In the past few years a new and riveting chapter in Israeli music is being written, as more and more musicians of Ethiopian extraction are taking center stage on the country’s music scene. Given their number, the strength and quality of their creative output, as well as the attention they are attracting, one can say, for the first time, that musicians of Ethiopian origin are becoming a force to be reckoned with in Israeli music. Or, as the Rehovot rapper ADL puts it: “The Ethiopian scene is kicking everyone’s ass.”
Until just a few years ago, few musicians of Ethiopian descent managed to build a career, and those who did struggled to maintain a presence. But about five years ago something started to change.
It may be odd to relate to new musicians like Esther Rada, Café Shahor Hazak (“Strong Black Coffee”) and KGC as pioneers, but that’s how musicians of the new generation see them – as pioneers who paved the way and made it possible for the new generation to do what they are now doing.
At the end of 2012, Rada participated in the InDNegev festival, capturing the hearts of thousands. All at once, she became the darling of the Israeli “indie” community and within a short time began to appear successfully around the world. A second major development was the emergence of the duo Café Shahor Hazak, part of the broader move toward independence of Israeli hip hop in the last five years. Another musician who established himself and achieved popularity was Gili Yalo, who began as the lead singer of the reggae band, Zvuloon Dub System, and afterwards embarked on a solo career.
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Just a short time before that, such success had seemed impossible. Singers such as Ayala Ingedashet and Hagit Yaso, who won the Israeli “Star is Born” TV talent show, shined but only briefly and struggled to persevere a career. Several artists and male hip hop groups that emerged about 10 years ago – such as Kalkidan (KGC), Café Shahor Hazak and Axum – achieved a following within the local hip hop scene, but it was a limited scene with no connection to broader musical circles. And the participation of Ethiopian musicians Kabra Kasai and Avi Wassa in the internationally successful Idan Raichel Project did not lead them to launch solo careers. In the jazz world, the great saxophonist and singer Abate Brihon has been active for 20 years, but his music is very far from mainstream pop.
But all of this is changing. That, too, was the impression I got from interviews conducted over the last few weeks with a dozen musicians, among them, singers Moti Taka, Avior Malasa, Gili Yalo, Aveva Dese, Tamar Rada, Orit Tshuma, Yael Mentesnot, and Sivan Sisai, as well as the rappers Tzagai Boy, Avraham Lagasa, and ADL.
Started out young
One of the common traits of many of them is that they began to write songs at a very young age, sometimes as a way of coping with a life that wasn’t easy. Moti Taka wrote his first song in 8th grade, in the middle of a lesson, in the wake of his father’s death. Orit Tshuma began to write at the age of 11 or 12.
“I began to write in 7th grade,” says the rapper ADL, who grew up in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of the town of Rehovot. “I saw American rappers on MTV, but there were also rappers in my neighborhood,” he says referring to a group called KMS that was active a decade ago in Kiryat Moshe, a predominantly Ethiopian-Israeli neighborhood. “I saw them and I was hooked, and I began to write my own material.”
The rapper Tzagai Boy, who grew up in Rishon Lezion, says “in childhood, we saw only MTV Base. All these rappers conveying their message and enjoying it, doing what was good for them. I said to myself: ‘This is how I want to be as well,’ and I began to write. In 6th grade I wrote my first song and went to a local studio to record it.”
“I remember when I was at boarding school, one of the counsellors said to me: ‘Why do you have posters of Tupac and Bob Marley? You are neither Jamaican nor American,’” says Orit Tshuma. “What drew us to these figures was that we saw black people who were unapologetic about who they were. To see a black person, succeeding, making music, speaking truth, speaking justice. Now imagine what it means when that figure is not only black, but also from here.
“I worked for several years as a coordinator of youth programs in Kiryat Moshe. I saw my young people reciting KGC songs and I thought to myself: ‘Look what power music has. These kids know by heart the words of three guys from Kiryat Gat, unburdening their hearts. I am certain that they didn’t recite math problems like this.’ Suddenly they had a role model, and they could think, ‘wow, we also have a chance,’” says Tshuma.
