Whoever said that politics makes strange bedfellows probably never hung out with
musicians. Because one glance at the motley crew gathered in chairs behind
microphones last week at Zappa Jerusalem would have prompted a new definition of
the phrase “opposites attract.”
On stage right was long-haired, tattooed
Kobi Farhi, the leader of Orphaned Land, a Tel Aviv-based Middle Eastern heavy
metal band which has attracted a sizable following in the Arab world due to its
use of Arab and Mediterranean Syrian and Lebanese fans.
Next to Farhi in
a tight Tshirt and cropped hair sat Saz, the stage name of Sameh Zakout, an
Israeli-Arab hip-hop artist from Ramle. Over the past decade, he’s been touted
as the nonviolent voice of Palestinians, delivering a message of pride and
national identity while at the same time criticizing his Arab neighbors in Ramle
who turn to drugs and violence instead of pursuing an education and a better
The day before, he had performed a showcase set for the
conference participants, including representatives of some of the world’s
leading booking agencies and festivals. In one of his anthemic, hyperspeed
songs, sung in a mixture of Hebrew, Arabic and English, he wails, “Every
morning, we wake up to the same messed-up reality.”
Also performing the
night before at the Zion Reggae Festival at Sacher Park in Jerusalem was Ivory
Coast reggae star Alpha Blondy, who sat next to Saz on stage at the Zappa.
Blondy, dapper in a suit and stylish hat, has for over 25 years sung about
social issues in his native language of Dioula, French, English, Hebrew and
Arabic. One of his albums is called Apartheid is Nazism, and he’s often
identified with Israel, writing and recording songs entitled “Yitzhak Rabin,”
“Jerusalem” and “Masada.”
And rounding out the group on the left was
Shyne, the once-notorious hard-core, Belize-born New York rapper who has been
reborn as Orthodox Jew Moshe Levi, complete with haredi trappings and a
The four artists gathered to speak at a panel of the
first Jerusalem Music Conference, a five-day international event of panels,
music and hobnobbing organized by Oleh! Records – Israel’s Music Export, and
supported by JVP, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Foreign
Their session, “Music as a Weapon For Peace,” was designed to
explain how they’ve used their music and messages to bridge gaps, confound
stereotypes and promote coexistence and understanding.
Just before the
session began, the four individuals, who had never met each other before,
huddled in a corner of the club in an attempt to get acquainted. But well before
their hour onstage was over, they were acting like old friends, talking about
recording a song together for peace. “Let’s call it ‘Political Gangsters,’”
Blondy requested to add a female singer to the mix – “I
want to ask Rita to join us. I love her voice.”
“Fine with me,” responded
Saz. “She sings in Persian!” While appearance- and music-wise the foursome
clearly had little in common, when they started to talk to the audience – and to
each other – it became apparent that despite the outer trappings and the style
of music that separate them, there was even more that united them.
are some of their comments and stories in their own words: KOBI FARHI: “The
crazy thing about Orphaned Land is that despite the fact that we’re Israelis and
Jews, we’re extremely famous in the Arab and Muslim world. It’s resulted in a
phenomenon of Arab fans having ‘Orphaned Land’ tattooed on their arms and
following the band around from country to country. We received three peace
awards from Turkey at the same time the relations between the two countries are
at a low. It’s evidence to me that music – whether it’s reggae, hip hop or heavy
metal – is a strong tool to bring people together and unite them.
is not only food for your soul, but it can be a cure for the soul. I was in
Turkey a month ago – and imagine this scene: We’re onstage singing our version
of a Jewish piyut [hymn] called ‘El Nora Alila’ [from the Yom Kippur Ne’ila
service]. The crowd consisted of people from Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia,
Syria and they all were waving their country’s flags.
“At one point, I
point the microphone toward the crowd, and they start singing along in Hebrew to
this Jewish prayer.
“I wasn’t aware of the power of music when I was a
kid, I thought music was just music. But I grew to realize that music is a
universal language and a cure. I would even say that music could be defined as a
religion that unites everyone.
During the same weekend last year that
4,000 Egyptians were outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo wanting to burn, kill
and lynch everything there, we were in Turkey playing in front of another 4,000
people, all from different Arab countries.
