BDS? WHY? U.S. Hip Hop Band Explains Why They Performed in Israel

For many, 'Why?' was the highlight of last weekend’s Meteor Festival. Lead singer Yoni Wolf, explains why he gets BDS but came anyway

Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir
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Singer and songwriter Yoni Wolf.
Singer and songwriter Yoni Wolf.Credit: Ariel Efron
Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir

Friday, 7 P.M.

Members of the band Why? are sitting at the table in the international artists’ compound at the Meteor Festival. Unlike at the Israeli compound, so we hear, hot food is served here. The band from Cincinnati, Ohio landed in Israel at 10:30 in the morning and immediately headed north. After a short rest at a hotel by Hula Lake, they got back in the van and came to check out the site.

They’ve barely started saying the flight was fine and the jet lag isn’t bad, when in walks producer Eran Arieli, better known as Naranja, the man behind the Meteor Festival and a friend of the band since he first brought them to Israel in 2008. “It’s amazing what you’ve done here,” lead singer and songwriter Yoni Wolf tells him. “If I’m suing people and they’re not suing me, then everything’s fine," Ariel replies. When Wolf asks him to explain, Arieli says that the production will probably only be suing Lana Del Rey, who canceled her participation and sparked a wave of other cancellations. “Lana tricked us, and we swallowed the bait,” he says. “She was the one who contacted the festival and asked to be part of it.”

At the Meteor Festival. For many, Why? were the true headliners. Credit: Ariel Efron

Sitting with the four band members – Yoni Abraham Wolf; his brother Josiah, the drummer; their high school friend Doug McDiarmid and Josiah’s college pal Matt Meldon – are their manager Brent and a guy named Adam who grew up with the Wolf brothers in Cincinnati before moving to Israel at age 13. Members of the Wolf family are messianic Jews. “My mom speaks fluent Hebrew and my dad also speaks a little, but they never spoke Hebrew with us at home,” says Yoni. “I know a few words and I can recognize some of the letters, but that’s it.” He describes himself as secular.

The band came into being in 2004, but Wolf has been working under the name Why? since 1997. Two years later, he was among the founders of the hip-hop trio Clouddead. And when that group broke up in 2004, he joined forces with his brother and with McDiarmid to found the indie rock group Why? Wolf’s unique style of rapping is still present in some of their albums, including “Alopecia” from 2008. The band’s performance at the Meteor Festival was designed to mark the 10th anniversary of that album, its most successful in Israel. This is Why?’s fourth visit to Israel and Wolf’s fifth visit.

This is a band that is also its fans’ best friend. It communicates with them, meets them all over the world, writes songs about them and gives them the chance to design its album covers. This article is the result of an Instagram chat between a fan (ahem) who just wanted to know when his favorite band was coming to Israel and the lead singer. “Thanks to social media, more and more people can communicate with the artists they love,” says Yoni. “I feel a special connection with the people who listen to my music. If they like what I have to say, I must have some kind of connection with them. Not that I have a deep emotional connection with every listener, but I try to be friendly. These are pretty personal songs, so anyone who gets them – I feel that we’re alike in some way.”

After a brief chat, the band heads out to make the rounds of the different stages, with McDiarmid and Josiah leading the way. Wolf asks if it would be all right to say something on stage about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or if people wouldn’t take it well. I tell him that at this festival; the opposite would probably be the case. That reassures him. When the band arrives at the Mars Stage while Israeli group The White Screen is performing, they’re pleased to learn that the song they’re hearing is called “Sex, Drugs and Palestine.”

Yoni Wolf (at left) and Doug McDiarmid in the artists’ tent at the Meteor Festival.Credit: Itamar Katzir

Wolf is hoping to meet up with Israeli musician Rotem Or, who performs as Totemo. He says he’s heard her online, via Instagram, and would like to have her on his podcast. They finally meet next to the Venus Stage, and embrace warmly. “I just want to meet you so I could put a name to the face and a face to the name,” says Wolf, struggling a bit to pronounce the name Rotem. They have a friendly conversation and arrange for her to be interviewed for the podcast at the hotel on Saturday.

On the way back to the artists’ compound, Wolf shares his thoughts about his relationship with the local audience. “The connection with the Israeli audience is special. I’m Jewish, and I think that in some way this is Jewish music. The music is probing, it asks a question, and I think that’s a very Jewish thing.” He also thinks that the dark, self-deprecating humor found in a lot of the band’s songs is something very Jewish.

