Late last summer, a group of Israeli actors, screenwriters, and directors sent Limor Livnat, the minister for Cultural Affairs, a letter stating they would not perform in the new cultural center in the West Bank town of Ariel. Their threat of boycott, which was supported by intellectuals like Amos Oz, David Grossman, and A.B. Yehoshua, initiated a political firestorm that gripped the country and dissipated only after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally intervened.
Yaakov “Kobi” Shimoni, also known by his stage name, Subliminal, didn’t sign that letter. As the self-proclaimed father of Israeli hip-hop, Subliminal has become over the past decade by far the most prominent solo hip-hop artist in the country, acquiring a fan base of thousands of teens and young adults—many of them Israeli soldiers. Subliminal has performed to sold-out arenas in Israel and the United States and has sold over 150,000 records (from a variety of solo, duet, and collaborative projects), an impressive number in the modest Israeli market. The business daily The Marker estimated that his latest solo album, Just When You Thought It Was Over, grossed well over 4 million shekels (about $1.2 million) in combined album sales, ringtones, and downloads, which places him among the top-earning Israeli musicians today.
Although a rapper by name, Subliminal radically defies the archetypical characteristics of traditional hip-hop performers. He doesn’t drink, smoke, do drugs, or fight, and he preaches against these things in his music. Sporting a self-styled wardrobe he refers to as “chic-Zionism,” his bling is a colossal diamond-covered Star of David necklace. He wears baggy pants, oversized knee-length jerseys, and sideways baseball caps—the style of a “gangsta rapper” without any of the “gangsta” features. Like a reformed rapper who lacks those rebellious qualities that for good or bad may actually make rap interesting in the first place, Subliminal offers his fans a sterilized hip-hop spectacle: Snoop without the weed, Eminem without the rage, or Tupac without the guns.
What Subliminal lacks in belligerency, though, he makes up for with his signature trait: patriotism. In the wake of the Ariel controversy, Livnat, the culture minister, publicly chastised Israeli artists for their politicization of art, calling on them instead to “leave the political debate outside the realm of culture.” But Livnat’s request was as unreasonable as it was futile, as Subliminal’s immense popularity proves.
In the past, critics have viewed Subliminal’s mass appeal with an elitist suspicion that led them to dismiss him as a populist rightwing extremist. But with such broad strokes, critics also forfeit the chance to explore the complexity, contradiction, and outright confusion that characterizes Subliminal’s music, lyrics, and public persona, and the problematic political culture that he represents. For anyone seeking to understand Israel’s right turn in recent years—a trend exemplified by the government’s decision to require loyalty oaths from its non-Jewish population—Subliminal’s music seems like a good place to start.
How does a nice Jewish boy from the Tel Aviv suburbs appropriate a cultural form of protest once reserved for inner-city black youths? I sat with Subliminal one evening this August, drinking coffee in a quiet bistro in the modest northern Tel Aviv neighborhood where he grew up and still lives, just a few houses down from the home of Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni. He is dark skinned and wide bodied, with a trim beard and black clothes, and the first impression he gives off—by his own admission—is the air of an Arab. If not for his Cheshire-cat smile, he could easily be mistaken for an intimidating figure. (“When I go abroad people are always surprised to meet me,” he said. “No one believes Jews could look like me.”)
The son of immigrant parents—his father fled Tunisia and his mother Iran—Subliminal, 31, came of age during the chronically unstable days after the Oslo peace accords. Like many teenagers at the time, he listened to American rappers like Public Enemy, N.W.A, and Notorious B.I.G. Like other youth around the world, Subliminal found a message to which he could relate in those rappers’ dissident culture and protest lyrics. “I have always been a proud Zionist,” he explained. “But when I was growing up, being a Zionist was tantamount to being the outcast. The prevailing vibe around me was more in tune with the anarchic messages of [popular Israeli rock artist] Aviv Geffen and his motto that we were ‘a fucked-up generation.’ ”
In Subliminal’s eyes, Geffen’s controversial call to not serve in the army epitomized “negativity.” As a result, Subliminal started writing lyrics challenging those peacenik attitudes and adapting them to the rhythmic riffs he had been precociously composing since he was 12. “Hip-hop was a godsend that gave me the tools to wage my own protest,” he said. “A protest on the side of good and in favor of all those ideals that no one was talking about anymore, like Zionism, Judaism, and traditionalism.”
By the end of the decade and after completing his military service, Subliminal fused his tough-guy image to his original mix of quick phrases, patriotic paeans, and electronic beats, often augmented by a catchy melodic chorus. Local record producers took note. Together with his former partner Yoav Eliasi, known as “The Shadow,” and several other collaborators, Subliminal has recorded four studio albums and a number of chart-topping singles in the last 10 years. He has also founded his own hip-hop record label, called TACT.