“Of course, the story in all
the media was about the people in Cairo, a story that has repeated itself
throughout history. Our story – this show was like a complete utopia coming down
to Earth, seeing Israelis and Arabs singing together – got two minutes at the
end of the 6 p.m. news and the media people told me I should be very grateful we
got on at all.”
ALPHA BLONDY: “Music has something divine – it must if
with all the problems people encounter in the world, it can still bring them
together and make them dance and be happy.
“For me, music saved my life
when I was younger.
With music I built an identity, and it helped me to
make friends. And even today, when someone comes and pays a ticket to see my
ugly face, it means to me that they like me. Sometimes after a show, when I’m in
my dressing room, I cry. Because for me, what I just did is a manifestation of
“When someone comes to me for an autograph and says ‘my
parents used to play your music when I was a kid,’ there is no greater reward
for me than that. There is a spiritual, divine dimension to music that we
encounter every day.”
SAZ: “I started out as a young kid in a bad
neighborhood in Ramle, and the only heroes I saw were drug dealers.
at around age 12 or 13, I began listening to Michael Jackson and reading his
lyrics, and then I started listening to Afrika Bambaataa and the Lords of the
Underground, real oldschool rap, and I began to understand hip hop.
discovered that music could be a bridge for me, as a kid that didn’t have much
of a future. I didn’t really have a focus and didn’t know what my goal in life
was. If I hadn’t discovered hip hop, I’d be back with my friends in
When God gives you life, you have to use it. People say they’re
living their lives but they’re not. Everyone has a destiny in his life, and I
thought that I could be a bridge. I live in Israel, but my family is in Ramallah
and Gaza – I’m somewhere in the middle, living in both worlds.
way I can connect to my relatives is through Skype and Facebook, and it creates
frustration that they’re not allowed to come to Israel and I’m in essence
forbidden to see them. Music taught me that while it’s really easy to hate and
to call for boycotts – so easy – it’s much harder to make bridges between
peoples of both nations.”
SHYNE: “I discovered music growing up in Belize
through artists like Michael Jackson and L.L.
Cool J. At age seven, I’d
get up on my bed and do my Michael Jackson imitation. Then I discovered this
thing called rap that people like Russell Simmons and Lior Cohen – who’s an
Israeli and the most powerful man in the music business right now – were
“But the guy who really changed my life was Bob Marley – he was
my rabbi, if you will.
“We had moved to the US, and I grew up in a very
dangerous, hopeless environment in Flatbush in Brooklyn. I read that on the
south side of Chicago, there was something like 10 homicides in 72 hours
recently, and that’s kind of how it was when I was growing up.
trained to hate and to identify life as worthless. You feel worthless, so
everyone else must be worthless too. I’m an extreme person, so when I’m in a
war, I’m going to destroy anything that tries to destroy me. I started carrying
a gun at age 10.
“But Bob Marley transformed my way of thinking. He gave
me an opportunity to love people. When I put his music on, I just couldn’t go
out and destroy afterwards. That’s how powerful music is – it’s a conversation
with melody and rhyme, like the way the birds sing when I go to pray at the
Kotel [Western Wall] early in the morning or at night for ma’ariv [the evening
prayer]. Everything is one big harmony if you pay close enough attention to
“The same way that music transformed my life, I’m attempting to do
the same for others. My heart aches for those kids in Chicago – it’s a state of
emergency, and I can, through my music, either lift those kids up or enable them
to continue the cycle of hate.
“A lot of rappers haven’t even busted a
grape in a food fight but they talk about shooting guns and being dope dealers,
and they continue this cycle of violence, destruction, worthlessness and
hopelessness by creating a soundtrack for war. So me being a commander- in-chief
from that war, I have the ability to create a soundtrack that can hopefully
resolve some of those issues and heal some wounds.”
“Boycotts are not a solution, we have to talk to each other. I always feel free
to say what I feel inside. My spiritual naivete has helped me along the way.
