to be multiplied in order to create more roles for people of color, producing “more versions of us being seen,” he said.
Gonna be a straight Epic Show tonight Forbes Under 30 Summit with Little Simz -… as always #Junction48
Hip-hop, said SAZ, offered him a way of dealing with the conflict that forms the backbone of his life.
“As an artist, I prefer to be the bridge rather than the bomb,” he said. “There’s been too much bloodshed since 1948. I live in both worlds, I live in the West Bank and here, so for me, I’m part of the conflict and culture took away the bad vibes and the hating. I’m showing love because as a Palestinian, we don’t have any solutions in life. The true image isn’t really out there so I’m sending a new image. We want to change and are part of the change.”
“For me,” he continued, “performing is part of my struggle. I’m not doing it to get money, I’m struggling.”
The three artists were joined by several others Wednesday night at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem, where Forbes 30 Under 30 hosted a live musical performance synced to virtual reality, in which all attendees of the concert wore virtual reality headsets and enjoyed a simultaneous virtual reality experience during the concert.