With that in mind I spent a good chunk of Wednesday night at Meduse Lounge, a tiny upstairs bar close to the epicenter of SXSW but far enough away to make it difficult to draw curious pedestrians without a plan. My plan was to catch Israeli-Canadian rapper Shai Haddad, aka Shi 360, an MC who raps in English and Hebrew. Shi's bilingual flexibility is a great asset—it's appealing to those who are intrigued by Hebrew to give it a listen but whose grasp on that language might keep them from picking up a rap album without a word of English, and it provides the rapper with an additional vocabulary to use and abuse in an endless quest to create wordplay that sounds great. Plus, given that Hebrew is synonymous with Judaism, the dude has a built-in fan base that he just needs to find.
Most of that potential fan base was elsewhere Wednesday night at 9:15 PM, when Shi was supposed to take the stage. He didn't appear then; making a festival of this size run is an imperfect science, and things were behind schedule. Waiting for Shi to perform, I took in a couple sets from other international rappers, including an MC from Mexico named Milkman, whose sleek rap tracks felt at home with most Top 40 radio. Shi, too, has pop sensibilities, but those tendencies tend to get diminished by his earnest interest in blending music and cultures from across the world—it proved to be his strength and his weakness.
Shi candidly discussed the hodgepodge sources of inspiration for his songs throughout his set, name-checking northern Africa as the root of his second song of the night. Several tracks and a few songs later he switched gears with a full-on reggae track. This kind of genre hopping isn't unique, but keeping it from coming across like a mess of different styles carelessly thrown together takes a lot of work, and Shi isn't quite there yet. He has the sincerity and the talent—as was immediately recognizable every time he thrust his hands into the air or placed them on the crown of his head in anguish or ecstasy (which was often)—but he lacks the lyrical chops to tie every loose thread together.
The MC's songs are filled with posi pop cliches—love, cross-cultural empathy, pain—left untouched, and the vacillating between English and Hebrew on songs such as "Shalom Haters" came across as a ploy to find a semblance of a meaningful turn of phrase that hasn't been repeated en mass since eons ago. Shi has an excellent grip on language mechanics that allow him to rap fluidly and confidently in multiple languages—he even busted out some Greek, and although he didn't understand the words, he correctly asserted that it sounded great. I just wish some of his rhymes weren't so hokey.
Then again, that's part of his appeal; he performs without caring how the words or music may sound to anyone else, and he even appeared to relish the fact that playing a remix of "Hava Nagila" and a dubstep-ripping rap song back-to-back felt like something that might happen at a bar mitzvah. That did help coerce the meek attendees into moving their bodies in a way that showed they legitimately enjoyed his set, regardless of whether or not he was the buzziest artist at SXSW. Given more of a push, Shi might actually be able to get to a point where he can get on a showcase that doesn't just throw him under the "international rap" tag.
Shi's set ran so late that I had to alter the rest of my evening's schedule, which was skewed toward Chicago acts; as much as I want to see unknown rappers from abroad, I also want to get a good gauge on how beloved locals are received at SXSW. I only managed to catch two acts—dance producer Chrissy Murderbot and shoegaze-pop duo Mahogany—and for reasons I can't possibly understand they played to pretty small crowds. But considering how overwhelming it can be to stare at a schedule for a single evening of SXSW, I guess I can forgive folks for missing out, and there's probably a solid number of people who will realize they missed the chance to shake it to Chrissy or celebrate the end of the night with the blissful fuzz of Mahogany.
Highlight of the day: Sohn's "The Wheel." I wasn't expecting to see this London act at all, but when I heard it emanating from a bar I was walking past I had to stop. Seeing the musicians through that bar's open windows as they rhythmically bobbed to the sweet, soothing song, and knowing that it's something I just happened upon, really made my day.
My official seapunk* count: Five.
Best thing I ate: Everything that's bad for me. Sorry, apple I purchased in the twilight hours, you were OK.
*My loose definition of "seapunk" for my SXSW counter is anyone with turquoise-colored hair. That may mean some faux-seapunks will be included in the total count—that's just something I'll have to learn to live with, unfortunately.