Hip hop grew out of “the ghetto,” on the wrong side of the class structure tracks, born out of a sense of injustice and inequality felt by young African Americans and Latin Americans living in New York City’s South Bronx in the 1970s. By the late 1980s it had spread far beyond the physical and sociocultural confines of the neighborhood and was adopted by youngsters of all ethnic origins and creeds the world over, although the core mindset of unloading grievances remained central to the lyrics.
The KGC trio certainly have a bellyful of gripes to get out there, and they have been doing just that for the past seven years to audiences all over the country, with growing success.
Next Saturday (10 p.m.) they will convey their message to the audience at the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem as part of this year’s Hullegeb Festival program.
When I met Israel Alamo (Alamo T), Ya’acov Yardeni (Avesha G) and Moshe Tasma (Bazzi B), all in their mid-20s, in a park in their neighborhood in Kiryat Gat, I got a palpable sense of three angry young men looking to tell the world about their experiences as Ethiopians who feel they have been getting a raw deal.
When the three joined forces for creative intent, they were teenagers – the perfect age for letting off steam about being hard done to. They were all residents of the same downmarket area of Kiryat Gat.
“When you’re a teenager, you have all sorts of feelings and energies you need to get out anyway,” notes Yardeni. “We felt that too, just like the youngsters of today. Luckily we found music, so we could express our feelings through that rather than in another way.”
The “other way,” presumably, would be resorting to violence or substance abuse.
Until the last year or so, KGC (which stands for Kiryat Gat City) got on with their rhythmic business largely below the media radar, traveling the length and breadth of the country and appearing at clubs and all kinds of venues for audiences that increasingly took in a cross-section of the younger public, not just Ethiopian youth. With the advent of the Hullegeb event, the trio have become something of a media item. But the limelight has not turned the artists’ heads.
“We don’t pander to the media,” says Alamo. “That’s the most important thing. It’s about the content.”
The trio do not stand on ceremony.
Alamo, Yardeni and Tasma tell it just the way it is. Consider some of Alamo’s lyrics in the KGC number “Mi Hamatok El Hamar” (From the Sweet to the Bitter): “Another night I can’t remember, the same shit another day… Always true, in the future too, even God knows, hoping things will change.”
Yardeni hopes things will change for the better, although he is not overly optimistic.
“We were all born in Israel, but I feel more Ethiopian than Israeli,” he declares.
That, says the 26-year-old dreadlocked singer, is a consequence of his experiences and that of his colleagues growing up in Israel as a member of the Ethiopian community.
“You get discrimination, and people look down at you. If I ever wanted to get a job or was in line for something or other, I would definitely be immediately marked as an unlikely candidate,” Yardeni says. “You get that when you’re trying to get into a nightclub too,” adds Tasma.
“Why do the selectors straightaway put us to one side? As Ethiopians, we can never get into nightclubs.”
Would the three hip hoppers go so far as to say that Israeli society is basically racist? “We don’t think that – we know it for sure,” says Tasma with a pained expression on his face. “That’s what we get the whole time.”
The fact that the threesome channel their frustrations and vent their individual and collective spleen through an entertaining musical medium, says Alamo, can set a constructive example for their younger ethnic counterparts.
“We didn’t have anyone like KGC to relate when we were growing up. Now Ethiopian teenagers can see what we are doing and that, hopefully, will help them to express themselves and maybe follow suit,” he says.
All three rappers say they feed off “old school” hip hop and cite Tupac Amaru Shakur as a source of inspiration. The late American rapper and actor, also known as 2Pac, grew up in Harlem and became a household name by the time he was 21. He was also embroiled in underground gang violence and was shot dead at the age of 25.
“One of the common denominators among us three is that we were not exposed to Israeli music as kids,” says Yardeni. “We were exposed to African American music; when you get to age 13, when you start getting into English through the music you hear the whole time, you start to appreciate the real music – stuff by 2Pac and others who bring real added value to what they do.
We weren’t interested in music that just gets your head bopping; we were looking for content. We started from old school, and we started from rap, which has developed into all sorts of directions.”
The fundamental musical and cultural strand of KGC’s output feeds off their Ethiopian roots as much as off African American sensibilities. They call their style “hip hopie,” and the music and beats owe as much to their natural Amharic and Ethiopian roots as to the adopted American influences.
KGC’s numbers are always a collaborative affair.
“We start from the chorus, and then each of us takes that and writes his own stanza,” explains Yardeni. “Our songs have three stanzas, and each of us takes the theme in his own direction. The Ethiopian flag has three colors – green, yellow and red,” says Yardeni, pointing to each member of the trio in turn.
“Together we make up something Ethiopian. That’s what we basically are,” he continues. “We are experiencing all the struggles and difficulties our parents had on their way to Israel, and here too, only not so much in a physical sense. I don’t think we will ever be accepted as Israelis. You get someone from Iraq, Romania or Morocco, and after a generation or two they become part of Israeli society. Not us. We will always be black. We will always be Ethiopians.”
Other festival highlights include the following: For the opening performance, the Tezeta Israeli-Ethiopian Musical Ensemble hosts Ehud Banai (December 16 at 9 p.m. at Beit Shmuel). The Beta Dance Company performs a new work entitled You Are Me, but I Am Not You (December 20 at 7 p.m. at the Gerard Behar Center). The Hullegeb Israeli- Ethiopian Theater Ensemble with Moshe Malka premieres the play The Mark of Cain: The Story of the Malessa Family (December 21 at 7 p.m. at the Confederation House). And for the closing performance, reggae musician Michael Greilsammer hosts singer Ester Rada (December 21 at 9 p.m. at the Begin Heritage Center).
For tickets and more information: (02) 624-5206; http://www.confederationhouse.org/en/