Even in a bomb shelter one story below street level, it is impossible to avoid the clamor of south Tel Aviv. Here a car is honking on Har Zion Boulevard and there two old ladies are arguing about nothing important in Levinsky Park. Then a single speaker is plugged in to the electricity and the screeching feedback is born and overpowers all the background noise. Two people check that the microphones are working, and the rather conventional but really infectious hip-hop beat fills the small space. The singing is far from perfect but no one gets worked up about it. The head may be moving to the beat but it stops once in a while to understand exactly what it heard just now.
“Our music is about our lives, about our struggle, on the road we traveled until we got to this point – from Darfur to Israel,” Juice puts down the microphone and explains. “We were in places where we didn’t know if we would live another minute. We sing about those moments. We aren’t professional rappers – but people like our music because it’s real.”
Juice is one of the six members of the band Dream Boys. All of them are asylum seekers from Sudan. They fled the ongoing genocide in Darfur and reached Israel, separately, about a decade ago. In 2014 they met in the Holot detention facility in the Negev desert, where they were detained for 18 to 20 months. “Holot is a crazy place to spend so much time in. You don’t know where you are and what you are doing there,” says Juice. “Sometimes there were two or three weeks when I couldn’t sleep. You know, your family is in a war zone and you’re in jail in a different country. Some of them don’t even know where their family is.”
From their appearance, it is impossible to pick up on the hardships they suffered, in fact the opposite is true: The group’s style is enviable. Four of them are wearing designer baseball caps, one has a bandana tied around his head and the other has short, dyed-blonde hair and a splendid, rosh yeshiva’s beard. Two have long dreadlocks, another pair are proud of their identical military jackets, and the sextet’s shoe colors are enough for all of Africa’s national flags together. All the musicians are in their 30s, single and without children. They speak Hebrew, but are more comfortable in English, which is the language they sing in. They prefer to present themselves with their stage names: Iman, Snooki, Ja, Cash-Mu, Adam and Juice.
The idea to establish the rap group was born during their time together in Holot. “There is nothing to do there, nothing at all. It’s a dark place,” says Juice. “You don’t even know how to approach people, how to talk to them, how to tell them your story. It’s a crazy situation. One day we just sat and thought what is there to do here, since we can’t study or work. We started to sing to the beat of clapping hands, and the energy that was created around us attracted people. That was the reason we called ourselves ‘Dream Boys’ – you must always look ahead and concentrate on the future, on the dreams you want to fulfill.”
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Cash-Mu cites another reason: “If we would have gone out now to the street and shouted, ‘My country’s in chaos,’ no one would have noticed us, no one would have cared. The minute you connect words to music and set it to a beat, suddenly they notice you. First they hear the music and after that they ask: ‘Wait a minute, what did he say?’ The music is not the main thing, the message we pass on through it is.”
Ja nods his head in agreement and adds: “Our goal is not to be a professional band, even though if we are successful, we won’t complain. A lot of people share their experiences from home, but that’s not enough. We tell our story through the beat.”
Barred from living in Tel Aviv
In the two and a half years since they were released from Holot, they’ve been meeting every week at the library in Levinsky Park. By law they are not allowed to live in Tel Aviv (or Eilat), so four of them found housing in Rishon Letzion and the other two in Bnei Brak. “It’s quiet there,” says Juice on the advantages of suburbia.
The group performs at parties and weddings of the Darfurian community, as well as events produced by organizations that aid the asylum seekers. Once they played at the Tmu-Na community theater in Tel Aviv, another time in Modi’in and in 2015 they sang alongside the Hoodna Afrobeat Orchestra, which came to perform at Holot. “A lot of Israelis who remember us from that performance invite us to events,” says Juice. The group also listens to local music, mostly Mizrahi: “It’s the best way to get to know the culture in Israel.”
This is how they adapt themselves to local ears. “With the help of our songs we put away our awareness of the war back home, the acts of the government in Sudan,” says Juice. “Sometimes I stayed awake all night and wrote about the genocide that is still continuing and the refugees who are still leaving the country.”
The clips of the group available on You Tube have reached their friends who remained in Darfur. “Their comments are, ‘You managed to escape and you are still alive, you are safe,’” says Juice. “They are proud of us that we were saved and for what we have done here.”
All six have submitted requests in Israel to be recognized as refugees, but have never received a response. “I hope that one day they recognize us, but until then we thank Israel that we are alive,” says Juice. Despite the new law imposing expulsion or indefinite imprisonment on asylum seekers, and despite years of persecution by the authorities here, they voice no complaints against Israel.
“Israel saved our lives. Of course we are afraid and worried about the expulsion, but I am grateful for the 10 years I have lived here. If I return to Sudan tomorrow, I might die. Every day I am here, I am safe,” he says.
Definitely out of Africa
Ja tells how he was at the Interior Ministry in Bnei Brak on the day the law took effect. “I received a new visa for two months and the same treatment I always receive.” But Ja also says he wouldn’t care if he received a visa for one day only. “It is better to stand in line at the Interior Ministry or even for two straight weeks than to return to Africa.”
As to whether they see their future in Israel, they hold different views. While Juice says he would be happy to raise a family here, Ja shakes his head uncomfortably. “The way they treat us here how can someone live like that? According to our visas, we are not allowed to leave Israel and even if I graduate from university I can’t find work here. If there was peace in my country I would go back there tomorrow, but for now a war is going on there. I don’t want to stay here forever.”
Cash-Mu agrees: “My family is there, it’s obvious that I want to go back there.” Like his life in Israel, his connection with his relatives back home is not stable, he says: “It is impossible to just call Sudan every day. Maybe once every two months, sometimes even every three or four months. Most of the refugees from Darfur fled to Chad, and you know, that’s not the most advanced country in the world either.”
“We don’t give up, every day we try to improve our lives here,” says Ja, and Juice repeats what he said: “The important thing is we are alive.” They collect the microphones, straighten the hats on their heads. The loudspeaker is unplugged, the feedback assaults the ears once more and the clamor of south Tel Aviv again penetrates the shelter.