Book Review: "Real Time: Hip-Hop in Israel / Israeli Hip-Hop" (Hebrew)

Real Time: Hip-Hop in Israel / Israeli Hip-Hop [Hebrew]. By Uri Dorchin. Tel-Aviv: Resling, 2012. [287 pages, $24.] Bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Oded Erez

In the realm of the arts, hip-hop music is arguably today’s proverbial global form. Perhaps surpassing even the proliferation of the former musical mega-culture––rock––the corners of the globe where one couldn’t find a local hip-hop scene are today few. Rapped in countless languages and wedded to innumerable local musical styles, hip-hop none the less remains strongly associated with its origins in African-American experience, and the broader cultural context of its production in the US. As more and more practitioners of hip-hop negotiate this tension, scholars are also increasingly finding fertile ground in exploring local scenes across the globe, as sites for studying the current relationship of the local and the global.

Uri Dorchin’s Book Real Time: Hip-Hop in Israel/ Israeli Hip-Hop is part of this growing trend. The book is based on ethnographical research conducted for Dorchin’s dissertation between 2003 and 2007. The author, an anthropologist and former radio DJ, regularly attended nightclubs, public performances, and radio show recording sessions, in addition to conducting fifteen interviews with rappers, producers, and DJs. The book sets out to address the local production of hip-hop in Israel (and it is indeed a production-centered ethnography), which the author presents to us as a fundamentally paradoxical project: the construction of an authentic local identity, using a “foreign” subcultural form. Through presenting and discussing the statements of his interviewees, Dorchin puts forth the argument that the artists he follows, faced with a “crisis of authenticity” in Israeli culture, enact a reorientation within that culture, and the reorientation of that culture vis-à-vis a global style. “The artist’s aspiration to ‘keep it real’ is based on the realization that projects of conservation […] are doomed to fail. In occupying an intermediate position, a position that contests the totality and continuity of “culture,” the artists do not seek to act above or separate from their belonging to a collective, but to carve for themselves a space of individuality within it” (27, all quotes translated by the reviewer). With none of the local styles providing an appealing and relevant medium for subjectification, rappers resort to the readily available discourses of “realness” and “Blackness,” as an alternative vehicle for identity work. Dorchin interprets this move as a sort of detour, conceived not merely as an escape from local culture but as a means of reentering it as true individuals. This individuality is ostensibly guaranteed by the novelty and exteriority of hip-hop to the local culture.  

After an introductory, largely theoretical chapter, the author turns to survey the emergence of local production of what in Israel is often referred to as “Black music.” The history of style that Dorchin unfolds turns out to make quite a bit of sense of that initially suspicious nomination. We learn that during the emergence in the mid-90s of MC- or DJ-centric music in Israel, Jamaican dancehall and ragamuffin were more influential than American hip-hop. In the 2000s, when “Black music” first made its way into the mainstream, three leading artists defined a wide stylistic pallet for the local style: While rapper Mook E (Dani Niv) had his roots firmly set in Jamaican music (in addition to leading rap rock band Shabak Samech), rapper Subliminal (Kobi Shimoni) was modeling his music and public image on American gangsta rap, and the Jerusalem-based band Hadag Nahash, had a strong funk element to its hip-hop albums.

Dorchin’s discussion gravitates towards the probing of two concepts: “Realness” (sometimes explored through the prism of authenticity) and “Blackness.” In chapter three, he offers the Hebrew reader an important first glimpse into current scholarship on Afro-diasporic cultures, the historical question of race in American popular music, and the debate over recent hip-hop culture. Dorchin extracts from this survey a position that presents gangnsta rap (notably standing here for hip-hop culture in general) as a departure from previous forms of Black culture grounded in community ethics. Instead, gangsta rap is said to emerge from the radical individualism and atomism of a post-labor capitalist world. This argument then goes on to universalize the late-capitalism disenfranchised black experience, in a sort of self-avowed anti-essentialist move. As the author argues, “by deconstructing the experience of blackness into molecules of universal affect, the rapper creates conditions which destabilize the giveness of belonging to a racial group” (103). In the fourth chapter Dorchin goes on to argue that in the essentializing discourse of “Black music” in Israel, the interlocutors take this latter historically-specific mode of engaging with reality to be the very essence of Black culture. As such, the perceived essence of “blackness” in the Israeli discourse is not a reductive coherent whole but “the sum of all contradictions that the concept of blackness entails” (106).