The singer Sivan Sisai stresses the important influence of the breakthrough of Café Shahor Hazak. “Without them, young black men wouldn’t have the courage they have now. I think that if you are a black woman who sings well, it’s easier for you than for a black man. It is very hard for black men in Israel. To see the confidence and courage that rappers from the community have now is amazing. And this is largely because of Café Shahor. KGC also deserves a lot of credit. But they are also indebted to Café Shahor. Two Ethiopian men who white people listen to, like, and for whom they make room on the stage – this is something that is completely not self-evident.”
Avior Malasa also speaks of the importance of Café Shahor Hazak. “I remember that when their song, ‘It Will Be Alright’ came out, I didn’t like it. Everything will be alright? How do they know? But sometimes you use songs when you need them, and today, in hindsight, I know that I needed that song. I clung to it. This happened when I started to make music myself. Suddenly this song that I didn’t like at first, I hit play on it 20 times a day.”
A receptive audience
Another factor that opened the gates for the new generation of Ethiopian musicians was the development of a certain receptiveness among the Israeli audience for black music. “We are very influenced by what is happening in the world. And what is happening now is that to be black is legitimate. It’s cool,” says Sisai. “Black music rules the world of pop. The biggest stars are black. I don’t mean to say that to be black in America is an easy thing. I was there a lot and the conditions in the streets are completely different from what we hear in songs. However, what we hear in the songs is that blacks rule. There’s a lot of black pride.”
Tamar Rada stresses the new love that many Israelis have for African music. “The audience in Israel, like all over the world, has connected in recent years with African music,” says Rada. “Suddenly I find white people who know the songs of Tilahun Gessesse, one of the great Ethiopian singers, better than I do. There is a rising up of the African world in Israel. This generation is interested in rhythm, in things that are happy, less textual. It finds this rhythm in African music, and this seeps into the music being made here, into Israeli music. Who makes folk rock these days? Almost no one,” says Rada and smiles, because she is one of the only artists devoted to the singer-songwriter genre. “I think that this phenomenon gives musicians of the community a sense that there is someone out there listening to them.”
The inspiration of the pioneers and the gradual opening of Israel to black/African music, as important as it is, cannot explain on its own the emergence of the current generation of musicians of Ethiopian extraction. It seems that the reason for the great scope of this phenomenon is rooted in a new consciousness in this generation of musicians, and perhaps of Ethiopian-Israeli youth in general.
No more ‘nice guy’
The singer Yalo expresses it more accurately: “I always thought that I needed to go to some particular place and to say ‘I want to be a singer. Is that possible?’ Until I understood that you need to claim that for yourself. It doesn’t belong to anyone. Once I thought that we needed to request it. We came from homes in which one had to be nice. That ended, bro. We are sabras. We understand what goes on in this country. You don’t need to ask, you take. That’s it. We are coming now to break down the wall.”
“When I was a girl my dream was to be a musician. But there wasn’t much of a connection between this desire and reality,” says Tshuma. “Like, what is the chance that I would really manage to do it? It sounds illogical. It took me many years to gain confidence. In this young generation, it is already happening faster. Like all of my generation, I learned the rules and only then began to ask questions. Why can’t I do it? Why are they sending me over here and not over there? Why do I need to work in a factory? You start asking questions. I think people a few years younger than me are beginning to ask these questions at an earlier age.
Galvanizing the community
“It isn’t that there wasn’t consciousness before us,” Tshuma continues. “We didn’t invent the wheel. There was a strong generation that protested the blood donation scandal in the 1990s,” she says referring to the earlier Israeli official policy of not accepting blood donations from Ethiopian immigrants. “But this understanding that no one will do it if we don’t do it for ourselves had to ripen.”
According to Tshuma, the protest that erupted in May 2015 – over the beating of a soldier of Ethiopian origin by Israeli police – was a pivotal event for the emergence of the new consciousness.
“The video clip of the soldier,” says Tshuma, “shoved reality in our faces. We all knew that there is racism and there is police brutality, but this reached the stage of ‘fuck it, this cannot continue.’ And then we understood our power. I was stunned by the demonstration. Suddenly there was this sense of ‘wow, what a community I have.’”
