Israelis polarized over rapper

Associated Press

"People have told me straight up to my face: 'Man, you're a fascist,' " says Subliminal, Israel's hip-hop king.

In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- such controversy, the 24-year-old rapper's mix of hip-hop attitude and right-wing politics has become an anthem for young Israelis hungry for a secular Jewish identity and confused by years of harsh conflict with the Palestinians.

Kobi Shimoni and partner Yoav Eliasi -- a.k.a. Subliminal and the Shadow -- seldom name their enemy, but songs like "We Came to Expel the Darkness" and "My Land" are clearly directed at the Palestinians.

Subliminal's uncompromising politics and the violent undertone of some of his songs have set off warning bells: Some parents ban the music from their homes and critics rail against the "Subliminal phenomenon" in the press. But Israeli radio stations love it.

The rapper says he's selling pride and a dose of reality to Israelis.

"The lyrics are we should never be divided again, only together will we survive and maintain Israel. What is so wrong with that?" Shimoni says in an interview, wearing a rhinestone Star of David pendant.

Subliminal and the Shadow's gangsta rap rocks nightclubs, army bases and pizza parlors across the country. More than 54,000 Israelis have bought the latest album, enough to make it a bestseller in a nation of just 6.6 million people.

It's also a reflection of hip-hop's globalizing power: The songs are mostly in Hebrew, but some lyrics are in English.

Youngsters in Israel's Arab minority have for some years been using rap in its traditional role of giving identity and a sense of power to those feeling oppressed. But Shimoni, like many Israelis, feels just as oppressed by Palestinian suicide bombings and shooting attacks and says he is using hip-hop as a weapon.

The son of Tunisian and Iranian Jewish immigrants, he says his beef is with Palestinians and not the Arab world.

His relationship and falling out with Israeli Arab rapper Tamer Nafar are the subject of a documentary, "Channels of Rage." A former Subliminal protege, Nafarran up against Shimoni's Jewish nationalism because of his identification with his Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"They're both victims of the reality in Israel. They're children," said director Anat Halachmi, who hopes to show her 72-minute documentary at next year's Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

Subliminal's dark edge is unusual in a musical culture known for folk guitars and upbeat disco. "There is a tradition of being rebellious, but up to a certain limit," said Motti Regev, an Israeli music professor.

Shimoni started rapping in English at age 15 in a Tel Aviv club. A visit to a Los Angeles recording studio convinced him that Hebrew would make his act unique.

The rapper has a clothing line under the logo "T.A.C.T.," or Tel Aviv City Team. Caps, hooded sweatshirts and baggy pants are emblazoned with a Star of David and the words "The Architects of Israeli Hip-Hop."

"Two years back, the Star of David was like a mockery. Nobody would walk out like that and have been proud of it," Shimoni says.

Though Shimoni is a self-described member of the Israeli right wing, the former soldier says his family supported former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in his efforts to win peace with the Palestinians.

That failure, and three years of the Palestinians' second intifada, or uprising, have convinced him negotiations don't work. He offers no specific solutions, but there's no mistaking his anger at the Arabs and his belief in standing tough.

"If there's a conflict between two thugs in the neighborhood, they will sit down in a room and beat each other up until they almost kill each other," Shimoni says. "And then they won't fight anymore."

That message got to Elan Carter, a 19-year-old Israeli army corporal from Netanya who got a Subliminal and the Shadow CD from his girlfriend when he was drafted. He says the lyrics made him proud to fight for Israel.

The cover of Shimoni's second album, "The Light and the Shadow," shows a muddy fist clutching a silver Star of David pendant. Some songs are bump-and-grind tracks over the whine of Persian strings, but at least a third of the album is about the conflict.

One Subliminal song says: "The country's still dangling like a cigarette in Arafat's mouth." In the hit "Divide and Conquer," he sings: "Dear God, I wish you could come down, because I'm being persecuted. My enemies are united; they want to destroy me. We're nurturing and arming those who hate us. Enough!"

That song is "the first patriotic anthem of the second intifada," wrote music writer Gal Ohovsky in the daily newspaper Maariv. "Its name alone, 'Divide and Conquer,' can make you shudder."

Halachmi's film traces the careers of Subliminal and Nafar over several years. As violence escalates after 2000, their lyrics move further apart.

In one scene, Nafar sings, "What's that? Another Arab's been shot," and in another he tells an interviewer he can understand why a Palestinian blew himself up in a Tel Aviv club. By film's end, the two rappers nearly come to blows.

In "Bottomless Pit," Shimoni warns an unnamed enemy: "Anybody who messes with me ends up in a coffin." Guns lock, load and fire in the background while the rappers sing about shooting a pair of brothers in the street. These are words and sounds out of the rap anthems of the gang wars of Los Angeles, overlaid with references to Merkava tanks and Tel Aviv locales.

Is he preaching violence, reflecting a grim reality or just trying to sell records?

"I always put my messages between the lines," Shimoni says. "You know: 'Subliminal.'"

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