Ethiopian Musicians 'Marked' as Black Are Now Making Their Mark in Israel

Musicians of Ethiopian origin who are putting out hip-hop, R&B, reggae and even at times pop are telling the story of their lives in the country.

Ethiopian-Israeli pop singers Mazal Damasya (left) and Yael Mentesnot of the group M-Ya.
Nati Gold

The Oasis Reggae Festival, held three months ago at Kfar Nokdim near Arad, was the most impressive musical event during the Jewish year that is coming to an end. This wasn’t because of the music at the festival, which was good but not exceptional. What was unusual was the human “happening” and primarily the social significance it reflected.

Reggae festivals always attract lots of young people from Ethiopian immigrant families, and at the Oasis festival the percentage of young people of Ethiopian origin was even greater than usual. They constituted about half of those in attendance. But if at previous concerts and festivals the impression was that the black Israelis and the white ones each kept to themselves, what was noticeable at Oasis was the way the Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians seemed to mix. There were homogeneous groups on both sides, but there were at least as many, if not more, mixed groups hanging out together.

This was a surprising and hopeful sight. It gave the impression that for Israel’s millennials, there’s nothing more natural than sharing, friendship and equality between Israelis of Ethiopian origin and of other backgrounds. It looked as if this age group, or at least their representatives at the Oasis festival, categorically rejects the Israeli reality of separation and racism aimed at Ethiopian Jews and intends to change it. Obviously the Oasis festival was, well, an oasis that does not reflect the mood of Israeli society. Still, anyone walking around the festival compound who saw the groups and couples in black and white, and who heard from their speech that race and color are totally irrelevant to them, couldn’t help but leave the festival with an unexpected glimmer of hope for the future of this place.

There were almost no performances by Ethiopian musicians at the festival, but in the tent there were hundreds of young people singing the songs of those groups, mainly of the group Café Shahor Hazak (“Strong Black Coffee” – Uri Alamo and Ilak Sahalu), one of the more dominant hip-hop groups in Israel over the past two years. The young people, who knew all the words and were meticulous about the proper flow, sang, of course, “Yihiye B’seder” (“It’ll be all right”), the group’s big hit, but they also sang the single that the duo issued just before the festival, called “Hineh, Zeh Koreh,” (“Look, It’s Happening”).

Cafe Shahor Hazak (Strong Black Coffee) ft, Nechi Nech - Ihiye beseder (Itll Be Alright")

Hip-hop is 'tool' of choice

Ethiopian-Israeli singer Avior Malasa.
Benny Armias

From a musical perspective, Café Shahor Hazak does very melodic and fairly soft rap, with clear signs of pop, but they are still a hip-hop band in every way. There aren’t many other rappers of Ethiopian origin in Israel working consistently and prominently (in addition to them, there’s KGC, the duo Shasha and Srulik, and rapper ADL), but it seems that hip-hop as a tool for musical expression is the tool of choice for Ethiopian young people. This choice reflects the deep identification young Ethiopians have with the hip-hop and rap music culture, a feeling expressed repeatedly in “Hearing Black,” the fascinating book by Dr. David Ratner published a few months ago by Resling.

Ratner interviewed dozens of youths of Ethiopian origin about their lives and their musical preferences. “The central and formative experience for many of these teens is not necessarily the blatant racism some of them described, but the most basic and unsettling experience that all of them – all those I interviewed at least – experienced: Being constantly viewed and ‘marked’ as black.” That’s “race,” as opposed to racism, which the young people have also encountered, of course. “Black music serves as an inexhaustible source of texts and images that reflect their basic but most significant experience of being ‘marked’ as black,” Ratner writes.

If young black men tend to primarily choose hip-hop, young women musicians of Ethiopian origin generally gravitate to soul or R&B. Here, too, there aren’t that many examples, even fewer than among the men. Sisters Ayala and Malka Ingedashet tried to break though at the end of the last decade, and in recent years there is of course Ester Rada, whose trajectory is one of the most impressive in Israeli music of this decade.

In addition to these voices, which operate in the black worlds of hip-hop and R&B (even if they don’t remain there all the time), one is starting to hear in recent months additional voices of Ethiopian musicians who deviate from the traditional black areas and are working in a completely Israeli arena. These new young musicians are making pop music and even Mediterranean pop. They are very young and taking their first steps; it isn’t certain that they will all mature and remain in the picture. Still, it’s very interesting to listen to them.

The most well known among them, at least for those following the teen-pop scene, is Avior Malasa. Malasa, who is still in the military, has a voice tinged with R&B and he has contributed it to some recent hip-hop songs (such as “Mehamatok el Hamar” [“From the Sweet to the Bitter”] by KGC). But “Kayitz” (“Summer”), the song that brought him to the public’s attention and one of the big hits of the season, is not an R&B song, but is similar in style to beach songs that flood local pop during the hot season. It’s better than most of these songs, largely because of Malasa’s voice. Malasa was recently signed by Aroma Music, a strong player in the market. With such backing he could certainly establish himself in the local pop scene.

KGC - From the Sweet to the Bitter

And if we’re talking about pop: Early last week the song “Ba Li Mesiba” (“I’m Ready to Party”) by the duo M-Ya landed on YouTube and will hopefully make the radio as well. The name of the song, as well as the PR pictures featuring the two singers, Mazal Damasya and Yael Mentesnot, in bikini tops, create the impression that the song is all about fun, fun, fun. “Ba Li Mesiba” indeed has a high fun quotient, but at the same time it’s a song that talks about overcoming, about painful feelings, about the faith that young women have in themselves, and perhaps even their pride in the color of their skin. “To color what isn’t seen in black,” they sing immediately at the beginning of the song, adding a cute, pop-like “ah-ah-ah-ah” to it.

Tension with Mizrahim and their music

When Ratner walked around neighborhoods where Ethiopians live and interviewed teens about the music they listened to, he discovered that most of them are hostile to Mizrahi music (while being merely apathetic toward Israeli rock). This hostility, writes Ratner, reflects attitudes on things beyond the quality of the music. “The attempts by this teen (and other teens) to portray Mizrahi music as ridiculous is a symbolic opposition to those whom they perceive as the strong and dominant group in their neighborhoods – the Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin],” he writes.

After reading Ratner’s book I was surprised to encounter the song “Reyach Zar” (“Strange Smell”) by Moti Taka. A young Ethiopian singer singing a Mizrahi song? But why not? There’s no reason why a young man who apparently was born in Israel and grew up in a period when Mizrahi pop was dominating the local soundtrack wouldn’t go in that direction.

“Reyach Zar” turns out to be a successful song, with a well-built, simple melody without the industrial patina and overproduction. Another singer of Ethiopian origin doing Mediterranean music is Michael Yitzhak of Be’er Sheva, who is coming out with his debut album.

“The relationship of the young people I interviewed to Mizrahi culture is more complex than sweeping contempt,” says Ratner. “There are elements of strong attraction. Perhaps there’s identification of the rejected with the rejected, or maybe there’s an element of adaptation to those perceived as having the power. It could be that singers like Moti Taka and Michael Yitzhak are an expression of this attraction-aversion relationship.”