“The Ethiopian musicians grew a pair,” says Tamar Rada. “They saw that it was possible and said ‘I’m also coming. I also have something to say and something to teach and something to repair and heal. Enough. We understood that the social protest apparently wasn’t going to help, so we would bring change through the artistic, expressionist, and professional spheres. Let’s do it. Not just talk. We will put things on the table. This is how I write, this is how I can take care of things. I am smart like you, beautiful like you. I can also do it. I want to be a meaningful part of this place, and not only the one who always suffers racism.”
Fun in the color black
The connection between the emergence of the current generation with its new consciousness and the protests against racism isn’t expressed explicitly in most of the new musicians’ songs. There aren’t many piercing protest songs like “Azikim Al Haydaim” (“Cuffs on the Hands”) by the rapper Teddy Neguse. In fact, many of the creators of this generation reject the genre of angry protest, which they identify with what they call “Israeli rap,” and to which they don’t feel they belong.
“Hip hop in Israel is mostly angry. It’s always clear that things are bad,” says Yalo. “But hip hop began as happy music, joyful. Dance music. They say that hip hop rules the country now. But it’s not true. What’s happening here is more rap than hip hop. Hip hop is culture. Look at MTV. You see a whole world of black hip hop. It’s not just about laying down a few rhymes. It’s a whole world. It’s an atmosphere. Fun in the color black. It’s culture. It’s what we want to do.”
The rapper Tzagai Boy is a good example of an artist who plays with the taut line between fun and message. “We drink, we smoke, and we dream about a life without worries,” he sings in English, in the song “No Worries.” Reality is trouble and pain and racism, but Tzagai Boy insists upon his right to dream a different reality. “I don’t ignore what bothers me, but I say it in a different way, because I am a happy person, with a good vibe, and I enjoy making music. I say: Don’t give in, make things, live, feel.”
He also says in a song that his parents’ generation had it much harder than his generation. “My parents had nothing. My father didn’t have shoes, and he was bitten by a snake. They struggled here. And we wept, asking ‘what do we have here?’ Let’s look at the positive. I always look at the good, without compromising, without giving in to myself.”
This distancing by members of the new generation from explicit protest and preference for fun in the color black might be due to another reason as well, one related to the musical tastes of the Ethiopian community. “The Ethiopian community leans towards dancehall more than to rap,” says Sivan Sisai. “There are many rappers in the community, but the audience primarily likes dancehall. That’s what most people listen to on their headphones on the way to work.” When Tzagai Boy put out a dancehall song on YouTube, “Nedaber Im Hagoof” (“Let’s Talk With Our Bodies”) together with the singer Havtam Bezonech, it garnered more than a million views, much more than other songs of his.
Another artist whose songs are very popular on YouTube is Ofek Adanek, a 15-year-old dancehall singer from Ashkelon. “White Israeli audiences don’t like dancehall, but the young members of the Ethiopian community listen almost exclusively to this music at their parties,” says Sisai. She says her first single, “Cheater,” an electronic soul song, was received enthusiastically, primarily by a non-Ethiopian audience. “But when I played a dancehall song that I’m working on to my Ethiopian friends, there was enormous excitement,” she says.
“This wave that we’re speaking of, it had to happen sometime, and it simply happened now,” says Sisai. “And it’s not enough. It’s just beginning. I just spoke with someone a few days ago and we said that if a good manager had signed KGC, removed some of their mannerisms that are more suited to the neighborhoods, and made them do some things that the Israeli audience would connect with more, there is no reason why they wouldn’t have blown up and been known in every Israeli home, not only in every Ethiopian one. Because they are really fantastic. But there is a lot more work to do. The Israeli audience is still more comfortable listening to an African American man than listening to an Ethiopian man. The audience here isn’t ready for it. But sometimes, it’s not important whether the audience is ready, you simply need to put it out there.”
But what about Avior Malasa and Moti Taka, two artists received enthusiastically by the mainstream.
Sisai agrees. “It’s great. But they are working with styles that are suited to the Israeli audience. Moti Taka makes Mizrahi music and Avior does mainstream pop.
“KGC is something else. Their content is less mainstream, less what you hear on Galgalatz [the Army radio station that plays popular music]. Their whole vibe is about ‘we’re the boys from the neighborhood.’ I’m not sure the Israeli audience is ready to accept some of that. We are not yet completely there. But we are moving in the right direction, and it’s amazing.”