Sometimes, the author himself seems to embrace this logic of dwelling in contradiction: later in the book he offers another interpretation of the meaning of “Black music” in the Israeli context, this time as marker of a modernist ancien régime, wherein cultural forms are once more the coherent expression or correlate of a race or a nation. According to this explanation, the putative stability of essentialized “Blackness” is evoked in order to restore a sense of coherence lost in Israeli culture. What these two diverging perspectives share, however, is the final conclusion: hip-hop music in Israel is an identity project premised on the analogy between the discrepancy that the (non-Black) practitioners experience vis-à-vis a perceived blackness in hip-hop, and the discrepancy they experience vis-à-vis an increasingly challenged and disintegrating “Israeliness.”

In certain parts of the book, Dorchin engages in some truly virtuosic discourse analysis, cleverly turning ethnographic impasses, such as recorded events where the speakers keep interrupting each other so as to frustrate any coherence, into strategic interpretative opportunities. Overall, the places where he exposes his ethnographic process and invites us to return with him to his field notes provide some of the strongest segments of his book. In addition to the application of discourse analysis methodologies, performance theory is another intellectual trend that enriches this book, and although literature from this field is never evoked explicitly, it seems to inform much of the author’s interpretative sensibilities.

A notable trait of the treatment of ethnographic material in this book is the author’s seaming reluctance to position himself with regard to his interviewee’s statements. Acting as an interpreter (not so much in the sense of hermeneutics as in the linguistic sense of translation), Dorchin rarely uses quotes from interviews as an occasion for problematization, but rather as prompts for explaining the position taken by the interviewee. As part of this embracement of the actor’s views, Dorchin partakes in their concern with authenticity (although they do not use this word), making it an important topic for consideration throughout the book. I find the return to this concept somewhat dated. Talking about authenticity seems by now to add very little to our understanding of cultural phenomena. Lacking any measure that is not firmly grounded in some kind of prejudice, the discourse of authenticity serves mostly to keep people’s creativity fenced in the patch of semiotic grazing-ground granted to “their kind” in the existing social order. To be sure, the author, like the many important scholars he cites, is not a naïve believer in “being authentic,” but the very feat of debunking authenticity, I believe, serves to keep around a concern that cultural studies should have done away with by now. A discussion of the artist’s discourse of realness and truth could have imaginably taken a different path.

A related issue is this book’s surprisingly sparse discussion of politics. Since at least the 1970s, mainstream popular musicians in Israel have largely opted not to take explicit political stances in their music, and often also in their public life. The few who have chosen to commit their art or public image to politics have often paid a great price for their choices (notable examples include Chava Alberstein on the left side of the map, and Ariel Zilber on the right). Against this backdrop hip-hop in Israel stands as a thoroughly politicized realm, with many of the leading artists strongly advocating certain positions. Rapper Subliminal, a leading figure in the local scene, strongly commits his music to right-wing nationalist Zionism. The collaboration-turned-conflict between him and anti-Zionist Palestinian hip-hop act DAM (led by Tamer Nafer) has made waves worldwide with the release of the documentary “Channels of Rage” (2003, dir. Anat Halachmi). While hip-hop has become a global vehicle for the plight of the subaltern and a music associated, if not with resistance, at least with the experience of minorities, Subliminal’s (and others Israeli artists’) mobilization of hip-hop as a vehicle for a hegemonic political perspective of the dominant ethno-religious group still remains a resounding open invitation for critical scrutiny after the release of this pioneering book on hip-hop in Israel.

However, the book’s commitment to the perspectives of the interviewees achieves something very important: it begins to overturn the trend in the study of popular music in Israel of concentrating on the national narrative, and to understand the rise and fall of musical style as part of a national project of cultural nation-building. Dorchin’s monograph on a contemporary subcultural community provides a much-needed first glimpse into the ways that consumption or practice of “foreign” (non-Israeli or non-Hebrew) music shapes local identities, an insight unavailable to historiographies and ethnographic committed to a national narrative. The title of the book, which recognizes that not all music created or practiced in Israel or by Israelis is definitive of or defined by being “Israeli,” signals further this step that the study of popular music in Israel has taken with the publication of this book.

Subliminal and the Shadow perform "Tikva" ("Hope"):

Palestinian rap group DAM (Da Arab MC's, or "forever" in Arabic) perform "Born Here":

It is unclear whether the lengthy theoretical discussions, introducing the Hebrew reader to relevant bodies of scholarship, will merit a translation of the entire book into English, but one can only hope that the important ethnographic work carried out by the author will find its way to a broader readership in English and other languages.

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