Israeli-Born Rap Pioneer in Germany Explains How Antisemitism Drove Him From Music Scene He Helped Create
An Israeli-born pioneer of rap music in Germany has announced that he is quitting the local hip-hop scene he helped to foster, citing rising antisemitic sentiment as the reason.
In an interview published in the New Year edition of Lyrics, a Swiss magazine dedicated to Europe’s thriving hip-hop culture, Berlin-based rapper and TV presenter Ben Salomo said his repeated encounters with antisemitic lyrics and anti-Jewish hatred among his fellow rappers had forced him to leave the scene with “a heavy heart.”
“These incidents were the nails in the coffin of my passion,” Salomo — who was born in the Israeli city of Rehovot in 1977 as Jonathan Kalmanovich — told the magazine.
In the interview, Salomo discussed moving to Berlin with his family at the age of four, explaining that he had first experienced antisemitism at school, both from immigrant Turkish and Arab youths as well as native Germans. His discovery of hip-hop — which first emerged among African-American musicians in New York City’s Bronx borough in the late 1970s — was liberating, as the scene “was a home for everyone,” he said.
“No matter what skin color, nationality or religion — you were welcome,” Salomo said. “Hip-hop was a counter-concept to the exclusion that I had experienced in everyday life so far.”
Salomo’s own career as a rapper and hip-hop promoter began in 1997. With the launch of Berlin’s legendary hip-hop night “Rap on Wednesday” two years later, Salomo became a leader of the nascent German hip-hop scene. More recently, Salomo experienced success on YouTube with a weekly video version of “Rap on Wednesday.”
But last May — tired of the antisemitism that was increasingly penetrating the hip-hop scene — Salomo announced that he was closing down “Rap on Wednesday.” In his interview with Lyrics, the rapper explained that he had been painfully aware of the antisemitism around him for more than a decade, and that he had attempted to fight back. “This whole generation of teenagers, who had confronted me with their hatred of Jews earlier in school, discovered rap as a form of expression and gained a foothold in the scene,” Salomo said.
“In 2006, I had an appearance in Berlin-Kreuzberg at the demonstration for the first of May,” Salomo recalled. “Immediately after my performance, Deso Dogg, a Berlin gangster rapper who professed radical Islam and moved to Syria to join the ISIS ‘jihad,’ stepped onto the stage and grabbed a Hezbollah flag from his backpack. When the more than 2,000 people in front of the stage saw this, they broke out in a frenetic jubilation.”
Continued Salomo: “That was really scary and made me doubt the integrity of this hip-hop scene for the first time.”
Salomo said he had tried to establish some ground rules for rappers without stifling the scene’s creativity.
“Keywords used in right-wing extremist circles — such as the ‘N-word,’ ‘Dirty Muslim” or ‘Judensau’ (Jewish pig) — are not compatible with the values of hip-hop culture,” he argued. “Controversial word games, which are contextualized, are fine. Even if it is distasteful and politically incorrect, you should be allowed to say things like, ‘I’ll take you to Mecca,’ or, ‘I’m p_ing on the Western Wall.'”
But, he explained, “many fans and rappers were not ready to accept these rules. The desire to break taboos was way too big — no matter who got hurt.”
Salomo released his own album in 2016, telling the Bild newspaper at the time, “I’m the first Jew to release a rap album in Germany.” Titled Es Gibt Nur Einen (“There is Only One”), the critically-praised record featured Salomo rapping in both German and Hebrew, with a cover that showed Salomo hiding his face with his hands while standing in front of a Star of David.
“The Jewish musical culture was eradicated years ago in Germany,” Salomo said on the album’s release. “It took some time for something to flourish again on the scorched earth.”
But in his most recent interview, Salomo gave no indication that he would ever return to Germany’s hip-hop scene.
“Antisemitism must not be tolerated and everyone involved in this scene is responsible,” Salomo said. “Business is going according to plan, but as a culture, German hip-hop is dead.”