The R gurgled in the back of the security inspector's throat as she ran me through the mandatory security grilling that awaits all who venture to Israel. Everyone landing in the Holy Land is under suspicion. The inspector's tone is the ball-busting cadence that comes standard with an interrogation. It becomes more familiar each time I arrive in Tel Aviv, so I was able to discern the true meaning of her words.
"Why you are going to Ramle" is Israeli English for "What do you want with that shithole?"
It's the kind of reaction one might expect before visiting, say, Kansas City.
And it was precisely Ramle's diversity -- it has one of the highest minority (Arab) populations in Israel, in addition to several immigrant Jewish communities -- that attracted former KC mayor Emanuel Cleaver to establish a sister-city relationship with Ramle after Jewish community leaders in Kansas City proffered the idea. Cleaver even toured Ramle with Mayor Yoel Lavie and was shown an area planned for new low-income housing, which he promptly advised against.
"There is no reason why they should repeat our mistakes," Cleaver explained in a phone interview. "When you concentrate poor people in one place, you get more problems than solutions."
The musical landscape in Ramle is also like its sister city in that much of the product that surfaces on the radio is pap. European-style pop abounds, often mingled with Middle Eastern elements propagated in Hebrew by Jews whose families came from Arabic-speaking countries. In the 1990s, Israel was home to a hearty psychedelic trance scene, a result of young Israelis traveling in the tripped-out Indian beach state of Goa after finishing their mandatory military service.
Lately, as hip-hop has swept throughout the world, young Israeli Arabs have found a trenchant way of getting their message across, whatever that message may be. In that way, rappers in Ramle don't differ drastically from MCs prowling Troost.
"Above all, I am trying to scream the unheard voice," 21-year-old rapper and Ramle native Sameh Zakot told me in excellent English as we shared his shisha, the traditional Middle Eastern water pipe smoked by men of leisure from ages 18 to 80. Zakot has gained fame in the past few years, having visited France and New York to showcase his rhyming skills, which combine the Palestinian dialect and the classical style of the Quran.
"I think Arabic is very poetic, and so the rap also sounds very nice," Zakot said. "It's not like Hebrew, with all the chaaa [choking sound] and rrrraaaa [gargling sound] and all that."
Comments like Sameh's reveal the sociopolitical undertones hip-hop has brought to the surface so frequently since Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released "The Message" in 1982. In Israel, with its various cultural and linguistic subdivisions, the concept of the "other" people transfers to the "other" language, the "other" culture and, ultimately, "other " music.
The same type of squalor that created rap music in the United States persists in slums throughout the world. Every city has a Prospect Avenue, but not all have an Alvin Brooks. In Israel and the Territories, youthful malaise and ongoing warfare have driven a familiar rift between generations.
Hip-hop has provided Middle Eastern youth with an outlet for commentary that has made quasi-stars out of Israeli hip-hop groups such as Hadag Nachash, whose summer hit, "The Sticker Song," was derived in its entirety from political bumper stickers from across the Israeli political spectrum. The group recently showcased its talent on a tour of U.S. cities with large Jewish and Israeli populations.
I was lucky enough to catch Hadag Nachash in concert in Tel Aviv last summer. The band, whose sound is more akin to the Red Hot Chili Peppers than to Dr. Dre, had as many as 19 performers onstage during the show, including all of the guest artists from the group's most recent album, Local Stuff.
The audience ranged widely in age, but everyone sang along to the chorus -- How much evil can you swallow? -- of "The Sticker Song." Video clips accompanied many songs. During "In the Beginning," footage of the immigrant farmers who sowed Zionism's roots in Ottoman Palestine were accompanied by equally evocative lyrics: In Palestine, the Land of Israel/The beginning of the century/Lived a number of tribes on the same land. More images followed -- of bread lines and waves of Jewish immigrants from around the world -- then the chorus: The circle comes back to the same place.
Hip-hop from Israel has yet to gain significant notice outside the region. Bands such as Shabak Samech blazed the trail in the '90s, infusing their rhymes with biblical themes and allusions to which Hebrew speakers have immediate access. Now several clubs in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities host weekly hip-hop nights, and fans in other towns make their own music and spray-paint "2Pac" on walls and park benches from Eilat to Metulla.
The best way to bring hip-hop from Ramle to Raytown is still the Internet. Sites such as Israel-music.com provide a legitimate route, and downloading applications usually return results for a search for "Israeli rap."
The English-speaking world is a tough nut to crack. But hip-hop continues to prove that the nature of music has no accent. In a place like Israel, that sentiment is especially poignant in its potential to change attitudes and lives.
"In hip-hop, you don't hit someone," says Zakot, a Palestinian Arab, over tea in an old Crusader barracks in the Jewish state. "You fight with your words ... with your mind."
Sam Hopkins hosts the Breakfast for Beatlovers radio show Wednesdays on KJHK 90.7 in Lawrence.