“No garbage cans in the background!” the rappers of Kafe Shahor Hazak (Strong Black Coffee) warn photographer Pavel Wolberg, as they all go out to a Hadera street to shoot some photos for this piece. These two Ethiopian-born musicians, Ilak Sahalu and Uri Alamo, have no problem adopting typical hip-hop poses when Wolberg asks them to, but they refuse to agree with the perception, based on a familiar cliché, that their rap music reflects urban distress and neglect. They did grow up in a Netanya that "wasn't an easy place,” as they put it, and their texts contain social statements here and there, but the two have since moved on to a better area, in Hadera, and have a different role in mind.
The last time I met Ilak Sahalu was under entirely different circumstances. A little over two years ago I accompanied a group of new Nahal Brigade recruits, from the November 2011 draft, throughout their training period. I was writing a book about the relationship between the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli society (“The New Face of the Israel Defense Forces,” Kinneret Zmora-Bitan; 2013, in Hebrew), and Sahalu was commander of one of the platoons.
His photograph, captured in Wohlberg’s sharp lens, even made it to the book jacket in the end. In it he is seen at the ceremony at which the new recruits are awarded berets, giving a friendly pat to the cheek of one of his soldiers, who is a head taller than Sahalu. It’s easy to see what we saw in him: the black commander offering a fatherly gesture to a pale freckled, redhead soldier. How often did one see such a sight in the army 20 years ago? IDF 2013 – not exactly what you thought.
Between the firing range and a platoon exercise in the field, between conversations about the absorption of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel and the IDF training course, the two of us found ourselves returning to a shared obsession: hip-hop. Who is greater, Tupac Shakur or Notorious Big? Is it possible to replicate original American rap in Israel? Sahalu had firm opinions. Nor did he have any doubt about what he would do the moment he took off his uniform: He would return to the career he abandoned when he joined the army, and reestablish the rap ensemble with which he had already enjoyed some success – Kafe Shahor Hazak. The only one from the original five-person ensemble who accepted his offer was his relative, Uri Alamo.
He arrived at basic training in the Nahal Brigade by chance, since he hadn’t even thought about serving as a combat soldier. The platoon sergeant, an amateur DJ before he joined the army, sought Sahalu out and appointed him as his personal signal operator; after some deliberation Sahalu also went on to officers training school. He did the last six months of his service in a home front job, at the headquarters of Central Command in Jerusalem.
Sahalu considers the very fact that he served as a combat officer – still quite a rare phenomenon among Ethiopian immigrants – as a mission, meant to shatter stigmas about that community. “That was one of the considerations," he says now. "When I walk down the street in Hadera, elderly Ethiopian women say: ‘Good for you.’ I’m not sure they know what a first lieutenant is, but they would see an officer from the community returning home with a rifle, and they’re proud of that.”
Sahalu's subordinates, however, found it difficult to accept his authority. "Make no mistake,” he once told me during a conversation in the company outpost in Hebron. “When the soldiers in my platoon were imagining who their commander would be, before basic training, you can be certain none of them thought that it would be someone who looks like me. When I came in to give an introductory talk, on the first evening of basic training, the soldiers were surprised. They probably were expecting a platoon commander who looks like …” Sahalu stopped in mid-sentence, but he seemed to be eyeing a blue-eyed platoon commander who was sitting next to him.
Making the first break
Sahalu and Alamo, who are in their 20s, started experimenting with hip-hop at a very young age; according to Sahalu, that’s the only thing that interested him as a boy. “It started in the neighborhood, in Netanya. I wrote a lot, but mainly for the pillow. At the age of about 16, we wrote a song in memory of a soldier, and the Cellcom communications company, which was just then promoting a project to encourage music, became enthusiastic about the song.
"They sent us to a studio," he recalls, "and we met some bearded musician who explained to us that this thing has rules. That it's a matter of quarters, a certain beat. We started writing according to that logic and things really did improve. They sent us to meet musician Yoni Roeh and he introduced us to singer Eli Luzon. Together we did a rap cover of Luzon’s song ‘Eizo Medina’ ('What a Country'). They were both very pleased with the result.”
Luzon and the rappers also shot a video clip of their new version, which can still be seen on YouTube. At the ceremony at which his recruits got their berets, a few months later, Sahalu’s soldiers even dared to sing their own version of “Eizo Medina” to him.
Eventually, the Jewish Agency heard about Kafe Hazak Shahor, and sent the members of the ensemble on three long performance tours in the United States in the course of three years; they performed mostly for Jewish audiences.
Sahalu: “We also performed in Cincinnati ... and there were 800 people in the audience, most of them black. We sang in Hebrew and they screened an English translation. People were surprised. They didn’t even know there are blacks in Israel. “
He and Alamo eventually started to record songs at an independent recording studio in Hadera, with producer Guy “Ruff” Gabriel. But their real breakthrough was thanks to YouTube. “Everything was improvised,” says Sahalu. Alamo borrowed a small video camera from his father, and they used the playback from Sahalu’s cell phone. The online results are lovely despite that.
As opposed to many Israeli artists active in this genre, there is nothing awkward when Kafe Shahor Hazak translates the musical language of hip-hop into Hebrew. Everything flows easily and the two have a natural on-camera presence. “Rak La'alot” ("Only to Ascend"), which the two arranged using a software program at home, became quite a hit on YouTube in local terms. After it was uploaded to YouTube last April, it garnered some 634,000 viewings within a few weeks, with the figure growing by several tens of thousands each week.
The next clips uploaded by the duo were also well received. The second clip, “Sofshavua” (Weekend) had 389,000 hits in six months. While “The Way You Move,” in which they host another Israeli rapper, Soulja, notched up 545,160 viewings in slightly over three months.
Counting YouTube hits is far from being a precise measurement tool, and the financial profit involved in such exposure, or even in playing the songs on radio and television, is not very substantial. But Sahalu and Alamo insist that the number of viewings, for an almost anonymous ensemble that until now has had no serious, official media exposure, reflects a genuine phenomenon that is erupting beneath the radar.
The duo, who say that they are thinking of a long-term career, are now recording an album independently with Gabriel, which is slated to come out this summer. Meanwhile, the Kafe Shahor Hazak twosome performs every weekend and they make ends meet by engaging in typical work for discharged soldiers: as security guards and in construction. The performances take place in black music clubs all over the country.
When the two are asked about their sources of inspiration, they mention mainly American rappers – Tupac Shakur, Nas and Kendrick Lamar and LL Cool J, who are younger than they are – but they also cite other Ethiopian Israeli artists, such as the Axum rap ensemble (whose members were a few years ahead of them in high school in Netanya), and singer Esther Rada.
“There always was and always will be racism,” says Alamo. “The question is whether to sit and cry about it all day long.”
“The first thing that happens when people see Ethiopians singing is that they expect us to say that things are hard for us,” confirms Sahalu. “But life is beautiful sometimes.”
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