Israeli Author Turns Slogans Into Rap Hit
The New York Times, August 16, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman

While Several days after Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995 by an assassin opposed to the peace process, the Israeli author David Grossman was driving through a forest preserve just outside this city. He noticed a car stopped on the shoulder of the road and slowed to see what might be the matter. The motorist, he saw, was scraping off a bumper sticker that said, ''Rabin Rotzeach'' (''Rabin is a Murderer'').

At that moment Mr. Grossman, a novelist and essayist, fathomed the peculiar and intense importance of bumper stickers in Israel, where sometimes an entire car can be pasted with them, endorsing any cause from Palestinian statehood to the expulsion of Arabs to the coming of the Messiah. He began to scribble down examples, enlisted friends and family members to do the same, and ultimately collected 120 slogans, united only by their brevity and certitude.

Now he has transformed 54 of those phrases into the rhyming lyrics of a song, which has been recorded by one of Israel's leading rap groups, Hadag Nachash, and become the surprise pop-music hit of the season. Radio stations play it ubiquitously, and the album containing it has topped sales charts and sold 15,000 copies in only two months, the equivalent of 750,000 in the United States. To use another American equivalent: imagine the dazzling unlikeliness of Russell Banks having collaborated with Mos Def or Chuck D on a chart topper.

"Shirat Ha'Sticker" ("The Sticker Song'') is no mere novelty, however. It offers a kind of aural collage of the fractious and volatile political
environment here. Over a Jamaican dub beat, the singer Sha'anan Streett chants slogans as irreconcilable as ''A strong people makes peace,'' ''No Arabs, no terror'' and ''Long live the king Messiah.''

The song's refrain, an astringent bit of double-entendre, uses a bumper sticker created by animal-rights advocates to protest the force feeding of geese, ''Kama roa efshar livloa'' (''How much evil can we swallow?''). In the hands of Mr. Grossman and Hadag Nachash, the words speak to the almost unbearable passion of political debate here, which, as with Rabin's killing, can shift from verbal violence into the lethal sort.

''When I had my list of stickers, I realized it's like a capsule of Israeliness, all the brutality and aggression and the need to get out of this situation,'' said Mr. Grossman, who is best known for magical realistic novels like ''See Under: Love'' and volumes of left-of-center political essays, including last year's ''Death as a Way of Life.''

''The more the dead end of the situation grows, the more frustrated people become with their inability to influence it,'' he continued, in a telephone interview. ''Few people on the left or the right are satisfied. And the more they are frustrated, the more they are extremists, the more bumper stickers they have on the car. Sometimes you stop behind a car that looks like a shouting demonstration.''

Gadi Taub, one of Israel's leading cultural critics and public intellectuals, put Mr. Grossman's experience into a larger context. ''Israel is such a small place that taking a political position is like declaring the very core of your identity,'' he said. ''For many years it was unthinkable for Israelis that if you're a Likud voter you could marry someone from Labor. It would be a battle over every dinner and every breakfast. So your car, too, will declare your identity. You don't think you can even make friends across bumper stickers.''

The words of ''Shira Ha'Sticker'' convey a consistent style of political advocacy here, but the music points to a dramatic generational change. Mr. Grossman, who is 50, grew up revering Israel's great balladeers of popular song -- Ehud Banai, Yehuda Poliker, Meir Ariel -- whose subjects stretched from the Holocaust to the peace process to the fear of suicide bombers.

The nation also produced first-rank jazz musicians like the bassist Avishai Cohen and jam bands like Sheva that fused Israeli, Arab and Indian influences.

Hadag Nachash is of the emerging Israel hip-hop scene, which runs the gamut from Russian and Ethiopian immigrants' flourishing ethnic pride and causes to the right-wing nationalism of Kobi Shimoni. With a name that literally translates to Fish Serpent and also is a deft pun on a license-plate designation for a new driver (Nahag Hadash), Hadag Nachash has made its reputation with raps about Israel's domestic issues: income inequality, poverty and the demise of the welfare state in favor of free markets.

Fittingly, the middle-aged Mr. Grossman heard about the band through his teenage children. ''As soon as I was rhyming the lines,'' he recalled of his initial efforts to compose the song, ''I realized it was best suited to rap. Rap has the energy and immediacy of the bumper stickers.''

So last summer he invited Mr. Streett to coffee. On his side of the generational divide, the 33-year-old musician had read only one of Mr. Grossman's 19 books, and that was a children's novel. He was stunned, then, to have the author not only hand over a sheet of lyrics but quote from memory a line from one of Hadag Nachash's singles. ''And that one didn't sell very well,'' Mr. Streett said. ''So I knew he really knew our music.''

Along with the producer Yossi Fine the seven members of Hadag Nachash created a melody that strung baritone saxophone, trombone, acoustic guitar and some Indian instrumentation over a mesmerizing beat. The result, released in June on Hadag Nachash's album ''Local Material,'' became an instant surprise hit. While singles are not sold in Israel, the CD already has proven Hadag Nachash's most commercially successful, heading toward the 20,000-unit level that brings platinum status here.

''I hear people are even playing it at weddings,'' Mr. Streett said. And Mr. Grossman said his second career as pop-song lyricist could help his first, as author. ''Somebody approached me in the post office the other day,'' he recalled, ''and told me, 'My daughter said she should read your new novel because you wrote the sticker song.'''

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