Unlike American hip-hop, which developed in stark opposition to anything that could be associated with the establishment, Subliminal’s self-proclaimed “Zionist hip-hop” has always followed an inverted model. (He half-jokingly told me, “I am the establishment.”) While Public Enemy called on listeners to “fight the power,” Subliminal instead decided to join it. “This is Israel, not America” he explained. “If I see a cop chasing someone down the street, odds are, you will see me running along to help out the cop.”
Subliminal makes no apologies for borrowing from hip-hop’s musical form while leaving its combative lyrical content behind. His long-standing cooperation with government institutions remains a noticeable source of pride for him. Over the years, Subliminal has worked with the prime minister’s office, the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Education, and numerous charities that benefit the Israel Defense Forces. He has recorded songs to help prevent traffic accidents. In support of Holocaust education, Subliminal teamed up with renowned violinist Miri Ben-Ari to make a hip-hop version of the sacred Jewish prayer Adon Olam. His songs have a palpable pedagogic quality that can sound like a public service announcement, with explicit suggestions to get a job, study hard, stay off drugs, avoid violence, and respect women. As one of his latest singles preaches, “Whoever acts well, lives well.”
Subliminal’s unprecedented success came with a price. His institutional solidarity, nationalist lyrics, and jingoist theatrics often lead him to perform on flag-draped stages to chants of “Who here is proud to be a Zionist?” Israeli critics have branded him a fascist, a right-wing extremist, and a hip-hop sellout. An editorial on the popular Israeli news site Walla went as far as to call for a boycott of his music. “I have been called a fascist, even a Nazi, but I could never really understand why,” Subliminal said. “The truth is that what the media has always thought of me is the opposite of what the average man on the street was thinking.”
Talking with Subliminal has the feeling of listening to a man dictate his memoirs. He has a personal anecdote for every question and an endearing family story to go with any answer. Although at times unabashedly self-aggrandizing (“I am not ashamed to say that I am by far the best hip-hop artist in Israel,” he told me) and occasionally simplistic and infantile (“Why can’t people just say that I am good?”), Subliminal’s words are passionate and his intentions seem sincere.
Listening to all of his music at once can feel like taking in a full DVD box set of after-school specials, with a broad set of subjects: hope, patriotism, strength, unity, order, faith, and peace. There is no mention of hatred, racism, Islamophobia, Israeli occupation, or other touchstones of Israeli radicalism. The image of violence—the sine qua non for any self-respecting extremist—is unequivocally presented in a negative light and shunned rather than sanctioned by his music. “When a song makes a left-wing stance they call it protest,” says Arye Avitan (aka “Tchulu”), who owns a chain of hip-hop clothing stores and is a veteran music producer who has mentored many young rappers, including Subliminal. “But when it suggests something remotely right-wing, they immediately call it fascism.”
Subliminal’s earliest hit, “Live Day by Day” (co-written with Eliasi), debuted just as the Oslo accords began to fall apart, and the lyric “The country swings like a cigarette in Arafat’s mouth,” elicited a barrage of criticism, even though the idea echoed what prominent left-wing politicians like Ehud Barak were saying in speeches at the time. Subliminal bemoaned the selfishness, crime, poverty, avarice, and fanaticism that have pervaded Israeli society (“We are all at fault that everything here sucks”), but his song sounded less like a right-wing anthem and more like Tupac’s popular rendition of the Bruce Hornsby classic “The Way It Is.”
While Subliminal’s lyrics may send out mixed signals, his personal convictions are much less ambiguous. “When Rabin was murdered, I cried for days like everyone else,” he said. He adamantly also denied being “a right-wing artist” and further claimed that if he thought the Palestinians could be trusted he would support “doing everything possible” to secure genuine peace. In response to radical right-wing activists attending his shows, Subliminal began performing with the Israeli-Arab rapper Tamer Nafar, though the two have since fallen out over Nafar’s increasing anti-Israeli militancy. Maybe most surprising was to hear that Subliminal’s ideal political party was Kadima under Ariel Sharon—the same moderate centrist party that led Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005.
Subliminal prods critics, but in his music there is no discernible, distinctive political agenda. Instead, there are only crude nationalist emotions guiding listeners through a wasteland of broken promises from both the left and right. But if Subliminal does not fall squarely under any prevailing political category, then where do we place him? The rapper himself defines his political identity as Zionism. But less than reflecting a cogent set of ideas, Subliminal’s Zionism seems to symbolize an internal confusion.
Two distinct themes emerge in Subliminal’s music. The first is disappointment with the peace process. In “Live Day by Day,” Subliminal sings: “Ask me where we’re at, it’s nowhere; living in a land without peace, where everyone is sinking into a dream.” In his catchy hit “Tikva,” from his and Eliasi’s 2002 album, The Light and the Shadow, this theme continues: “You promised us a dove, but instead a buzzard has swarmed from above. We are living in a dream, talking about peace but still squeezing on the trigger.” And from the hit song “Divide and Conquer”: “To think that an olive branch symbolizes peace? Sorry, it doesn’t live here anymore; it’s been kidnapped or murdered. Where is God in all of this?” But this recurring pattern of disillusionment doesn’t so much express an inherent objection to the peace process as reflect disappointment in its results. After all, Subliminal, like most Israelis today, once embraced a two-state solution on the basis of land for peace.
