The Beauty and the BDS Movement: Alicia Keys on Heart

Though the pop star never explicitly referred to boycotts during her Israel show, the message behind 'Listen to your heart' took on new meaning.

Listen to your heart. That was the main message Alicia Keys conveyed at her concert Thursday at the Nokia Arena. As simplistic, cliche and extremely American as it was, it was legitimate.

Pop stars aren’t supposed to be philosophers. Nevertheless, before performing “Listen to Your Heart,” Keys told the audience: People are always trying to tell us what’s right for us and what isn’t. Instead of listening to them, you should listen to your heart.

While she didn’t refer to it explicitly, you could hear in those sentences her veiled message about the well-publicized campaign against her appearance in Israel. Keys came under heavy pressure to cancel her show here, including from Roger Waters and writer Alice Walker. The attempt failed. Keys’ heart apparently told her — as we gleaned from her words onstage — to ignore the pressure and come to Tel Aviv.

But did Keys listen to her heart during the first — and disappointing — half of her show at the Nokia Arena? Was it her heart that told her to put more effort into her pelvic thrusts than her singing? Not that she doesn’t do the former well (though she’s no Beyonce), but why did she have to go there at all? She’s a terrific singer. She’s a good pianist. She can easily reach the heart of the farthest audience member in the hall — and she did that in several songs. But they were few and far between, and faded among the commotion of the jingling and the dancers.

Despite the energetic pelvic thrusts, the music had no groove for much of the first act. And a soul/R&B show with no groove can’t be good. Even when it seemed that Keys was starting to reach deep down — for example, in “Fallin’,” Keys’ biggest hit and one of the best soul songs of the past decade — Idan Raichel suddenly came onstage, joined Keys at the piano and sang his own hit song “Mi-ma’amakim” (“From the depths”). Raichel sings “Mi-ma’amakim” beautifully on his own but — pardon the annoying question — what exactly does it have to do with Keys and “Fallin’”?

When Keys finally stopped being “sexy” and started singing like she's capable of doing, even her band sounded better, and her choreographically challenged dancers suddenly seemed endearing too. The clearest sign that something good was happening was Keys' performance of “Brand New Me” from her latest album. The song is pretty banal and a bit girly for my taste, but the live performance, with its echoing piano and immediate feedback from the thousands of excited fans combined to create something truly terrific.

Even better was “Empire State of Mind,” the magnificent hit by Keys and rapper Jay-Z, which closed the show. The dancers were still pretty bad, but the music was stirring and all the members of Keys’ crew filled the stage, including her husband, producer Swizz Beatz, and their little son Egypt, who danced with indescribable delight. (Earlier in the night Egypt broke into a spontaneous breakdance, and half the audience took their eyes off his mother to watch him.)

The opening act by Ester Rada, who came back to Israel from the Glastonbury Festival a few days ago, was excellent. She sang beautifully, and her band sounded better than Keys’. It’s hard to believe that just nine months ago she took the stage at the In-D-Negev Festival as an unknown. One can only hope that this exposure, which she took fine advantage of, will expand her already growing audience.

David Bachar