Meet the Mesmerizing Israeli Performer Inspired by Erykah Badu and Hannah Szenes

Orit Tashoma is lighting up festival stages with a heady combination of spoken word, rap and singing. She talks about her connection to her Ethiopian heritage and how she adopted her ‘don’t give a damn’ attitude

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Orit Tashoma.Credit: Hadas Parush
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

Over 100 shows were staged at the InDnegev festival last month, and even without attending the vast majority of them, we can say with certainty that only few, if any, hit the mark as much as Orit Tashoma’s concert.

Several things etched themselves into memory at her excellent performance: Her clear voice, the powerful lyrics – some harsh, some soft – and the free movement between three forms of expression – rap, singing, and spoken word.

Also memorable was the image that formed during the first song of the concert when the area in front of the stage, completely empty when Tashoma and her band began to play, filled up within just a minute or two with people who realized that despite the early hour (noon) and the relatively marginal location (a stage much smaller than the main one) this was about to be one of the highlights of the festival.

Another memorable thing from Tashoma’s performance was something she said between songs: “I’m sort of a cross between Erykah Badu and Hannah Szenes.”

In a conversation with her a few days after InDnegev at her Rehovot home, she explains that this line, which is followed by “pulling out the truth, going back underground,” is taken from a verse in a remix of a song by singer and producer Itzik Ptzatzati, created for the hip-hop show “Jigga Juice” on Reichman University’s AudioVersity station.

Why Erykah Badu and why Hannah Szenes?

“I just feel like a combination of both of them. As a child, I loved Hannah Szenes very much and looked forward to history and literature classes at school. Hannah Szenes was a legend to me. I still think her face should be plastered all over the country.

Orit Tashoma performs at the InDnegev festival, last month.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

"A woman, a patriot, who went all the way with her truth, and was also a writer. She’s a source of pride to me as an Israeli, and I feel totally Israeli, even if society, or certain people in it, don’t think so and make sure to let me know. But I feel as Israeli as can be.”

And Erykah Badu?

“Erykah Badu exists in a sort of consciousness that I yearn to achieve. She’s a free spirit in the world. I’d love to be a free spirit and spread love, but on the other hand there’s a part of me that thinks, “There are things here that are wrong,” and I feel like attacking them.”

That doesn’t have to be a contradiction. Spreading love can be a form of resistance, too.

“Totally. Spreading love always wins. Definitely in the music I like.”

Badu, and the creative and emotional experience she represents, continued to feature heavily as Tamosha was asked about the music she’s working on now, almost three years after releasing her debut album “Hashefa Badalut” (“The Wealth in the Poverty”).

She was silent for a few seconds before replying, and seemed particularly concentrated, seeking for something. ”I’m trying to recall a song I recorded during the COVID period. It’ll come to me in a moment,” she said.

A sampling of a drum groove would have helped in such a moment, but even without it, Tashoma managed to pry the lyrics from her memory, moving her head back and forth: “I’ve given up habits that stuck during survival / I asked for patience and to create in freedom / to forgive the one I see in the mirror / because I did not accept the good as I accepted the bad.”

“This thing about creating out of freedom,” Tashoma says, “is something I’m trying to work on now. That’s the state of consciousness I’m trying to reach. Not to create my music to say ‘tsk-tsk,’ but to create music in order to give strength to others, or to myself, or just write about what I want. That’s the place I’m trying to reach.”

“Hashefa Badalut” was a “tsk-tsk” album?

“No. That album was created out of acceptance. ‘Two bunk beds in one room,” she quotes the opening line of the album’s eponymous song. “It was an album saying, ‘you want to make it in the Western world, but don’t forget where you came from.’” Really an album of acceptance. But beyond acceptance, I had to settle a few scores there,” Tashoma says with a laugh.

שיר של אורית טשומה

And how do you get to creating out of freedom, to which you aspire?

“First of all, you experiment. Your everyday, what you choose to listen to, what you choose to watch. Art is a sacred thing, really. You can use art to illuminate dark corners that exist in society, but I don’t forget the reason I began making music.

