Lessons of Coexistence, From a Muslim Rapper in an L.A. Villa

As opposed to the Jewish-Israeli participants in the reality show 'Living in La La Land,' Sameh Zakout emerges as the one with the open mind while his housemates come off as xenophobes.

Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
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Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

One of the most difficult moments faced by rapper Sameh Zakout on the musical reality show “Living in La La Land” was seen in a recent episode. Zakout − or “Saz,” his longtime stage name − looks almost despairing there, stunned, insulted and embarrassed. This mix of emotions emerged during a meeting the production arranged in Los Angeles for the show’s participants ‏(who in addition to Saz, include Maya Buskila, Eli Zolta and Shir Levy, Sarit Avitan and Liat Banai‏) with a gospel singer, an African-American woman who is a devout Christian.

Upon hearing the word “Jesus,” some of the participants flounce demonstratively out of the room. Those who remain, apart from Saz, who is a Muslim, subsequently announce that they will not accept the invitation to go to the woman’s church. These aren’t the only moments Saz’s otherness has stood out: The series’ first episode showed the other contestants busying themselves with removing the crucifixes from the walls of the house in which they have been lodged during their California stay.

“I was in culture shock,” the rapper admits. “Throughout the program, they would sing ‘Hatikva’ in a defiant way. They treated me like shit. At first they didn’t want me to sleep in the house. ‘An Arab sleeping with us? Let him sleep outside.’ It was really hard for me in those situations.”

Did you restrain yourself from responding?

“I didn’t want to touch politics or religion. In those situations maybe I was angry at the particular moment, but mostly I pitied them for their ignorance. I tried all along not to get dragged in, to remain focused on what I was doing and on the possibilities I had there, but it kept recurring. Five weeks during which there were constantly incidents like that, when I felt I was being put in a corner. I am not a Christian, but I grew up in a society where there are Christians, and in general it isn’t acceptable to me for someone to curse Jesus.”

Zakout, 29, comes from the Old City of Ramle and is the grandson of a refugee from the Palestinian village of Isdud ‏(on which was built the modern city of Ashdod‏). The grandfather, as well as his son, Zakout’s father, was politically active and a communist. Zakout’s stage and musical experience began when he was 15 years old. In 1998, he and his cousin Tamer Nafer founded Dam, the Palestinian rap group which has from the outset been characterized by political engagement and angry texts. Later, too, when Saz ventured off on his own, he was considered a ground-breaking figure among young Arabs, and was one of the first Arabic-speaking hip-hop artists . At 18, he starred in a documentary film called “Saz: The Palestinian Rapper for Change,” in which he was depicted as angry and confused; in past interviews he has referred to his writing of texts as “a musical intifada.”

Zakout came by chance to “Living in La La Land,” a reality show about Israeli singers and the challenges they face in trying to make it in Los Angeles: Right before leaving for California, the person who was supposed to have been the star of the show, Moshik Afia, declared he was afraid of flying. In front of the show’s cameras, the production staff had to come up with a replacement − and quickly. Saz, who had auditioned for the show but hadn’t been chosen, was called in: Twelve hours later, he boarded a plane.

The unscheduled trip meant Saz had to postpone the ceremony of his betrothal to his fiancee, Rula. The ritual did subsequently take place, and today, Zakout proudly shows off the ring: Now it is on his right hand, but in accordance with custom, it will move to the left after the wedding. When Rula phones him toward the end of an interview with Haaretz, and they talk, his voice seems to slow down and become an octave lower.

‘Success has arrived’

From talk about buying an apartment and establishing a home − the topics that really seem to concern him at the moment − he goes on to musical and social challenges. “They also wanted me ... for the first season of ‘Big Brother,’ for which I auditioned, but in the end I didn’t want to go,” he relates.

Did you think they wanted you to fill a certain role?

“I am not in that place, although at that time I may well have been willing to do it. Ranin Boulos went on ‘Big Brother’ in the role of the educated and liberal Arab woman,” he says, smiling.

Is the educated, liberal Arab your role on “Living in La La Land”?

“I am the most liberal, I accept everyone, I sit with them during Kiddush on the Sabbath and I go to church out of respect ... I didn’t make a fuss and I stayed away from the image of ‘the angry Arab,’ both because we have already seen those types and because I am no longer that other. I am a different ‘other’ − educated, multicultural.”

Despite years of stage experience here and abroad, Zakout has not succeeded in breaking through in a really big way. About four years ago he collaborated with Balkan Beat Box in the song “Ramallah Tel Aviv,” which became a hit; he has also gone on tour abroad with that Israeli-American band. Says Tomer Yosef, a member of the group who wrote the song: “The audience would react ecstatically. They loved the collaboration, and after all, he is always good onstage.”

Zakout thought his ship had come in. “I did a successful performance tour with the band in the United States and Malta and I signed a contract with a record company,” he relates. “I got NIS 250,000, a studio, a dream-come-true. I felt this is it, now I am making it.”

The record company folded, however, and Zakout, who had worked without an organized and professional business plan, crashed. With no regular work, in 2009, he was facing a crisis

“I lost a lot of money, I nearly went bankrupt. I felt I had fallen through the floor. I was extinguished. I was depressed for three or four months. I didn’t leave the house, my bed. I lost weight. A very difficult period.”

