When R&B star Erykah Badu landed in Israel this month, she wasn't only interested in performing to promote her upcoming album, New Amerykah. She also made a point of seeking out the Hebrew Israelites (also known as the Black Hebrews), the Dimona-based group of African Americans who settled in Israel nearly 40 years ago.
"I know the community mostly for its art and cultureâ€¦ and of course its food, I eat at their restaurants," she said.
After meeting with several members of the Hebrew Israelite community for lunch at the Taste of Life restaurant in downtown Tel Aviv, Badu remarked, "they make you feel like taking off your shoes... it feels like home."
Badu, of course, isn't the only international star to have taken a special interest in the Hebrew Israelite community. Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston and Motown legend Kim Weston are among some of the other big names who have been drawn to visit and perform with the Dimona settlers. When asked why musicians like herself feel attracted to the community, Badu retorted, "You mean musicians of color? Well, we all come from the same source... we are all related.
"As musicians we already work for a higher source, whether we know it or not, and when musicians come to the Holy Land and find other African Americans doing the same, they feel connected. Their music comes from the same source - Africa and spirituals. There is something in the tones - the frequency of tones that brings you home - it's genetically encoded."
This year the Hebrew Israelites are celebrating the anniversary of their integration into Israeli society by building their first kibbutz, where they will grow organic vegetables to support their vegan diet and nurture the many musical talents in their community. Today they number 3,000, and are the largest African American community outside the US - praying to the God of Israel, sending their children to the Israeli army, and of course, creating soul music.
Badu was amazed to learn about the success of the community in Israel and was especially interested in meeting its musicians, who are known for their Songs of Deliverance, primarily aimed at praising "Yah", the God of Israel. For Badu, whose music stems from a similarly spiritual perspective, there was an immediate kinship. "I am the first soul artist in America to address music from a spiritual teacher perspective," she said. "I consider myself a student, but my music comes from a teacher's point of view."
Badu was also eager to philosophize, if somewhat cryptically, about the positive changes unfolding for African Americans around the world. "Change is coming, there is definitely something happening... it's something good. It's like we have paid our cosmic debt as a people, as if our chains are being shattered," she explained, leaning forward and shaking the many bracelets around her wrist.
"Americans have an election year coming up. Barack Obama, a man of color, is running for president. He came out of nowhere. And here in Israel, the Hebrew Israelite community have reached the biblically symbolic 40 year landmarkâ€¦ Astrologically we are moving into the age of Aquarius, which represents knowledge and we have just completed the year of Pisces, which represents belief. If you believe in something strongly enough, it will come to pass."
Her astrological beliefs hold true, she said, for the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. "We all need to take a united decision, and then make a plan and implement it. It may take a few generations, but then it too will come to pass."
After meeting with the Hebrew Israelites, Badu and members of her crew held hands and prayed together in Hebrew. "Later this year in Dimona," she promised, saying that she would definitely return for a visit to the community.
Badu's double album New Amerykah will be released in stages, the first disc coming out on February 26.