Back in the compound, all the band members complain of swollen ankles from the long flight and overly tight socks. They joke about how mind-readers drive Yoni mad, and about a bunch of other stuff. Just before they head back to the van that will take them to their hotel, Adam, their Israeli friend, looks at Josiah and Yoni and says: “You’re getting to be more and more like your parents.”

Saturday, 8 A.M.

At 8:15, the four band members are on stage ready for a sound check, but technical problems cause a delay, which also leads to an hour-long delay for the performance on the Neptune Stage.

Saturday, 2 P.M.

In the afternoon, in the artists’ compound, the band members wonder aloud how much money Lana Del Rey asked for, and how much Kamasi Washington, currently performing on the Neptune Stage, is getting. Soon Brent the manager summons them to go to their stage – the show was supposed to start at 2.

Drummer Josiah Wolf.Credit: Ariel Efron

At the appointed time, instead of Why?, Shye Ben Tzur is standing on the stage and hasn’t yet begun to play. In the artists’ room – a tent with the band’s name printed on a sheet of paper taped by the entrance –McDiarmid jokingly asks: “So did you like our set?” They can see the delay will be significant, and worry that the audience won’t stick around.

Even in the air-conditioned tent, it’s hot. Very hot. Dough sprawls on the couch with a towel beneath his shirt, and a small fan gets passed around the room. Wolf says he’s not that into live shows so he’s not wandering around the festival that much. He’d rather rest, and a lot of the music is too loud for him. McDiarmid takes a little nap. Eventually the other band members show up and they all are transported to the stage by golf cart.

Saturday, 3:30 P.M.

The show finally begins, and people haven’t left. For many here, including this writer and his equally excited brother, Why? is the real headliner of the festival. The band plays “Alopecia” from beginning to end. The audience knows all the transitions between the songs and shouts out the words along with Wolf in an ecstasy unmatched by any of the other international performances at the festival.

After three songs, Wolf stops. “I want to dedicate this performance to the refugees from the village of Al-Hamra and the other villages in the area, who were evacuated from here in 1948,” he says. Later he explains that his uncle, a scholar of political science and the Middle East, researched on his behalf what happened in this area during the War of Independence. After a few more songs, he says onstage that he didn’t want to boycott the festival, but that doesn’t mean that he agrees with all of the government’s actions. The crowd cheers loudly. “Good, so you’re with me. You’re my people, and that’s why we came. It’s good to be here,” he says. Apart from Laetitia Sadier’s written statement the day before (“There are people in this country who are vigorously fighting their government. We need to build mass movements to bring change and peace”), this is apparently the most political statement at the festival.

With the last song on the album, the concert comes to an end – sort of. Wolf said the day before that there would be no encore, but the audience is insistent and it is the final performance at the festival. The band returns to the stage and plays an even older tune, the opening song on its 2005 album “Elephant Eyelash.” Just as Wolf is singing about London, where “it rains in late July,” the strong September sun combined with the sprinklers above the crowd’s heads creates a rainbow right by the stage.

Saturday, 6 P.M.

Totemo.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Back at the hotel, Wolf interviews Totemo for his podcast. Meanwhile McDiarmid, Josiah and Meldon check out the pool. “The audience here is really warm,” says McDiarmid. “I remember it from all our shows at the Barby too. With the festival it’s a little weird – there’s more distance because it’s outdoors, and there’s a buffer between the stage and the audience. It’s always nice to see everyone singing. That was the most surprising thing the first time we were here.”

At 8 P.M., Yoni finishes recording the podcast and is free to have one last conversation with us. I ask him how the concert was. “It was good, it was fine,” he says. “At times I felt that it was a little tough. I couldn’t hear well on stage, and it’s also only the second show of the current tour, so everything’s still a little shaky. I don’t know if you could see it from the outside or not, but we felt it.”

Wolf explains why he chose to comment on the conflict, despite some reservations: “I get what the boycott is about, but I felt that it’s not the right way to deal with things. How can you have a dialogue if you’re not there? For me it didn’t feel right, but if I’m going to perform here, at least I’ll make it clear where I stand. I was happy to come, because like I said on stage – I feel that I connect to the people here.”

Just before they pack up their stuff, Wolf tells me that the band has already scheduled another American tour in May, and that by then they should have a new album out. He also says this is the first time he’s told anyone this. He’s been writing the next album at a rate of five minutes of music per month. He’s got three sections finished and three more to go. Three or four months from now, the album will be ready.

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