There's something that really bores pop star Stephane Legar: answering for God-knows-how-many times the questions about Israelis' attitudes concerning his skin color. This subject, and the racist names he has been called, have been highlighted in articles about him (“Stephane talks about racism: They called me a monkey,” was one headline; another was “From Black Sambo to star”). “We don’t want to deal with racism,” said Stephane’s PR man, before this interview with the singer-dancer.
Stephane himself patiently and intelligently explains why he thinks the media’s occupation with racism is over-the-top. In the end, he also takes a pot shot at a certain representative of the media with respect to what he sees as the hypocrisy underlying this type of coverage. “I have never dealt with racism. I never think about it. I’m confident in who I am,” he asserts.
His full name is Stephane Gagba and his stage name is Stephane Legar – short for Le Garcon, “the Boy” in French – but most Israelis simply call him Stephane. It seems that the 21-year-old's great success in the local music scene was not part of any plan: He had done some modeling and then began his career in entertainment as a dancer, but says he never thought of himself as someone who would release his own songs.
His first song wasn’t exactly a song, either – it was a 90-second video in which he danced and did a little rap. In fact, “Step Fun,” as it was called, was meant to be an Instagram “dance challenge," says Stephane. “I wanted make people dance on Instagram. All the dance challenges involved well-known songs, and I thought: ‘Why can’t I create a song like this myself?'”
A few days after he uploaded it, at the end of 2016, “Step Fun” went viral. In almost every neighborhood in Israel you could see groups of kids holding their phones while imitating Stephane’s moves.
He opened the song with a sentence that became his trademark: “It’s your boy Stephane.” It's just what came out, he explains now. “I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about anything. I certainly didn’t think that this thing would succeed and help promote me. It was simple to make it and upload it to Instagram.”
In the time that's elapsed since “Step Fun,” Stephane has released four less-successful singles. One of his next big hits was “Tikitas” in 2017 – a joint effort with teenage pop star Noa Kirel and the gay Arisa group. But the song that made it clear that "the Boy" wasn’t just a one-dance-challenge wonder was “Maman,” his duet with Itay Levi, in early 2018.
People still approach me in English: ‘Can I take your photo?’ and they are surprised to hear I was born here, just like them. It happens less now, but I know already that it won’t stop.
“Maman” was a big hit – over 30 million views so far – but Stephane’s most successful song, and the one he is identified with the most, is “Comme Ci Comme ça,” which came out in the summer of 2018. Stephane may have gotten carried away when he said it had become part of Israeli history, and only time will tell if it's a song that “will stay,” as he predicts – but without a doubt, it was one of last year’s greatest hits.
'Racism is a fabrication'
The only time Stephane deals with the subject of racism is when he is asked about it. At one stage in our conversation, he says something particularly resonant: “For me, racism is a fabrication.”
That’s quite a statement. Can you explain what you mean?
“Yes. I hope that I succeed. I’m not saying that there aren’t racist people. Of course there are. There are racists everywhere. I’m sure that at every one of my performances there are racists in the audience. When I say ‘fabrication,’ I mean the word itself. ‘Racism.’ ‘Race.’ What’s race? It means that there are different people, that you need to separate them. That’s something that people invented. People called it that. The minute they gave that word a place …” He stops in the middle of his sentence, thinks for a moment, and then adds: “I don’t know how to explain what I mean.”
Then he continues: “It’s true that if in the United States you call someone ‘nigger’ and you’re not black, he’ll get mad? You know that when I perform in front of children here in Israel, they come up to me and say: ‘What’s up, my nigger?’ If I get mad at that – it’s not my stupidity? The kid isn’t racist. He’s a child. He threw it out in a good way. I can tell him: ‘Look, don’t say that word’ and explain to him why, but yallah, he didn’t say it in a racist way. And with all the chaos there is during shows, I really can’t sit with him and explain to him patiently. So I simply don’t get upset.”
But that’s a kid. What about adults?
“If every time I go somewhere, I think ‘that guy’s certainly a racist, he thinks that way about me’ – I won’t get over it. It’s energy that will come back to me. Why should I deal with the question of whether someone likes me because of who I am or doesn’t like me because of who I am. It’s his problem, not mine. He’s the one who needs to check himself, not me.”
What about the racist comments that some people make?
Stephane says that if someone were to shout at him "dirty nigger" on the street, he would ignore it. “To pay attention to someone like that? It’s his problem. And you can be sure that people will yell at him. When I came back just now from Eilat, they called me at the airport to check if the suitcase was mine. When I came back, I saw everyone was anxious. I asked what happened. It turns out that there was an older man there who saw children and mothers taking pictures with me. When I left for a minute, he said: ‘Let him go back to where he came from’ – or something like that. The entire airport went after him.”
When he wants to show just how tired he is of dealing with the press on the subject of racism, Stephane's uses a voice that exudes ridiculous self-importance, seemingly stepping into the shoes of the journalist and pretending to interview himself: “So, as a black man in white society …”
“I realize that it’s impossible not to relate to this, but there’s a lot of hypocrisy there,” he says. “On one hand, it’s as if they are saying: Everyone is the same, we aren’t dealing with colors. But when I show up, as a black artist – I’m the only one they ask about my color. I once sat in a joint interview with a number of singers and comedians, all white Israelis. I was the only black. You think the journalist asked any one of them about his skin color? Of course not. He asked me. A lot more than about my music.
