Arab-Jewish hip hop group challenges Israeli ‘melting pot’

System Ali, a ten-piece hip hop outfit which raps in Arabic, Russian, Hebrew and English sits down with Café Gibraltar to talk about the power of the genre, normalization, revolutionary Arab street poetry and the need to struggle for justice in their home city. 

By Hagar Shezaf

Arab-Jewish hip hop group challenges Israeli 'melting pot'
System Ali. (photo: Dudi Dayan)

How did it all start?

We started playing in a local bomb shelter in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa. The shelter belonged to the Sadaka-Reut organization, and some of us had previously started the Jaffa Youth Center, which was a center of education and arts for Jaffa’s teenagers. The center focused on photography, theatre, writing and mostly music. That’s where we met, some of us as scouts and some of us as counselors. We started developing a permanent group of musicians, rappers and songwriters that met every week to jam, with everyone bringing their own material. This is how the newer shared material was created – as a response to one another. The meetings included a lot of inspiration as well as lots of clashes.

In 2006, around the time of a wave of expulsion and demolition orders for homes in Jaffa, we decided that it was the time to perform together as a group. We had our first performance on the roof of the shelter, as part of the popular struggle for housing. Since then we have been together, and are continuing with our musical endeavors as well as with our educational work with youth in Jaffa, Bat Yam, Lod and south Tel Aviv. Our new album is also our first one, after six years of hard work, performances and recordings. During this time we also established the “System Ali House” in Bat Yam, which is a rehearsal/recording studio which houses us, and is used as the center for all our educational projects for youth.

How many members are in the group today?

We are ten musicians, some of us play instruments, she of us sing, while others do both. The members are: Amneh Jarusha (vocals), Enver Seitibragrimov (vocals and percussion), Muhammad Aguani (vocals), Muhammad Mugrabi (vocals and percussion), Yonatan Kunda (vocals and guitar), Liba Neeman (vocals and violin), Yehonatan Dayan (Bass), Moti Ben Baruh (drums), Luna Abu Nassar (vocals and guitars), Neta Weiner (vocals and accordion).

What were your musical influences from home?

Enbar Seitibragrimov: In Uzbekistan, where I grew up, we listened to two things: songs from the Caucasus and gangster rap. But back then and even today, there is no song or genre with which I cannot connect, from Mizrahi music and “Dika’on” (a heavier form of Mizrahi music) to rock and blues.

Muhammad Mugrabi: I grew up on black music from outside Israel, specifically on Tupac. Slowly I began discovering other things. I first heard hip hop in Arabic, by DAM’s Tamer Nafar, at the age of 14. It opened my eyes and filled me with inspiration. Until that very moment, I only listened to rap in Hebrew, which I didn’t connect to. All of a sudden it gave me a push, it gave me a way to discover myself, and to study the rich tradition of Arab poetry (rather than just rap), including Ahmed Shawqi, Khalil Jubran and many others.

Why did you choose to make hip hop? In what way do you feel style fits what you’re trying to do?

Neta Weiner: Although our music moves through many genres, it is strongly based on hip hop, which is a kind of common base for all of us, as singers, songwriters and musicians. The rootedness of hip hop is first an foremost a community-based style, which is created for and by the audience, and exists in order to create a change in reality in a very deep way vis-a-vis each and every one of our artistic and personal experiences. As opposed to other genres in which songs are “high brow” and are written ahead of time for a crowd, hip hop has an equal place for the crowd and the musician to have an influence. Our first show was on a roof of a public bomb shelter in Ajami, and six years later, our preferred format is still street shows.

Enver: We make hip hop because its the only style in which we can express both happiness and pain. It’s our only way to speak with people such that even if a person doesn’t understand your language, he will understand you, connect and become excited through his body – he’ll understand through the movement. We are making hip hop because we came from the street, because we met on the street. That’s where System Ali grew.

Your songs often deal with the fact that you speak and sing in different languages, especially the song “Yaffawiya.” Is language as a concept interesting to you? How do you feel that the multilingualism of the group affects your music?

Enver: System Ali’s multilingualism makes everything more interesting, for better or for worse. What is nice about our music is that no crowd in Israel that the music won’t affect or won’t understand it, in at least one language, and that the music and the words don’t speak to it in any way. Once, a Russian came up to me after a show and said “Damn bro, I understood every word you said, and it was crazy,” and right after someone else came up to me and said “That was incredible, even though I didn’t understand a word.”

Mugrabi: What strengthens me in the decision to stick to the multilingualism is that, first of all, it’s important for me to sing in my language. I make sure of it. I am interested in other languages – it’s not that I oppose multilingualism – language is a very powerful tool. A person has greater exposure and abilities with more than one language. He has more opportunities to hit the target, to hit many targets, but I still feel that my uniqueness lays in my language. For me, multilingualism means that I believe that whoever doesn’t understand will come up to me and ask me and understand, rather than me singing in a language that isn’t mine so someone else will understand.

Yonatan Kunda: But multilingualism can also be dangerous when it’s presented as part of the misrepresentation of “multiculturalism.” Multilingualism is significant when it confronts the basic fear that we have of “not understanding,” and to force us to really deal with it – while pushing each of us to take responsibility and deepen our control over language. It requires a lot of trust among people, and this is something we never stop working on and from within. It’s not just the difference between languages, but also how each person deals with creating music in his/her own language: music in Arabic struggles against suppression and erasure from the cultural and public spheres, while Hebrew struggles against atrophy, simplification and whitewashing as a result of being mobilized by the government in order to implement its policies.

