Will Alicia Keys Resist BDS Pressure and Play Tel Aviv? Israeli Fans Hope So

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If all goes well, devotees of Alicia Keys will be able to celebrate July 4th this year by hearing their idol paying homage to New York singing her hit “Empire State of Mind” in Tel Aviv’s Nokia Stadium.

But, as with any major concert plans in Israel these days, that’s still a big “if.”

The concert announcement was greeted by local music fans with great excitement. It’s always big news when a major artist decides to grace our shores, and it’s an even bigger thrill when that artist is actually at their peak, and not in the waning days of their career - we tend to get many senior-citizen stars of the '70s and '80s.

It’s not that we don’t appreciate seeing legendary singers well past retirement age - who’s going to complain about Leonard Cohen and Paul McCartney? But still, underneath the celebration, there’s that tiny resentful feeling of “what took them so long?”

This is why hearing that Keys, a genuinely ‘hot’ singer-songwriter, with twelve Grammy Awards under her belt - all of them awarded this millennium - has gotten pulses racing. Tickets are on sale and already being snapped up quickly.

But ticket-holders can’t just sit back and count the days till the concert begins. In what has now become a predictable hazing ritual for any musician who decides to play in Israel, from Madonna to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a battle has been launched by the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) to pressure Keys to cancel on the ground that her performance can be seen as an endorsement of any and all Israeli government policies, and cancellation of her concert will be a bold step for human rights.

And so, just days after Keys confirmed that she was coming, the BDS campaign began to kick into gear, and websites, Facebook pages, and petitions urging Keys to cancel her plans to play Tel Aviv started popping up.

Some of the sites have clever names. Using this twist on her hit song “Fallin'”, one Facebook group is called “Alicia Keys: Don’t Be Fallin For Apartheid, Cancel Israel.” There’s a petition on Change.Org for people to sign asking her to cancel based on a claim that Keys “is scheduled to play to a segregated audience.” It’s unclear exactly how they contend the audience will be segregated, whether they believe Arabs won’t be admitted into Nokia. The only real evidence of any type segregation I’m aware of is socio-economic. With all of the cheaper seats sold, the least expensive tickets available to see the renowned “Girl on Fire” will cost close to $100. 

One UK site, which is devoted to pressuring all artists scheduled to play in Israel to cancel, is drawing hope from what it claimed to be evidence that Keys “favorited” a tweet calling her to pull out of her Tel Aviv gig.

Keys, of course, isn’t alone. There is pressure on other major artists already booked to come to Israel this summer concert season: Depeche Mode and Cliff Richard. But since Depeche Mode has already played in Israel before and is therefore viewed as something of a ‘lost cause,’ and Richard, at age 72, is - to put it delicately - not at the peak of his career, the spotlight is shining brightly on Keys. BDS is already claiming credit for the scuttling of plans for an Israeli offshoot of the Lollapalooza festival concert in August, but it is unclear whether or not politics played a primary role in the collapse of the plans.

Part of the reason BDS may be holding out hope is because Keys is part of the African-American community and pressure was successful this past December when Stevie Wonder pulled out of his commitment to perform in a gala concert for Friends of the IDF.

That incident was the first big victory for BDS on the entertainment scene following a drought - their last big victories were in 2010, when Elvis Costello and the Pixies cancelled their shows, after heavy pressure was applied, and Israel was in the headlines daily in the wake of the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident.

With these campaigns having become a routine, Israeli fans have become pro-active and band together early to apply counter-pressure to try to guarantee their music idols don’t cancel. On Facebook, the countermovement has swung into action with a group called "Alicia Keys Plays for Peace in Israel" and another, offering support to all of the artists called “We support musicians who play for people, not governments." In Israeli and pro-Israel circles,there are calls for Israelis to post on Keys’ Facebook page and show their support and gratitude for visiting Israel, to balance the posts by those urging her to stay away.

These days, with the political pressure a given, there’s really no excuse for an artist to cancel a Tel Aviv gig. Every artist, musician, and cultural figure obviously has the right to decide where they want to travel and perform. The decision regarding whether or not to come to Israel is, let’s face it, neither easy nor simple these days - and I wouldn’t automatically fault an artist who reads the headlines, searches their conscience, weighs the possible backlash, and decides against coming. But such a decision needs to be weighed, seriously considered and made firmly before an appearance is announced, not after.

Going the route of announcing a show only to cave to the pressure and cancel it is a lose-lose proposition. The artists gets in trouble with those who become angry that they agreed to play Israel in the first place, and bitterly disappoint their Israeli fans by pulling out. True confession: I will never feel the same way about Elvis Costello, whom I once adored, again. When I listen to his music now it’s like being reminded of an old boyfriend who stood me up on a big date. 

Only time and news events will tell, but so far, it looks like Alicia Keys is going to hang in there and stick with her plan. It was a good sign that a statement by Keys was released on February 22 by concert promoter Shuki Weiss: “I’m excited to go to new places on this tour, among them Tel Aviv. I plan on bringing with me a show full of emotion and inspiration.”

Keys only really needs to show up with the inspiration. As she probably can tell already by checking out her Facebook and Twitter feeds, there’s no shortage of emotion around here. 

Alicia Keys performing at halftime during the NBA All-Star basketball game in Houston, Texas, February 17, 2013. Credit: Reuters

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