Israeli hip-hop star Shaanan Streett mixes music with activism

Keeping it real, Israeli rapper and his Hadag Nahash band balances lyrics on important issues with keeping both the tone and process of song-writing enjoyable, 'audiences pickup on authenticity' he says

Howard Lovy/JTA|
Shaanan Streett, one-sixth of the Israeli hip-hop/funk group Hadag Nahash, says that it’s all well and good for musicians to advocate for social-justice causes, but that doesn’t mean the music can’t also be fun.
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  • Streett seems to have accomplished both goals, as his band’s songs are featured in protests for various causes while remaining catchy and danceable. As long as you “keep it real,” Streett says, audiences will pick up on your authenticity.
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    Shaana Streett
    Shaana Streett
    Shaana Streett
    (Photo: Lior Keter)
    In our interview, Streett talks about what music can do to bring people together and about his hometown of Jerusalem.
    First, tell us where you grew up and how you came to the music world.
    I was born in 1971 in Jerusalem. I still live on the outskirts of Jerusalem. After the army, I, like many Israelis, traveled the world. When I was in the US, I started hearing a lot of hip-hop, and like a true traveler, I had a pad and a pen, and I started writing down rhymes in Hebrew. And when I came back to Israel, I recorded one song. I handed it out in CD stores. And one of the employees at one of the CD stores turned out to be a guy with an instrumental funk band. And that’s how we started.
    Before we go more into your music, tell me about Jerusalem. There’s the Jerusalem of everybody’s imagination around the world, and there’s the real Jerusalem in which real people live.
    Yeah, nobody lives in the Jerusalem of the imagination, not a single person. But oddly enough, nobody lives in the Jerusalem of the real world, either. We all live somewhere in between. Doesn’t matter what religion you belong to, if any; if you’re in this city, you won’t only live on what’s happening on the floor, you’re going to live thousands of years of history, millions and millions of hopes and shattered hopes. It’s all circulating around you at any given moment. And, in that sense, it’s super artistic.
    You’re involved in art, films, and music. What can these things do to foster Jewish pride or bring people together?
    It’s really hard for me to put baggage on art. If it happens, it happens because the art did it, not the artist. It’s hard to explain. My only advice would be a classic hip-hop phrase: keep it real, do it as real as you can. Even when it seems like it’s the wrong thing to do, still speak your mind. And that’s the only way, at least for me and my band, to connect.
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    Hadag Nahash in concert
    (Photo: Gilad Gershgoren)
    What, to you, is keeping it real? I know that you founded a number of community activities, including the One Shekel Festival, that help to strengthen marginalized communities. Is that an important part of what you do?
    I think that involvement in social issues in Israel is kind of like a privilege or a benefit that artists can choose. Because people do want to hear what we have to say, and it’s up to us to decide if we want to say it or not. So yeah, when I was speaking earlier about keeping it real, it’s not to shy away from the issues, it’s to talk about the issues. And if people can act — perfect. If we can hold a festival in a place that never had one—amazing. If we can volunteer in a cancer ward — amazing. If we can perform in a forest that they want to tear down to turn into a neighborhood—even though all of the green movements think that it’s a disaster—we’ll do it. So, we try to stay close not only to the art but also to what’s happening. But that does get very, very tiring because we aren’t politicians, and we aren’t activists. We’re artists with our hearts in the right place.
    Do you feel like you need to balance writing about social issues and just writing something that’s fun? Or can you accomplish both?
    We demand the freedom to write whatever we want at any given time, and that can be about, for example, marijuana or just having a good time, as well as social injustice. It’s not one or the other. Our lives contain both. And when we want to keep it real, we have to speak about both. If I can give you an example from our latest album that we’re still recording, actually. But our first single that was released is a real good vibe, fun kind of tune with funny rhyming and funny references for Israelis. The single that we’re releasing tomorrow is called the “City of God,” and it’s about Jerusalem and what it does to its inhabitants over time. So, totally different topics, but music from the same band, and we’re always trying to keep it funky and fun. Having fun is super important to us. Because even if you’re saying important stuff, but it’s not fun, who wants to join? Right? There’s a saying that is something like, “If you can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.”
    Who are some of your hip-hop influences?
    I just did my top-five artists on Spotify. The first one this year was Lil Wayne. And the second one was a female rapper here in Israel called Eden Dersso. Number three was Kendrick Lamar. Number four was Eminem. And then number five was an Israeli rapper called Peled. So, actually, the top five were all hip-hop. But I’m influenced by various things — anywhere from jazz to rock and roll, reggae, electronic music, funk, of course, and a bunch of hip-hop from all over the world.
    One theme of the Z3 conference is achieving Jewish unity and pride. What kind of advice do you have for younger people who may be reluctant to show their Jewish pride?
    I think the best method would be to find something on Judaism that you connect with. Find certain elements and be proud of that. Narrow it down. You’re not holding 5,000 years of Jewry on your shoulders. You don’t need to feel that way. Judaism, and for that matter, Diaspora Jews, have so much to be proud of. Diaspora Jews have achieved so much that there’s plenty to be proud of inside that enormous umbrella. So just find the things you connect with and be proud of that. I think that’s a good way to start.

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