Perhaps the 40-something American music industry professionals didn’t appreciate how famous Hadag Nahash rapper Shaanan Streett is among Israelis, and how many of his fans would give an arm and a leg to have the privilege of being in a room with him listening to him speak. But once he pulled out his phone and started playing Hadag Nahash songs over a speaker system, it didn’t matter that they didn’t know him from Adam. A large number of the group’s participants were from the vibrant hip-hop community of Atlanta, Georgia, and they danced and cheered as Street played them his biggest hit, “Shirat Hasticker” (“The Sticker Song,”) composed in 2004 with the well-known novelist David Grossman, using only slogans from bumper stickers.
The group of music businesspeople was in Israel with the Reality music program, described by their website as a “dynamic leadership development journey through Israel designed to recharge the passion and spark the creativity of the world’s boldest and most influential music leaders.” The goal of the Reality program, according to one of their staffers, is “to bring influential people to Israel and send them home with a positive view of the country.”
The trip is funded and run by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation and participants have to pay only $750.
Participants included songwriters for artists such as Britney Spears and Madonna, performers who have toured with artists like Eric Clapton and played festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo, and producers and agents who have worked with the biggest names in today’s music such as Rihanna, Pharrell Williams and Jason Derulo. A sprinkling of Grammy winners were in the mix.
Musician Idan Raichel spoke before Streett, and said that for artists, Israel is “one of the most interesting places in the world.” For a very small country, he joked, it makes a lot of noise.
Raichel – best known for the award-winning, triple platinum album The Idan Raichel Project, which is often praised for featuring Ethiopian, Arab and Malian musicians – talked about how a “new immigration every 15 years [Russian, Ethiopian, etc.] changes the face of Israeli society,” and in turn, the face of Israeli radio.
He reflected on the success of that first album which hit the top of the charts, putting it in terms that an American audience would be able to understand: “It would be like if a band from Manhattan had a Cantonese singer and they overtook Rihanna on the radio.”
He recounted the start of his career in the IDF band, and remarked that “soldiers are the most honest audience, after kids. They’ll let you know!” Raichel finished speaking and played his song “Boee” (“Come to Me”), which features lyrics sung in Hebrew and Amharic.
A little while later, Streett – who is very politically conscious, and recently did a speaking tour of the US with the New Israel Fund – took the stage and told his listeners that “Israel’s great challenge isn’t to fix the way it’s perceived. Israel’s great challenge is in fixing its wrongdoings and injustice.
That’s the big challenge, and I don’t mind speaking about it.”
The audience followed up with a question about what exactly are Israel’s flaws, and he rattled them off: threats to the democratic system, a need for education against racism, and understanding the limits of power and force for the police and the army.
After Streett was finished speaking, the group carried their bottles of Goldstar beer and plastic cups of gin and tonic as they walked down Jaffa Road towards the Tower of David, for the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival. “Open container laws? This is just like New Orleans!” one of them remarked.
As the group walked towards the Old City, I spoke with Yaniv Rivlin, senior program officer at the Schusterman Foundation, who talked about how the Reality program has nine different journeys for different sectors.
“We have music, we have tech, we have storytellers, we have wellness, the next one’s for social entrepreneurs,” he said. “The beauty of the program is that they can use Israel as a backdrop to explore leadership values and identity.
Each trip is carefully curated around their topic while also showing them Israel. For a lot of them it’s their first time to Israel… Only when you visit Israel can you relate. You have to bring people here for them to understand the complexity and the opportunities.”
Seth Cohen, senior director at the Schusterman Foundation, expanded on Rivlin’s comments and spoke about how seeing Israel through a lens like music, for example, is the perfect way to do it: “There are two types of identities that you hold: you hold your hard identities, and your soft identities.
You’re a white man who is a citizen of Israel. There are other people [in this group] that might be an African-American woman who lives in America. But your soft identity is similar. You’re both interested in music. So when you start to bind together the ties of the soft identities, you can get to the harder issues that sometimes come up.
Music becomes the glue by which different people from different cultures can understand that they have similar opportunities and similar challenges.
That kesher [connection], that’s the glue that brings people together. That’s the way you shift reality.”
When I met them, the group was already nearing the end of their trip – and every Reality program ends in Mitzpe Ramon at the crater. The wellness group does yoga there, the Forbes 30 under-30 group had a party, and the music group has a jam session. But before they close down the week-long trip, they stop at the home and grave of Israel’s first and longest serving prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
With almost half of the group coming from a non-Jewish background, and many of the Jewish participants visiting Israel for the first time, I wondered whether many knew anything about Ben-Gurion.
“I think the general literacy around Israeli history is very low,” Cohen said.
“But Reality is a crash course of both Israeli, and in some ways Jewish, history through the prism of cultural moments and historical places. My short answer is, not much, and probably at the end, more. We often tell them [that] ‘our goal is for you to leave Israel with more questions than answers. Because then you’ll come back searching for more answers.’ Ideally we want people to return physically, and if not physically, to return mentally and emotionally.”
Just inside the walls of the Old City, I spoke with Evan Bogart, one of the participants, a songwriter who has written hits including Beyoncé’s “Halo.”
“The program has opened my eyes to some of the different ways of thinking about leadership and about myself, about how I interact with others and what contributions I can make to the world,” he said.
As a setting for the program, he remarked that Israel was “perfect. All of the parallels from history or from biblical history or from even current events and the way that leaders are in the region today lends itself to how people can be stronger, better leaders.
Also, the energy here, the spirit here, is just incredible. [It’s] testing you to be an inspired version of yourself in such an inspirational setting. Seems like a no-brainer. I’ve already recommended it to a dozen friends back home.”
As we waited to enter the Tower of David to drink chai and beer and watch dreadlocked musicians play harps, flutes and drums under the illuminated, centuries-old walls, someone took time to explain to the group how to get back to their hotel if they got lost, and what the plan was for the next morning.
It seems that the Reality music program is a bit like a summer camp for influential adults. You’re going to come back with some incredible experiences after a week of semi-supervised late nights and early mornings, you’re going to go home with a host of new friends, and like Bogart, you’re going to recommend it to everybody you know.