Listen to “Tikva”: [audio:https://www.tabletmag.com/wp-content/uploads/audio/mp3/subliminal_tikva.mp3]
The second distinctive quality of Subliminal’s music is that it is tied to the past. Disillusioned by the present, Subliminal has found inspiration in old Israeli pop hits and traditional Jewish hymns, and this remixing of old songs with new beats has become one of his trademarks. Haaretz critic Amos Harel has called Subliminal’s musical realm a “third-rate gangster’s paradise.” But unlike his hip-hop heroes Puff Daddy, Jay-Z, or Coolio, who he at times appears to imitate, Subliminal romanticizes—instead of resurrects—the past.
He has remixed “Flowers in the Barrel,” a victory song from Israel’s 1967 war, originally recorded by an IDF army band, and the Hanukkah chant “Banu Hoshech Legaresh,” which celebrates the Maccabees. But the most famous display of his retro style is the hit single, “60 Years Old,” released two years ago on Israel’s 60th anniversary, and featuring the legendary kibbutz chorus “The Gevatron.” The remix orientalizes an early-1980s folk hit with an onslaught of derbekkeh drums and swirling ethnic background vocals, and it layers on lyrics with nostalgic longings:
We learn from our experience,
So let’s remember what once was, and do it right,
Let’s take responsibility, ’cause this country is ours,
We won’t accomplish anything, if we don’t remember where we come from
In choosing a song originally written as an apotheosis for the mythologized kibbutz, Subliminal has sought to appropriate the implicit qualities of strength, solidarity, and sacrifice, which are embedded in that myth. The cultural critic Rubik Rosenthal has called this rendition an adequate reflection of the “chaos” gripping Israeli culture, because it suggests “a chain of values that have almost nothing in common with contemporary Israel, nor with its conceivable future, but rather maybe with what once was her past.”
“I want us to live like people here used to live way back,” Subliminal said when I asked about his excessive nostalgia. “I am my father’s son. And I want to preserve the traditions from my father’s generation. In his time, people cared about each other and about the state of Israel. Today, an entire generation has forgotten that, and it’s my task to help them remember.”
There is something in Subliminal’s reconstruction of the past into a grand palliative for the present that is much more reminiscent of conservative political thinker Edmund Burke than rapper Biggie Smalls. The disillusionment from the unfulfilled promises of peace, and the consequential longing for a mythologized past to alleviate the disappointment, are neither fascist nor populist traits but rather conservative ones. Subliminal’s unwavering dedication to the stability and continuity of the state and its traditional institutions, his reverence for Jewish heritage and faith, his profound commitment to family, and his uncompromising respect for law and order, have the markings of an archetypical conservative ideology. Irving Kristol famously described neoconservatives of postwar America as having been “mugged by reality”—a fitting label for the disenchanted generation of Israelis to which Subliminal belongs.
That such a label doesn’t fit all or even most Israelis does not undermine the fact that it speaks to enough of them. In the wake of last year’s parliamentary elections, Haaretz observed that the most distinctive characteristics of the current Knesset is that it is more right-wing and younger than any before it. The rise over the past decade of what Subliminal refers to as his own “mass movement”—primarily made up of younger Israelis—certainly helps explain why.
Like with any conservative ideology, the attempt to navigate the present through the past is destined to leave many Israelis mired in contradiction, as Subliminal himself remains. “I think that being pro-Palestinian is a very good thing,” he told me. “But I also think that being anti-Israeli is something against which I am willing to fight until my last drop of blood.”
Consistently ambivalent, Subliminal claims that brains and not brawn will resolve the conflict; yet every idea he offers in one way or another falls back on force. When I confronted him with the timeless Israeli dilemma—is it good to die for your country?—he answered, hesitantly: “No, it’s not good to die for anything, period. But, if you have to die for something, it might as well be for something as important as that.” This recurring oscillation reflects the immaturity of those Israelis who want everything but are willing to give up nothing. They dream of a genuine peace but are not prepared to sacrifice in order to gain it. They believe that only overwhelming military power can guarantee Israel’s security, while overlooking the fact that their continuing corruption by such power may contribute to their insecurity in the first place.
Subliminal’s pacified hip-hop won’t resolve any of these dilemmas. But political demands still saturate Israeli popular culture, which suggests that art may yet open a window of imagination through which politics could one day redeem itself. That Subliminal’s next album will probably not provide us with any solutions doesn’t mean we should not keep listening, and hoping, that at the very least, it will help us better understand the complex problems at hand.
Listen to an unreleased Subliminal track, “Fuego”: [audio:https://www.tabletmag.com/wp-content/uploads/audio/mp3/subliminal_fuego.mp3]
Yoav Fromer is a New York-based journalist and a former columnist for Maariv.