Hadag Nahash discusses music and politics with UCLA audience.
Sha’anan Streett’s world-view may not be welcomed in certain circles, but he and his Hadag Nahash bandmates aren’t concerned with that. What they are concerned with is the well-being of their country, the people who live there and their future. They’re also concerned with showing the world a refreshing look at Israel.
The acclaimed hip-hop/funk musicians were at UCLA on Feb. 28 for a rare question and answer session at Schoenberg Hall. Mediated by Arieh Saposnik, director of the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, and co-sponsored by the Center for Jewish Studies, the Herb Alpert School of Music Mickey Katz Chair in Jewish Music and the Natalie Limonck Endowment in Jewish Civilization, the intimate and candid conversation focused on the role that politics and Israel’s complex society play in the band’s style and songwriting.
“It’s always been very important for us to comment on what’s happening in society and what direction the country is going,” said Streett, the band’s lead vocalist and the founder of the One Shekel Festival, an annual event created in 2001 to promote cultural harmony in Israel through music.
Referencing their song “Ani Ma'amin,” the video for which played on a screen at the front of the room, the band spoke of the creation of the video and spoke about the term “Ani ma’amin,” which means “I believe.” It is derived from a 13-point Messianic version of the Jewish principals as the basis for social and political commentary and is part of a well-known song from the days of the Holocaust. “I believe that as of today our part in not achieving the peace is at least as big as the part of all the countries around us,” said Streett, translating a portion of the song from Hebrew.
Racism and corruption are not lyrically off-limits for the 10-man band, nor are civil rights or demands for peace. Last summer as tent cities and sprouted up across Israel, accompanied by demonstrations held under the slogan “The people demand social justice,” protesters carried placards and signs featuring lyrics from some of Hadag Nahash’s songs.
“A lot of times our lyrics are going to be, I don’t want to say controversial, but we’re calling it like we see it and telling the truth and we’re not hiding behind anything,” said Streett. “We’re not going to do it with any complex metaphor, or anything. We’re going to say it straight-forward, but the music is always going to be funky and happy and up-tempo and enjoyable. That’s how we lure people into our shows, and then we beat them over the head with lyrics,” he joked.
Streett spoke of the eclectic nature of music in Israel, some of which is rooted in tradition and some of which is a fusion of world music rooted in and inspired by Israel’s immigrant population. “Israel was always seen as a melting pot of Jewish people from all over the globe, and now some areas of the country are a melting pot of people who aren’t Jewish; people from all over the world.”
He went on to say that Jerusalem is key to Israeli-Palestinian peace. “If Jerusalem can find a way to enjoy its everyday life even though so many different people live there, the whole Middle East will be ok. If not, we’re in trouble.”
When asked about their views on U.S.-Israel relations and how this affects their day-to-day life, Street responded: Speaking as an Israeli citizen, we need our friends from overseas to kick us in the ass. We need them, or you or the president of this country to help us do what’s right. If the price in the near future is some sort of deterioration in the relationship, then it’s worth it. But I don’t think my opinion is very popular in Israel.”
Following their stop at UCLA, the band headed down Sunset Boulevard to The Colony nightclub in Hollywood and hit the stage for an electric performance in front of close to 400 people.
“The venue was incredible in both appearance and intimacy, and the band really took advantage of that to connect with the crowd,” said Ronit Hakakha, a third-year economics and international development studies student. “I'd previously listened to much of the band's music, but heard from friends that seeing them live was an absolute necessity. I now definitely agree.”
The evening also included an opportunity drawing for a flight for two to Israel, courtesy of Al El airlines.
The following day, Azzan Yadin-Israel, an associate professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, was at UCLA to deliver a public lecture exploring the vigorous and multi-layered use of the Hebrew language and literary canon, including biblical and rabbinic references, in the band’s lyrics.
The three events supported the Nazarian Center’s mission to bring multiple voices and perspectives of Israel into the public forum through education and engagement. The center, which was established in 2010 to promote the study of the history, culture and society of Israel as a modern Jewish and democratic state, is the first full- fledged Israel Studies center on the West Coast and one of three in the nation that are named and endowed. It sponsors scholarship and the production of new knowledge about Israel; undergraduate and graduate-level courses on Israeli arts and literature, as well as law, politics, economics, and history for a curriculum highlighting the complexity, diversity and multi-faceted nature of Israel; and a range of cultural programming, such as the series of events with Hadag Nahash. In addition to its academic focus, the center aims bring its educational message to the greater L.A. community.