“Lauryn Hill helped me get through one of the most difficult times in my life, so I don’t forget that there’s another side to art, and that’s the side I want to reach. I haven’t made it there yet. It’s a process I’m undergoing. I even stopped recording my next album because I feel that I have some exploring left to do. I can’t release another album like ‘Hashefa Badalut.’ I want to move on.”

On the map

I’m currently in an ‘I don’t give a fuck’ state of mind. Really. Accept me, don’t accept me – I know that I’m OK. Not only do I know, but I also won’t do anything to try to please you. I’ll live my life as it is, let life happen. It’s a very liberating feeling. Very liberating.

Orit Tashoma

“Hashefa Badalut” came out two months before the pandemic erupted. Tashoma had no time to promote it in the optimal way – in concert. Nevertheless, the album left a mark and put the 32-year-old Tashoma on the map of the local hip-hop scene and of Black music-inspired Israeli music. Now, her presence is clear.
In November Tashoma performed at another major musical event – The Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat. And in Tel Aviv at the Libi Bamizrach (“my heart is in the East”) festival, organized by the Achoti for Women in Israel NGO.

You’ve been invited to play two major festivals within a month. Do you feel that you’re getting a stamp of approval?

“When I released ‘Hashefa Badalut,’ I had no expectations of society. I didn’t think about performing on the biggest stages and blowing up on Army Radio. The album got good feedback, but then COVID came and there was a sense of ‘why is it over?’ Now [demand] is rising again, and the InDnegev concert was the biggest audience I’ve ever performed for, and that was an awesome feeling, but I take everything with a grain of salt.”

It’s not that Tashoma doesn’t care how she’s received, or whether what she does gets a stamp of approval, or if there are more and more festivals that want her to perform. But as a matter of principle, she treats the view of outsiders with equanimity, and even defiant indifference.

Erykah Badu arrives for a fashion show in Paris, October.Credit: Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP

I’m currently in an ‘I don’t give a fuck’ state of mind,” she says. “Really. Accept me, don’t accept me – I know that I’m OK. Not only do I know, but I also won’t do anything to try to please you. I’ll live my life as it is, let life happen. It’s a very liberating feeling. Very liberating.”

This attitude, and the background to its formation, was felt as far back as “Sachkaney Safsal” (“Bench Players”), one of the strongest songs on her debut album. “I’ve memorized the rules by heart / swallowed and thrown up all the lies / bench players of life / now shuffling the deck,” Tashoma sings.

“A lot of times, you see a reporter on TV talking about my community,” she says. “Bro, what do you know about my community? Or some guy who deals with statistics. At first, you say: That’s what the media shows, that’s all there is, and there’s no point in trying to change things. But when you grow up, you realize that you can make your voice heard. I realized this. I understood that my words are my tools, and that I can use those words to reshuffle the deck. Use them how I want, how I see the world. I can tell my own story.”

Tashoma grew up in Rehovot. When she was 12, she asked her parents to send her to a boarding school. “I gave my mother an ultimatum,” she says. “I felt that I wanted to develop. On the basic level of life, I lacked for nothing – food, clothes. But in experiences, in extra-curricular activities – that’s something I lacked and wanted.”

The boarding school she attended, at Kibbutz Maabarot, features in her song “Bein Levein” (“In Between”): “Rehovot-Tel Aviv, Tel-Aviv Haogen Junction / a 20-minute walk between the cattle barns and you reach Kibbutz Maabarot / that’s what I did every other Saturday night, from 8th to 12th grade / on the 201 bus back from home to the boarding school,” she says in the spoken word piece that opens the song.

At the boarding school, she began to experiment with music. At first, she studied the drums, followed by voice classes. “But it wasn’t serious,” she says. “It was just to silence the monster.”

After her military service, she flew to the U.S., came back, and back to the States, and back to Israel. When she settled down for good, and began working with teenagers at the recreation center in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Rehovot, she decided to get into music seriously, signing up for studies at the BPM College music school.

“I was hungry for basic knowledge. I didn’t come from a musical environment and didn’t want to be at the mercy of any producer,” she says, before smiling and adding: “Obviously there are producers that I’d be glad to be at their mercy, yes?”

