You usually don’t expect to hear Jews rapping when you walk into BAR.
But on Feb. 20, prepare to be surprised: Hadag Nachash, one of Israel’s biggest hip-hop groups, is coming to Yale.
And yet in many ways the band doesn’t seem like a hip-hop group at all. Not only does the group use live music instead of a DJ for its songs, it also emphasizes political and social messages.
In 1996, Hadag Nachash emerged from the capital of a country where discussions of politics cannot be avoided.
“We’re a product of the Israeli music scene,” said Sha’anan Streett, the group’s lead singer. “We are a product of the Jerusalem music scene.”
Jerusalem is commonly considered the political and religious center of Israel, while secular Tel Aviv is seen as the country’s cultural center. All the other band members have moved to Tel Aviv over the years, but Streett has remained loyal to Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem always has something fresh to say to the Israeli music scene,” he said.
Though Jerusalem’s art and music scenes undoubtedly shaped the band, Hadag Nachash was also molded by a part of Israeli society so basic, that Streett did not even think to mention it — the country’s immersion in politics. When discussing what the band is about, Streett talks politics.
“Hadag Nachash is a pro-peace band, and we’re all about equality,” he said. “We think that every stone has to be turned in order to achieve peace in the region. We feel that Israel has a lot to gain from a peace agreement in the Middle East and that it’s a tragedy that generation after generation is born into a state that cannot deal with its neighbors.”
While Israel’s relations with its neighbors is clearly the biggest issue to address, the band comments on everything from the income disparity in society to religious divisions in Israel. Symbolic of the band’s willingness to tackle a wide range of issues is one of their biggest hits, “The Sticker Song.” The song is composed of slogans from the many bumper stickers Israeli drivers use to publicize their opinions on nearly any topic.
“In a way, our band is a testament to the fact that there is some sort of opposition in Israel,” Streett said, since the band’s left-wing messages often criticize the government. As Street put it, Hadag Nachash is also a testament to the fact that it is “possible to write a popular tune that says something.”
But where does the inspiration for those hip but deep tunes come from? The group mixes influences ranging from Western pop to jazz to traditional Middle Eastern sounds to create its own unique fusion. Its musical style could be described in many different ways, but Streett said he likes to think of their genre as “modern funk — we’re into anything funky.”
The group has been touring outside of Israel since 2004, coming to America frequently and visiting many European nations. In America, Hadag Nachash performs mostly for students, since young Jews make up their core fan base here.
“We tell [Israel’s] story from our perspective,” Streett said. “Hopefully people connect.”
Specifically to the American Jews in his audience, he said he tries to convey the message “don’t give up the hope.”
Still, the band is not afraid to take a critical stance about Israel. Streett said he believes Jews worldwide should feel comfortable doing the same.
“Israel can be a sane place, and you guys can help us make it happen,” he said. “Sometimes I feel that Jewish communities around the world are afraid to criticize Israel even when Israel deserves criticism. If I see my friend making a terrible mistake. It’s my job as his friend to tell him not to make that mistake again.”
As with all their work, Hadag Nachash serves up serious political messages while having fun with their audience.
“We enjoy the shows in America,” Streett said. But in the U.S., he said, “It’s a different show — we emphasize the groove and the music more.”
Israeli audiences, of course, know the lyrics to their song. Sometimes Streett is also pleasantly surprised to find his American audiences singing along to the catchy choruses. The group’s new album might make it even easier for Americans to know all of a song’s lyrics — for the first time ever, the group has recorded some songs in English.
“We have four English tracks that we’re going to be trying out on you guys,” Streett said.
The album is set to come out just before the group leaves for its North American tour this month, and Street said that if all goes as scheduled, the band will have brand new copies of the CD to bring over to America.
“My parents are American, and a lot of time in rehearsals we would jam in English. But this is the first time we decided to take it a step further and record songs in English,” he said “It just felt natural. It felt like the right time to try it. And we like how it sounds.”
Hadag Nachash might be happy with its new release, but only time will tell how the upcoming album will be received. Then again, if their recent track record is any indication, Israelis and Americans alike should appreciate it.
The band has enjoyed tremendous success in Israel, and its fame has been spreading to America as well. They’ve been featured in The New York Times and Rolling Stone, and most recently the group was thrilled to have four of its songs in the sound track of Adam Sandler’s “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.”
Looking back at all the band has accomplished, Streett said it is hard for him to predict what awaits him.
“We’ve fulfilled so many dreams together already,” he said. “I really never thought I’d perform in places like Moscow, New York City, Stockholm, Berlin and Los Angeles. None of us did … so it’s really hard to imagine the future.”
But not all of the future needs to be imagined. The next few weeks are already planned out, with the band focusing on readying a new show with some novel material.
“We’ll try it out in Israel a few times, then we’ll try it out on you guys when we arrive there,” Streett said.
Hadag Nachash will be performing at BAR on Feb. 20 at 10 p.m. as part of the first-ever Ivy League Jewish Conference. Admission is free and open to all members of the Yale community. The band’s performance, which will mark the end of the conference, is sponsored by Yale Hillel and Yale Friends of Israel.