How would you describe your relationship to Jaffa? How do you experiences the different changes taking place in the city?

Mugrabi: Jaffa is the home of System Ali – both together and separately, we all found our place in this city. However, most of the recent changes taking place in the city are not positive. They turn us – the people of Jaffa who grew up and live here, both Jews and Arabs – into second-class residents. Not only is there no affordable housing for Jaffa’s residents, the authorities also destroy homes and kick families out, like what happened a few days ago on Shivtei Israel Street.

Aguani: The way in which Jaffa is changing today creates a sense of fear, of a creeping expulsion. One foot, and then another foot, and then you find yourself outside. It greatly affects our songs. For me, every song I sing comes from a sense that I am fighting for my existence here. I am trying to bring a message of a deep love for Jaffa, and the need to struggle for it. This is why I choose to sing, this is why I choose to work with youths in the city.

In what sense does the extra focus on identity and language cause conflict for the Jewish members of the band vis-a-vis their Jewish/Israeli identity?

Yonatan: The focus on identity, language and the story of each one of us is inseparable from the focus of each individual on his/her roots and musical legacy. I can say that, for instance, my grandfather was not musically inclined in any way. But as a son to a Hassidic family from the Pinsk-Kerlin Hassidut, his entire life was spent humming silently, distracted, between thoughts – these fragmented melodies, pieces of broken Hassidic tunes. For me, it’s inseparable from my roots and my identity. I feel that my family roots are tied to a lack of something, to a breakage. My family’s first home in Israel was in Jaffa. They were European refugees living in the home of an Arab family – refugees from Jaffa in 1948. How can we reconcile such deep, painful contradictions in our story and our identity? It’s impossible. What we’re left with is our broken melodies, those that travel with us. This contradiction between a deep feeling of belonging and a deep feeling of foreignness, of detachment, is something that we have in common and unites our different stories. These feelings exist in a song from our new album, which is called “Idialam:” On Jerusalem Boulevard / When the spider of fate bites / in Arabic mixed with Yiddish / who mumbles Kaddish (Jewish mourner’s prayer) to whom?

How do you relate to the discussion on normalization? In what what do you feel that you can speak in one voice to a number of different communities?

Aguani: The situation in System Ali is the complete opposite from the misconception that everything is good and normal. The fact that Jews and Arabs sing together does not mean there is peace. Personally, I don’t believe in the peace process. The people in this band are partners. The band got together, first and foremost, due to its members, and it got together to say in all four languages spoken among us that there are problems here, there are things that we must not be silent about, no matter what language.

Mugrabi: For many people, there very fact that I open my mouth and speak Arabic is already a “political” issue, regardless of what I say. Whether it is on a bus, the Jewish school in which I teach, or when I sing onstage, a lot of people do not want to hear Arabic. For them, it doesn’t have a place here, and if it is spoken, it is only after or behind Hebrew. From this perspective, System Ali is here to break down the doors, and not only to break them down – we want to come in. To wake up the people, whoever is willing to listen, as well as those who don’t want to listen. There is no need to hide any of our languages, nor will there ever be. Not Arabic and not Russian.

How much emphasis did you put on your individual different musical influences on the new album? Is this a process that takes place consciously?

Neta: Befitting a band with many writers, each one of us brings with them their own inspiration and sources of power. The new album is influenced by classical Arabic music along with klezmer and Romani music, all of it wrapped in a vibe of a rock band. As for our writing, the lyrics quote and correspond with different sources. One song references Leah Goldberg’s “M’Shirei Eretz Ahavati,” (Songs of My Beloved Country), while another one of our songs is a hip hop version of a text by Egyptian poet Ahmad Fuad Nijam. Of course there are things that take place on a conscious level, but our influences are found in the phrasing of every sentence and the melodic tendencies of each one of us – whether we like it or not. This is the same way we approached Chava Alberstein’s “Bokha O Tzokheket” (Laughing Or Crying), a song that is very much in my DNA, with all of its monstrousness, its militancy and its beauty. I don’t feel we are rebuking or parodying these songs with our versions, but I definitely feel their cultural weight.

Which artists influenced the writing and music on the new album?

Aguani: My writing and music are greatly influenced by singers of the revolution across the Arab world, street poets that wrote from and for their people, their struggles and their happiness. The musicians that influenced me range anywhere from Sheikh Said Darwish and the Sheikh Imam to Ahmed Fouad Negm and contemporary singers.

What’s on the mixtape?

Our mixtape is made up of a string of songs that accompany our music generally, and specifically our new album. There are songs that we grew up on at home, as well as sings from our present – from the home that System Ali is building anew. You can find direct sources of inspiration to songs that on the album (such as Sheikh Imam’s “Jawara Mat” to the words of street poet Agmed Fouad Negm), along with indirect influences such as Jo Amar’s “Barcelona” and Chb Khaled & IAM’s “Oran-Marsseile,” which are songs of love and despair for cities, which are the influence for our song “Yaffawiya.” In addition, you can find songs by artists and musical partners who we’ve shared the stage with in recent years, such as Vulkan and Sadyle, as well as songs from our guitarist Luna Abu Nassar’s debut album.