Orit Tashoma performs at last month's InDnegev festival.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Twice in the interview she tells of an experience that made her weep. One was at a protest in Rabin Square against police violence toward Ethiopian youths.

“Suddenly a large force of Border Police showed up, something insane, and there was a guy there who recognized his friend, a soldier, also an Ethiopian guy, who came to disperse the protest, and he just started to cry,” she recalls. “I get teary when I talk about it.”

The other time was during her studies at BPM. “I studied music theory and discovered a new world there. I remember crying at one of the lessons, just from the intensity of discovery,” she says.

She doesn’t remember exactly what the lesson was about, just that the teacher was Eyal Rich, head of the school’s singer-songwriter department. “Most of those who were in the same class as me came with knowledge. Either they learned to play as kids or their father was a musician. I didn’t have that and I was very hungry,” says Tashoma.

During her studies, she recorded the spoken word track “Sorry, Mother Ethiopia.” “People responded to it and I was sucked into spoken word, although rap and poetry were there first,” she says.

In her songs, she moves freely between the three forms of expression. How does she choose which to use when? “When I speak of social conditions, the spoken word comes out of me, and when I want to be more bossy and sassy, the rap comes out, and when I’m softer the poetry comes out,” she says. “But it’s not that I think in advance, ‘Now I’m going to write a spoken word piece.’ I try to be connected to what I feel and express myself in the most accurate way.”

Recently, she has been working as a spoken word teacher. “During COVID, I worked here near my house at a deli, right? And before that at a hostel,” she says, smiling. “But recently I’ve been giving workshops. In Ashdod, and before that in Rehovot.

Law enforcement at a protest against police violence and discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis, Tel Aviv, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

"Someone from the Education Ministry really kept after me. She said, ‘I want the youngsters to learn to express themselves. I’m not restricting you, as long as they release their feelings.’ And it rolled on from there. They write wonderful things.”

When Tashoma was at boarding school, one of the counselors forced her to take down a poster of rapper Tupac Shakur that she hung on her bedroom wall.

Because posters were not allowed?

“Because it was Tupac.”

If it were David Bowie, he would have allowed it?

“Sure. I tried to tell him who it was, but he had an image in his head and didn’t want to listen. For me, it was a lesson. I said to myself, ‘If I ever have a chance to work with teenagers, I don’t want to be the kind that goes ‘tsk-tsk’’ or ‘you have to get good grades.’ I want to try to get into their world and see what I can give them. I’m sure they have more to give me.”

And do you feel that you’re succeeding in getting into their world?”

“Sometimes I do. Most of the time, no,” she laughs, and then turns serious and says: “This generation is very different from ours. A lot more confident. Just like I looked at my mom, they look at us and learn from our mistakes.”

No longer alienated

One of the mistakes Tashoma and her generation made, likely inevitably, was to become alienated at a young age from the culture their parents had brought with them from Ethiopia. “You go to a parent-teacher meeting with your mother and she doesn’t understand what the teacher is saying. Or a letter comes from the electric company and you have to read it and explain it to your parents.

"When that’s the reality, you say to yourself, ‘Why should I know Amharic? I should concentrate on Hebrew and learn it as well as I can,’” Tashoma says. One of the emotional currents that motivated “The Wealth in the Poverty” was her need to recognize her culture, which she had become estranged from as a child, and to express the belonging she now feels toward it as an adult.

שיר של אורית טשומה

“The younger generation didn’t have this experience,” Tashoma says.

Because their parents are younger than your parents. They didn’t need their children to mediate for them.
“Yes. It’s a very interesting generation. Super talented. It’s something I see in the community, at events. Young people who express themselves and inspire me. They paint, they dance, they sing.”

In the song “In Between,” Tashoma puts these words into her mother’s mouth, directed to her, the daughter: “Don’t pity me, don’t pity / That’s what God is for / We’re just in between and we’ll get there soon.”

“I think that we really will get there,” Tashoma says. “Many already have. They don’t try to please people or prove anything to people. They live their lives. They create, they work, they make. Not everyone. Unfortunately, there are people who don’t even think about it.”

And you?

Honestly? I think I’ve arrived there.”

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