Miri Ben-Ari: Hip-hop violinist and humanitarian

Feted by First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House, the Israeli violinist is one of today's biggest pop stars.

By ABIGAIL KLEIN LEICHMAN/ISRAEL21C
July 4, 2011 22:06
4 minute read.
Miri Ben-Ari

Miri Ben-Ari 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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"People love the fact that I am from Israel,” says Grammy-winning Israeli hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari.

“Being from Israel represents soulfulness and a long history of struggle, which I always try to capture with my music.”

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Now living in New York, Ben-Ari performs across the globe, most recently putting in an appearance at the White House at the invitation of First Lady Michelle Obama. In July, she’ll take the stage at China’s first-ever Miss Universe pageant, which is expected to enjoy blockbuster ratings.

The 32-year-old musician’s unusual fusion of classical style with jazz, R&B and hip-hop has not only earned her a Grammy Award for her contribution to Kanye West’s 2004 hit song “Jesus Walks,” but also the first ever Israel Award from the Fellowship of Israel and Black America on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 2008 for her “Symphony of Brotherhood,” in which she set the late human rights leader’s famous “I have a dream” speech to music. This song was the first instrumental single ever to hit Billboard's R&B/hip-hop charts.

“I am proud to represent Israel and my Jewish roots,” she says The former jazz violinist started training in classical violin as a five-year-old in Tel Aviv – one of her teachers was the legendary Isaac Stern – and served as a musician in the educational unit of the Israel Defense Forces before seeking her fortune in America. She arrived there with her violin, no money, and speaking virtually no English.

“My dream was to come to New York and go to college to study jazz,” she says, “but I dropped out of college after only two semesters and became the artist that I am today by practicing a lot, listening to others and performing on stage.”

She burst onto the American hip-hop scene in a 2001 collaboration with urban music trailblazer Wyclef Jean.

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Since then, Ben-Ari’s unique talents have been in great demand by artists such as Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Erykah Badu, Patti Labelle, Wynton Marsalis, Maroon 5, Janet Jackson, Brandy and Britney Spears.

Ben-Ari performed for Israel's 60th anniversary at New York’s famous Apollo Theater and starred in Reebok’s “I Am What I Am” global print and TV advertising campaign and VH1’s major 2006 New York benefit for music education, She also recorded on her own, starting with Sahara (1999) and moving on to Temple of Beautiful (2003) and Live at the Blue Note (2004). In 2005, she signed on with Universal Records to do The Hip Hop Violinist, followed by the 2008 The Hip Hop Violinist II.

Ahead of a summer tour and a new release, Ben-Ari is soliciting designs for a new cover and website logo via Creative Invite. The as-yet-unnamed CD will include her composition “10 Commandments,” which was part of her original score for the May 25 Manhattan premiere of the Israeli Neta Dance Company’s 25th anniversary show.

“I personally feel that this coming album will have the best music that I’ve ever recorded,” says Ben-Ari.

“We are currently getting ready to shoot the next video and I am very much looking forward to it.”

Not content merely to perform, Ben-Ari donates countless hours to philanthropic pursuits. If you ask her which is most important to her, she’ll immediately answer that it’s Gedenk (“Remember” in Yiddish), a non-profit organization she co-founded in 2006 to promote genocide awareness among American youth.

One of Gedenk’s projects is a public service announcement depicting how ordinary people can become victims of hate crimes. It was aired thousands of times by TV channels such as FOX, NBC, ABC and CVS.

“My grandparents on my father’s side lost almost their entire family in the Holocaust and this cause is very personal and meaningful to me,” says Ben-Ari, who won the American Society for Yad Vashem’s 2011 Young Leadership Associates Remembrance Award.

She appeared with Sting and Elton John at the recent Breast Cancer Research Foundation’s Hot Pink Party in Boston and was invited by designer Donna Karan to play at the star-studded June 13 Wayúu Tayá Fundraising Gala Event in New York to benefit indigenous children from different countries.

But she singles out the White House experience as one of her most inspiring. She was invited by the president’s wife in March as one of 22 "Remarkable Women" in a Women's History Month celebration and session with schoolchildren. The group included notable women such as the actress Hilary Swank, Olympic skater Michelle Kwan, astronaut Ellen Ochoa, Brigadier General Dana Born, former US ambassador to Hungary Nancy Brinker and A&E Television Networks president and CEO Abbe Raven.

"This event and also talking to the many students who participated inspired me to keep growing as an artist and as a person," Ben-Ari says.

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