'It Was Meant to Be an African Party in Tel Aviv. But I Was the Only African There'

White Israelis are capitalizing on African culture, shutting out its creators

The Nightlight festival in Tel Aviv.
Ariel Efron

Recently I was in Jerusalem after a long period when I hadn’t visited the city. Mizrahi music boomed from everywhere in the Mahane Yehuda market, and in bars. Not sophisticated Arab music but echt Mizrahi: Omer Adam, Ofer Levy, Moshe Peretz. The proprietors of the bars have apparently figured out that this is the way to attract more people and make more money. There was something joyful about it, but at the same time unsettling. In contrast to the disgraceful attitude that Mizrahi music endured in the past, today not only does everyone enjoy playing it and listening to it, there are also those who are making symbolic – and also very concrete – capital from it.

The process is known as cultural gentrification: displacement of a marginal culture through a population shift in a “disadvantaged” neighborhood and the consumption of that culture by a privileged population. The development is discernible in Israel in recent years in regard to African culture, which has morphed from being perceived as inferior into a hot trend.

“One of the central scenes of African culture in Israel is music,” says the pan-African feminist activist Lea Hylo. “Almost all the music in the world today is African in a certain sense, and in Israel there’s everything: hip hop and R&B and also dancehall and Afrobeat and Ethiopian jazz, which have become very popular in Tel Aviv clubs. Some of the best African musicians and creative artists also appear in Israel.”

Most of the artists arrive via production companies, but some of them reach Israel through Voices from Africa, a collective of (Ashkenazi) Israeli deejays who play African music. The collective was established by Adam Rotbard and has Shira Shvadron and Ophir Blum as members. Rotbard has researched African music for years, wrote a blog on the subject for Haaretz (Hebrew) and is head of the African desk for Kan 11 News (state television). He describes his involvement with African music as a hobby. In addition to presenting artists, the collective also organizes African music parties in various Tel Aviv clubs. Overall, it’s pretty much the dominant player in the realm of non-establishment African music in Israel.

Who shows up for these parties? According to Hylo, mostly non-Africans. “There are non-African places in Tel Aviv where you can find African partygoers, but not many,” she says. “Social and economic disparities have created a situation in which most of the people engaged with African music are not Africans. It’s the non-Africans, particularly if they are of middle- or upper-class socioeconomic status, who have the resources to hire marketing people, look for artists and produce posters – and they don’t even have to do it for a living.

Lea Hylo.
Orian Sabag

“Beyond that,” she continues, “they are serving up that culture in a white wrapping, and that’s what people are getting, instead of the real thing. So Africans are deprived of many possibilities. Our culture is being turned into an easily digestible product and therefore one with economic value. For example, Eritrean kitchen workers have been listening for years to Ethiopian jazz, but only now, when non-Africans are playing it – with white mediation – has the genre acquired social legitimization that translates into money.”

Rotbard, for one, accepts the role of cultural mediator. He sees himself as a “pipeline,” he says, whose role is “to mediate African music to everyone who wants to open his heart and his ear to that music and to its social contexts.” The mediating role noted by Rotbard was applied by Ivri Baumgarten, who together with Yasha Rozov organized the Nightlight Festival, held last month in south Tel Aviv’s Neve Sha’anan neighborhood for the fifth consecutive year. This phenomenon, too, sparked discussion of cultural gentrification, within the framework of which Baumgarten defined himself and the festival as mere mediators.

Cultural gentrification

The leading voice of dissent to the Nightlight Festival was that of Tel Aviv councilwoman and veteran social activist Shula Keshet. “There is place for art and culture underwritten by public funds,” she wrote in an exchange held by a closed Facebook group of Neve Sha’anan residents, “but not if it sets out to whiten the neighborhoods and create cultural gentrification that pushes out the enfeebled populations.” For example, she pointed out, there was no multicultural representation in the festival’s decision-making process.

What’s happening in Neve Sha’anan, which is in an advanced stage of gentrification, is being repeated in many neighborhoods across the country and affecting the cultural world of the veteran inhabitants. Living cheek by jowl with residents who have long endured neglect and oppression are increasing numbers of newcomers from a completely different class. Their presence is liable to change the mutual relations in these neighborhoods, and not in a desirable direction. There is a vast social disparity; the upper-class presence can be provocative and infuriating; what’s essential is that it be subject to political critique and trenchant social discussion.

A key issue in regard to cultural gentrification relates to the role of the mediators, which Rotbard and Baumgarten describe almost as a mission. Is mediation really necessary? A large number of Africans from different places on the continent live in Israel. Is mediation needed for their culture and music to reach us? All the more so in the present, when everything is open and accessible? Could the role of mediator be hindering the development of African artists, instead of facilitating it? Isn’t the mediation motivated primarily by considerations of political-social-economic capital?

“I see it as a filtering tool and not only a pipeline,” Hylo says, in an echo of Shula Keshet concerning the exclusion of Mizrahi culture. “I went to a Voices from Africa party. It was meant to be an African party, but the deejay and the dancers were all white. I was the only African. Our bodies are absent from that space, which is actually our space. Voices from Africa, as a collective, chooses the venues and has no interest in expanding its audience. That scene will accept whites who play African music, but not black people. In other words, it’s not a pipeline, but instead dominates and limits the possibilities of certain people to get access to the content being mediated.”

“I asked myself many questions about skin color and music,” Rotbard says. “Having taken African Studies as an undergraduate, I am deeply familiar with postcolonial theories about the West subjugating Africa through the prism of music. But the conclusion I reached is that it’s not your skin color, but what you do with it.”

At the same time, he notes that it’s important for him that the artists who come to Israel to perform be Africans only. “To me, African music is historically, socially and geopolitically charged,” he says, “and therefore I personally find barely any interest in white artists who play this music.”

The contradiction implicit in Rotbard’s words stems from the fact that though he can perhaps render his product economically valuable and serve it up in fine wrapping, without the authentic product itself he actually has nothing. It’s not that he doesn’t produce a positive effect. The agents who possess a solid socioeconomic status are in fact able to make African music, or that of any other culture, accessible to a broader audience, and thereby make it possible for creative artists and performers from non-hegemonic cultures to succeed more on a large scale.

Despite the trends described above, hard work and persistent effort have been diminishing the dependence of African artists on white people. “I’m not willing to hang out only according to someone’s category,” Hylo asserts. “I want my body to be present in non-African spaces, too, because that makes a consciousness-changing statement. If what we have left at the end of the day is white people who transmit black culture only to other white people, then all we have is people who like black culture, but don’t like black people.”

Hylo, who is a member of a collective of African women and men who address issues of black identity, has organized events of Ethiopian culture that are aimed at the Ethiopian audience in Israel. She observes: “The agents [like Rotbard, for example] enjoy culture whose own people are excluded from it. It’s another form of oppression as a direct continuation of establishment policy. When you pit the one against the other, you grasp the irony.”

Indeed, that’s the nature of agents (of culture or not of culture, colonialist or not). If their product isn’t good enough and not sufficiently authentic and kicking, they won’t profit, either.