It was then that the singer decided to consult with a life coach, who instructed him to recite the mantra “Something good is going to happen to me,” over and over again: “I’d do meditation and pray with him. I did thorough soul-searching concerning everything that had happened. Gradually, I got the feeling that things were moving ahead.”

It is easy to see the coach’s influence on Zakout: It isn’t just the terminology he has adopted in everyday speech but also the small notebook he places nonchalantly on the table at the cafe, which he says he uses to record both day-to-day goals and broader aims.

“Even before ‘La La Land’ the success was beginning, and now I totally feel it has arrived,” he says. “My feeling is that if all this hadn’t happened to me, the present would be looking completely different.”

What would have happened?

“We wouldn’t be having the conversation we are having now − it would have looked completely different. Also what would have been seen of me on television would have been different.”

It sounds as though the logical reaction would have been for you to get angrier.

“No. I have learned how to take it. Anger is good if it motivates you. The problem is that it’s a lot easier to take it toward self-pity. I don’t want to let myself be miserable − that doesn’t get me anywhere. I am trying to think what my vision is and what I want to achieve and also to make a good impression while doing it. They made the film about me when I was 18 and angry. I came with a heavy load, heavy feelings against police violence, against the attitude, the way people look down on us. I had a lot of frustration. But things change. I took myself in hand, I wanted to understand how I, Sameh Zakout, could achieve results. It’s very easy to get into that label of the angry, unfortunate Arab. I don’t want labels.”

According to Shabi Zaraya, one of the creators of “La La Land,” one of Zakout’s strengths “is the way he deals with things. We’ve known each other for several years now, and maybe he used to be militant, but that has changed. He has matured, he’s a different person and he doesn’t fall into the booby traps that life sets. He bears great responsibility because he supposedly represents a public. In my opinion he does this with dignity.”

‘A powerful tool’

Saz has just come out with a new single, in Hebrew. He also defines himself differently than in the past. The person who once had his photograph taken in a shirt with the slogan in English “Hip-hop isn’t dead. It is alive in Palestine” now defines himself as an “ethnic rapper,” happily drawing from Western music and singing both in Hebrew and in English.

Aren’t you afraid that they will say you’re a sellout?

“I am not a sellout. I challenge myself and the audience. Anyone who likes me in Arabic will like me in Hebrew, too.”

Nevertheless, you are considered one of the prophets of a certain genre. One of the first who did hip-hop in Arabic and with very sharp messages, a kind of symbol.

“I am not a symbol for anyone. Altogether, I believe that if you have painful things to say, it doesn’t have to come at the expense of the positive messages and the pleasure you want to transmit. They come together. It isn’t that I don’t have opinions, but I am certainly not the same Sameh I was a number of years ago, who knows only aggression but doesn’t know what he is attacking and why. I don’t want to bandy slogans about; that is outdated and I have progressed. An artist must not stay the same thing. You have to go with the flow.”

The single in Hebrew and your reconciled approach − don’t they cause a problem for you with your original audience? Don’t they expect different messages from you?

“No. They are expecting me to succeed and to represent with dignity. They are expecting me to be young and successful. We too have dreams, we too are people who want to live and succeed. The cliche says that your biggest enemy is yourself, and that is correct. I don’t want to stop myself any more. I think I am doing well, because I have never received so much love in my whole life.”

In recent weeks, the Arab media have been pursuing Zakout. He says he’s also feeling love on the street, where young Arabs want to be photographed with him. He relates that the reactions his father has been hearing have caused him to change his mind about the profession his son has chosen. He used to be against it, today he is softening: “Maybe he also didn’t want to see me get stuck with the image of the angry Arab. Before I flew to the United States, he told me to stay away from politics and not to get into conflicts. No one needs to know whom I vote for and what my political opinions are.”

And you don’t think this limits you?

“The very fact that I am there, that I am succeeding there and that five Israelis to whom I came as a surprise have to accept me − that’s already a political statement. Being ‘in their face’ is unnecessary; it leaves you in the same place. Music is a powerful tool for transmitting opinions but also for connecting, for being a positive tool. It took me years to discover this, and it’s good that it happened. There is no lack of protest and there won’t be. I see life in a different way. I am getting married soon and I want to establish a home and a family. Being a firebrand all the time − I’ve been there, done that. I don’t want that any more. I used to lack balance. I was totally political or into fun.”

The PR for the show is marketing you as a representative of the Arab public, with a whole sector behind him.

“I took that as a joke. I represent myself. Maybe the good people from both sides who want a good life, a different life. Ramle, my family, the community − they are part of me and I don’t forget but I don’t feel like anyone’s representative.”

And what was the reaction of your cousin, Tamer Nafer, who is perhaps the most political representative of Arab music?

“He is the most political and his group, Dam, is the most political. I call them AWA: Arabs with attitude. They are very, very gracious toward me. I am not trying to be anyone else. I know what my roots are and I am proud of my origin. That is why everywhere I can I give my full name: I don’t forget where I have come from.”

So why Saz, then, and not Sameh Zakout?

“In English it sounds awful,” he laughs, “and a saz is also a Turkish musical instrument that I love, with a sharp sound. But with my friends I am only Sameh. Sameh in Arabic means ‘to forgive.’ A terrific name, no?”

Sameh "Saz" Zakout. "I am not a sellout. Anyone who likes me in Arabic will like me in Hebrew, too."Credit: David Bachar; makeup by Rana Issa; styling by Rula Abed Algani

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