It’s been 25 years since hip-hop rappers Hadag Nahash burst onto the Israeli music scene, introducing their brand of feel-good Middle Eastern groove with a healthy dose of leftist Israeli politics.
They still write, sing and play. Frontman Shaanan Streett has continued to celebrate his six-part partnership alongside solo projects, including his debut novel, “A Moment of Eternity,” which is about Jerusalem’s skateboarders and graffiti artists.
Streett spoke to The Times of Israel for a recent episode of the Times Will Tell weekend podcast, discussing his book, his decision to continue living and working in his hometown of Jerusalem, and his efforts a decade to learn Arabic.
The last song from Streett’s latest album is “Arabiyaty ElMaksura,” (“My Broken Arabic”).
Like each of the 11 songs on the “Ideals” album, the track was produced by a different producer, in this case Nazareth.
In the chorus, Streett sings, “I’ve lived here all my life, and I’m happy to share my lyrics with anyone who wants to hear how broken my Arabic is.”
Streett, 50, was born in Israel to American parents and is fluent in Hebrew and English, but didn’t start learning Arabic until he was 40.
He said that while Israelis are learning Arabic in greater numbers than ever before, there is something unique about studying it in Jerusalem, whose Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem are a world apart from Jewish quarters of the capital.
“When you study in Jerusalem, you take your car and you cross an invisible line into another world and you park your car in the other world where everyone now speaks Arabic, where you are now a minority,” Streett said. . “And if you want to go and buy a beigewhat I do and I do it in Arabic, everyone knows that here it is now the Jew who comes to speak in Arabic.
It was the diversity found in Jerusalem that kept Streett in the city, he said, despite his comrades from the Hadag Nahash band and many friends emigrating to Tel Aviv.
“[Jerusalem] reminds you every day that many people lead daily lives very different from yours,” Streett said. “And you can dip your toe in it as deep as you want. So the old, the new, the religious, the secular, the different religions, the different languages, the different cultures. It’s very pretty on a postcard. It is sometimes very difficult to live, but it is always interesting.
Hadag Nahash tackles these difficult situations in his music, for example in the award-winning song “The Sticker Song” with lyrics by Israeli author David Grossman about the political slogans on Israeli bumper stickers. It also became the soundtrack to the 2011 social justice protests. But the group has learned that music should also entertain, he said.
“When we were writing songs 20 years ago, 25 years ago, 15 years ago, we wanted to be honest about who we were and what we think is the right way to go and where the country went wrong and where society should re-evaluate its views. And that’s still the case today,” he said. “But somewhere along the way, I really understood wholeheartedly and not just as an idea, but also not just as an ideal, but also as something that I’m trying to live, that it has to be fun. “
Israel, said Streett, can be “incredibly fun while being incredibly challenging and screwed up.”
His hometown of Jerusalem also features in Streett’s latest project, his recently published novel, “Rega Netzah,” about skateboarders and graffiti artists, which started out as a screenplay but turned into a book as he had been working on it for over a year (available at local skateboard shops too, usually the only book on the shelf, noted Streett).
He came up with the subject after noticing that some of his friends were ex-skateboarders, and because he often hooked up with skateboarders, despite never having skated.
Streett began interviewing local skateboarders, aiming to understand their stories and their determination to jump despite the risks. He also looked at the natural connection between skateboarding and graffiti artists.
“In a way, I understand these people jumping stairs and graffiti,” he said. “They thus live according to this code. And even if they break a bone, no matter what they break, they’ll come back once it’s healed and try to jump the same stairs.
Another of Streett’s projects is the Dream A Dream podcast, which he co-hosts with Elran Dekel and Bryan Steiner. The trio interpret their guests’ dreams and seek new things above all else, without pretense of expertise, Streett said.
There’s a natural connection between it all, Streett said, from his initial decision to make hip-hop music in Hebrew to writing about skateboarding, graffiti and even dream interpretation.
“It’s like you need a tie less,” Streett said, using a popular Israeli saying that means “come as you are.” “You used to take off the tie and you were a painter, but now you’re a graffiti artist. So hip-hop has the same element.
Ditto for the interpretation of dreams or anything else he may undertake.
It’s fun to do, said Streett. And “again, no tie”.