On one hand, it’s as if they are saying: Everyone is the same, we aren’t dealing with colors. But when I show up, as a black artist – I’m the only one they ask about my color.
"I answered politely, but to myself I thought: Why are you asking me these questions? Enough already, it’s coming out of all the holes. Every interview is the same. Yallah, let go, people. Do they ask Omer Adam these questions? Static and Ben El? As if they say one thing and do the opposite. Let it go.”
Something that still really annoys him is the way his young fans approach him in public. He takes his cellphone and holds it up in a way that doesn’t allow me to see his face, just the phone. “A lot of people come up to me like this when I go into places,” he explains. “I don’t have a problem with their wanting to take a picture of me. What can you do, I’m famous and that’s how it works – everything’s cool. But I want to see the person who's photographing me. Don’t just tell me ‘Hi’ and come up to me that way with the phone. I want to see you. ‘Wait, put down the phone. Uh, hi, how are you?’
“When they come like that with the phone I feel like I’m an animal in the zoo,” says Stephane, adding, “We aren’t puppets.”
Born in Israel
Stephane says that many people think he is older than he is. “Many people think I’m 26. There are even those who think I’m 30.” His looks definitely play a part in that: He is tall and his muscled body exudes a massive presence. But during our interview he comes across as being more mature than his age emotionally, as well.
He was born in the city of Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, to parents who had arrived from Togo in West Africa a few years earlier. Today they both work for the Nigerian Embassy in Israel. Stephane always emphasizes in interviews that he was born in Israel, but realizes he will be forced to keep mentioning that a lot in the foreseeable future too.
“People still approach me in English: ‘Can I take your photo?’ and they are surprised to hear I was born here, just like them,” he says. “It happens less now, but I know already that it won’t stop.”
On the subject of his parents coming to Israel, he uses his words sparely. When asked if they came together or met here, he says: “They came separately, it seems. I think. Separately, yes.”
“The Promised Land. They are Christians, close to religion. They traveled the world, they were in all sorts of places, and this was the place they liked the most.”
One thing worth mentioning about Stephane is the fact that he has brought the male body into the young Israeli pop scene in the clearest possible way. Dance is an inseparable part of his music and in his performances the moment always comes when he takes off his shirt. Doing that, for him, is a spontaneous act, he says. It is also a habit from his modeling work when, during photo shoots he is typically asked to remain with his upper body exposed.
About three years ago, when filming the clip for “Step Fun” – which changed him from an unknown dancer into an Instagram star that every Israeli child recognized – he had no intention of being filmed partially naked.
“When we began the shooting," he recalls, "I was dressed, but it was very hot and I danced, and I said, 'Why wear a shirt now?’ When the clip went up, half the talk was about how I was without a shirt. But it was natural and spontaneous. That’s the way I am. When I go out to throw out the garbage, I’m without a shirt too. And during my performances, of course. It's hot. I sweat. I don’t take off my shirt to be show-off. I know people enjoy looking, but I do it because it’s the most comfortable.”
When I say ‘fabrication,’ I mean the word itself. ‘Racism.’ ‘Race.’ What’s race? It means that there are different people, that you need to separate them. That’s something that people invented.
Stephane says he first discovered dance at about age 13; he would dance at home, alone, in front of the computer and mirror. He quickly realized that he had a lot to learn. “I went on Facebook and discovered there’s a hip-hop scene in Israel,” he says. “I would send messages to all sorts of clubs. They barely paid attention.”
The first to notice his talent was Ori Meyer, a dancer and hip-hop teacher from Holon. Stephane began to frequent the city's Chevrolet Club and dance there. In a short time he began participating in competitions – and winning.
His debut in the world of modeling, at age 15 or 16, was related to his desire to promote his dancing career. He called modeling agencies, got a few gigs here and there, but didn’t find an agency that treated him seriously. One day, he arrived for a photo shoot without knowing that the agency he had been in touch with had sent another model instead. But he met Michael Semo, who became his personal manager, there.
“I just went up to him. A child. I was there in my ugliest version, a completely out-of-touch look,” he laughs. “After that day, I set him a message on Facebook. I knew that if I didn’t do those things, no one would do them for me.”
At the time, he was the only black model in shows and on the sets where he worked. “There were black girls, but no boys,” he says.
In the near future, in addition to trying to produce more hits for the local market, Stephane has more far-reaching aspirations: He is trying to break in to the French market. Recently, he signed a contract with Warner Music France and is already working on songs with French producers.
“I knew from the beginning that I was a multicultural artist and I wanted an international career,” he says. “I’m working on it all the time. That’s what I am. The producers in France love what I do. They say that they have never heard anything like it.”
When asked whether he's aware that it is really tough to break into the global market and the chances of failure are quite high, he immediately asserts that he has a different attitude: “To work on something and immediately think about the option of failure? If you come with that approach, it would be better not to start at all.”