Once I was asked to come perform in Tunisia, and the promoter called me and
said, ‘please don’t play “Jerusalem” or “Yitzhak Rabin” – there are too many
extremists here.’ “And I said, ‘If you invite me, you take me as a block. Nobody
affects my repertoire.’ So he said ‘OK,’ and I went to Tunisia. About an hour
before the show, the promoter comes to my room and says ‘I can’t guarantee your
safety if you play those songs.’ And I answered, ‘don’t worry, I have a strong
bodyguard – his name is God.’ “So we played ‘Jerusalem’ and we played ‘Masada’
and everything was fine. When we started playing ‘Yitzhak Rabin,’ three people
got up from near the front and walked away – three people, out of 10,000!” KOBI
FARHI: “The artist has a big responsibility because we enter the hearts of
people even if we never meet them. We play in their bedrooms, in their bad
moments and good moments. The responsibility the artist has on a spiritual level
is so high, which is why I was so frustrated when artists like Elvis Costello
and the Pixies and other booked shows here, and after fans had already bought
tickets, they suddenly decided to cancel.
“The fans had to go, ashamed
and depressed, to get their money back. As an artist and a fan, I couldn’t
continue to listen to these musicians – I felt like they were rabbis who had
betrayed their disciples.
“Leonard Cohen did a beautiful thing when he
came to Israel – something I would expect any artist to do. He faced a lot of
pressure to cancel with demonstrations outside his shows in Dublin and
“So what did he do? He came to play the show, but he donated
all his income to a foundation set up by Israeli and Palestinian parents who
lost their loved ones in the conflict.
That was exactly the right
When you come to a place of disharmony, you are the harmony. At
that moment, I was very proud of him, as my rabbi.”
SAZ: “Boycotts can
work both ways. For me, it’s not an easy situation to be in. I’m honored to be
here with you guys and to have performed yesterday, but you have to know that
some people are probably not happy about it – both Palestinian and Israeli. I
get it from both sides.
“I live and deal in both worlds, but at the end
of the day I represent only myself – Sameh. It’s my beliefs and my visions, and
I’m the one who at the end of the month has to pay the bills. The ones
boycotting are just talking.
Ten years ago, I was performing with the
first Palestinian rap group, Dam, and we had a show in Jordan. It’s an Arab
country and I’m an Arab, I’m a Muslim. But the group had a song called “Who’s
the Terrorist?” and it was a political song. So we were boycotted, they canceled
our show five hours before we were supposed to leave for Jordan.
course, we were frustrated, besides losing money – how could it be that our
brothers are boycotting us? At the same time, I’m a Palestinian living in
Israel. My uncle is a minister in the Palestinian Authority with Abu Mazen [PA
President Mahmoud Abbas], so I’m really connected to everyone. And some Israelis
won’t invite me to do shows, they think I’m a problematic guy.
I’ve understood is that it’s easy to say ‘I’m going to boycott.’ The situation
in Israel and Palestine is complicated, and we have to realistic. I came here to
tell both sides that it’s really hard, but yes, we can make it. Of course, I’m
not a sell-out and I’m not going to sell out my people, my religion, my ‘hood.
I’m proud of who I am, but I want to talk to all people no matter their religion
“I’m not ‘against,’ I’m ‘with.’ It’s easy to be against,
and I hope I don’t forget that I’m in a unique position. I really have to keep
walking between the raindrops.”
SHYNE: “Boycotts are a waste of time
because artists would benefit so much more by coming and performing in Israel,
where they can present their opinions even if they’re against what the
“The politicians here don’t necessarily reflect the
opinions of the people anyway.
What they might find if they talk to
people and to the audience is that the majority of Israelis believe there should
be a Palestinian state – they might not know that from the media, but that’s the
fact on the ground.
“Those musicians that boycott are doing themselves a
disservice. You have to go where the fight is – you can’t run away from it.
Dialogue is the only way to accomplish anything.
“Russell Simmons, the
godfather of hip hop, was in Jerusalem a few weeks ago with Rabbi Mark Shnier.
They have this ethnic understanding foundation and bring together rabbis and
imams, and Russell said to me, ‘Shyne, you got to do a record with a Muslim guy
– who you gonna do it with?’ “Thank God I came to this panel today, because I
found that guy I’m going to do that record with.”