Gyal Power: An Ethiopian Israeli Singer Is Shaking Up Dancehall

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Hanny Mesele. “I love the fact that it’s impossible to define me.”
Hanny Mesele. “I love the fact that it’s impossible to define me.”Credit: Nisma Records / Erez Taganya
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

A word you hear all the time in Israeli dancehall songs is “gyal,” the Jamaican pronunciation for “girl.” The genre originated on the Caribbean island in the 1970s and is widely considered a forerunner of rap, and it’s become increasingly popular in Israel over the years.

Most local dancehall singers are men, as can be gleaned by song titles like “Hey Gyal” by Ofek Adanek (the most successful Israeli dancehall singer); “My Gyal” by Jimmejonn; “Home Gyal” by Shasha; “Bubble Gyal” by Srulik; and two songs called “Bad Gyal,” one by Avi Molla and another by Omri featuring King Solomon.

And these are just the songs with “gyal” in the title; there are dozens more where it appears in the lyrics. 

Ethiopian Israelis dominate the genre locally and comprise a large part of the audience too. And though the performers on stage are generally male, the dance floors in the clubs where dancehall packs them in (before the coronavirus came along, anyway) appear to be evenly split between men and women. 

At least, that’s what the scene was like until recently. In the past few months, women’s voices can suddenly be heard singing the word “gyal,” too. Just prior to the arrival of the pandemic, Yael Mentesnot – who goes by the stage name Yael Mess – released the song “Body Gyal.” 

A few months later, she was followed by Hanny Mesele’s “Big Boss,” featuring the chorus “She knows she / she knows she’s a bad gyal, big boss.”

When it’s a woman singing the word “gyal,” that inevitably changes its meaning. “The dancehall vibe is very sexual. It’s like that in Jamaica and it’s like that in Israel too – though here it’s a lot milder,” Mesele tells Haaretz. “It’s OK, I get it. But I’d like to present the other side too. When a guy sings that someone’s a ‘bad gyal,’ it’s like he’s saying, ‘She looks good.’ When I say it, it’s different: You’re a bad gyal because you’re a big boss, not because of how you look. I’m talking about character, about behavior, about the choices we make. I use the same words, but give them a different meaning.”

Mesele says some people thought “Big Boss” was an aggressive song aimed at men, but she’s happy to set the record straight. “My message was female empowerment,” says the 20-year-old, who completes her compulsory army service in mid-2021. “But after ‘Big Boss,’ a lot of men in the industry understood who they were dealing with. You have to show a kind of assertiveness: I’m here and I’m not going anywhere,” she explains. 

So, is the woman in “Big Boss” actually Mesele or a fictionalized, tougher version of herself? “There’s a difference, but also – there isn’t,” she says. “I have an alter ego, but it’s not that different from who I really am. Of course, I took it to the place where I want to be: more confident, knowing I’ll succeed” and not be caught in two minds. “It’s like a thought that creates the reality,” she adds, “something I’d wish for myself and for every girl who hears my songs.”

Musician Yael Mess.Credit: Omri Dadon

‘Just a matter of time’

At the moment, Mesele and Mess are the only women operating on the Israeli dancehall scene. But Mesele promises that there will be more. “It’s just a matter of time, we haven’t put all our cards on the table yet,” she says. “You know how much courage it takes to start making music? Right now, women are a little scared. But they look at me and Yael, and they start to gather courage. I see a lot of talented women on Instagram who haven’t taken the next step yet.”

That’s how Mesele started out four years ago. Before that, she was in a band that performed at a community center in Haifa, the northern city where she was born and raised. After she posted some videos on Instagram, performing covers of R&B tunes, she was contacted by dancehall DJ Daniel Tafara. Together they released a version of Nigerian-British singer Maleek Berry’s “Eko Miami.” 

The cover did really well, garnering more than a million views on YouTube, and Mesele started to appear regularly at clubs frequented by young Ethiopian Israelis.

Her next move was to combine a cover with original material. She added her own lyrics (in English) to a song by Jamaican reggae/dancehall singer Christopher Martin. “This song didn’t do as well as ‘Eko Miami’ and it left me kind of confused,” she admits. “But instead of going back to covers, I said: ‘Now I’m going to show my true self, and they’ll hear it and love it. I don’t want to be a cover artist.’ And it paid off.”

The first song she recorded under her own name, “Hozer Elay,” was influenced by U.K. dancehall, which is a little more polished than Jamaican dancehall.

The song was released in the fall of 2019 on Nisma Records, which is run by Yakov Yardeni, a former member of Kiryat Gat hip-hop group KGC. Yardeni says he decided to represent Mesele after he heard her perform the song “Lost Child” at a club. “That was when I knew she had depth, not just a pretty voice,” he recounts.

Mesele says that particular song talks about “the feeling that I’m doing everything the way I’m supposed to, but nothing is working out,” and it is yet to be released. “It’s hard for me to show weakness. It will come out when I’m ready to expose this side of me,” she notes. 

Following “Hozer Elay” and “Big Boss,” Mesele recently released “Lambadina,” which switches from modern dancehall to a new interpretation of older Ethiopian music. It’s kind of a cover – with new lyrics – of a song by Teddy Afro, one of Ethiopia’s best-known contemporary singer-songwriters. 

The decision alienated some members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community, with Mesele saying they’re effectively saying: “‘How dare she touch one of the great Teddy Afro’s songs.’ But I don’t get upset over such reactions,” she shrugs. “I like to bring things that people aren’t used to: Not to give the audience what it wants, but to get it accustomed to what I like doing. I also like it when people don’t know what to call me ... rapper, dancehall singer. I love the fact that it’s impossible to define me.”

Voice of hope

In early July 2019, a few days after 18-year-old Ethiopian-Israeli Solomon Teka was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Haim, Mesele posted a short video on TikTok in which she sang a protest version of Israel’s national anthem. Instead of “To be a free people in our land,” her lyrics state: “To be an Ethiopian in our land.”

“I’m from Haifa, Solomon Teka was from the Krayot,” she says, referring to the three Haifa suburbs that include Kiryat Haim. “I knew about police violence, but it was never that close. And this hit me. Friends of mine told me, ‘I knew him.’ They told me about him, what he was like. I was shocked. If this happened in the Krayot, who can promise that it won’t happen to my little brothers? They always come to mind when I see such things.”

Mesele explains that when she heard about Teka’s death, first she cried, “and the next step was to write, to unload. I deliberately picked ‘Hatikva.’ An anthem symbolizes unity. We were all in exile for 2,000 years. Now we’re home. We’re not supposed to feel unsafe. But I feel as if I’m still not at home. I feel unsafe. It’s hard for me to sing the anthem like someone else in Israel would sing it.

“The day I manage to sing the anthem with complete serenity and don’t need to create an anthem of my own, I’ll feel that things are working out,” she concludes. “Until then, as far as I’m concerned, this version is my anthem.”

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