Macy Gray finds out ‘how life is’ in the Middle East

The American soul singer inadvertently walks into the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by announcing two concerts in Tel Aviv. But all she wants to do is sing.

macy gray_311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
macy gray_311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Macy Gray probably hasn’t had her name mentioned so frequently in the media since she won a Grammy in 2001 for her performance of “I Try” off her debut album On How Life Is. And she didn’t even have to use her exquisitely evocative voice to garner the attention this time. Just a short note on her Facebook page to her fans did the trick.
The unpredictable R&B songstress, who’s experienced a spotty career since her phenomenal debut, turned to some social networking advice last month to resolve a burning issue – and in doing so, it became very public. After having appeared in Israel three times over the last decade, the announcement of Gray’s upcoming dates on February 11 and 12 at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv were, for the first time, met with boycott calls by pro-Palestinian organizations. Confused as to what she should do, Gray opened up to a wider forum.
Following the resultant flurry of media reports about her post, she received tons of solicited responses – the majority advising her to uphold her commitment to perform in Israel. Overwhelmed by the response, and apparently surprised at the vitriol spewed by some of the anti-Israel posters, she responded to one Facebook appeal by writing, “See, I’m willing to listen – really listen – but some of you so-called boycotters are just assholes.”
Within a couple days after posting her original appeal, Gray announced her decision on Twitter: “Dear Israel fans. Me and the band will be there in 20 days. Can’t wait. See you then. Peace.”
Just to make sure Gray wasn’t wavering on her choice, Israel’s Consul-General in Los Angeles Jacob Dayan met with the singer last week, following which Gray released a statement saying, “I am choosing to perform in Tel Aviv because I believe in the power of music. I believe that it brings people together and offers magic and escape and laughter and the opportunity to feel good and dance.”
At the same time, the 43-year-old resident of Los Angeles wrote a letter on her website revealingly describing the process she had unexpectedly gone through after booking her Tel Aviv shows.
“The moment my show was announced at Reading in Tel Aviv, I was virally inundated with requests and pleas to boycott the show. Literally, hundreds of tweets and Facebook comments, urging me that my performance there would send a message that the conflict between Israel and Palestine is just. I had been to Israel three times prior over the past 10 years and had never once been asked to boycott,” she wrote.
“Of course, I do not support oppression or violence, but I am a strong believer that music builds bridges and brings joy and offers peace. Even if only for the three-anda- half minute duration of a song, it is one of God’s most important and powerful gifts. My thought was: What good is the absence of that? And how arrogant it would be of me to think that my appearance or lack of would change anything.”
And specifically addressing the Israelis and Palestinians who responded to her appeal, she wrote, “I honestly believe that if musicians are more aggressively invited to Israel, you, on either side, have the opportunity to educate and influence and inspire them to spread your beliefs. I have learned so much over this past month. My heart goes out to every single one of you. You live in the most interesting, most fascinating place on the planet, hands down. I pray that the powers that be, the true decision makers, can stop being unreasonable and create change because it has gone on too long and will not go on forever because nothing does. My prayer is that this conflict will end soon and, most of all, that it will allow all people to live in peace, side by side, as equals – with great music providing the soundtrack for everyone.
“My band and I, along with my crew and some members of our families, are all very excited to arrive in Tel Aviv on February 10 in peace, with the purpose of learning so much more. I have been invited to visit the West Bank, and I will. We bring with us one of God’s most important and powerful gifts – music. It is the best we can do for change right now.”
THE PRESSURE of the then-fresh boycott calls may have been weighing on Gray’s shoulders when she spoke with The Jerusalem Post only three days before she posted her Facebook appeal. But despite sounding tired and distracted, the distinctive, raspy-voiced singer didn’t disclose her dilemma and espoused only good feelings about returning to Israel.
“I’ve been all over Jerusalem, at all the historical places,” she said. You guys would call it touristy. When I told friends in Tel Aviv that I go to all the tourist things, they just roll their eyes. It’s like if you came to Los Angeles and went to the Wax Museum – nobody who lives here does something like that. But I love all the historical things in Israel, and I’m going to go to them again this time. I really enjoy it.”
Gray’s affinity for the country is so sturdy that in 2008, she sang the American national anthem as part of the first Israeli flag-raising ceremony at the Israeli Consulate of Los Angeles (she apparently practiced since being booed off the field at 2001 Pro Football Hall of Fame exhibition game in Canton, Ohio, after forgetting the anthem’s words). According to Gray, she had no qualms about joining the Israeli festivities and didn’t receive any flak about it from anti-Israel activists.
“A friend of mine who I actually met in Tel Aviv on one of my visits was working on organizing it and asked me if I would appear and I said, ‘Sure.’ If anybody had a problem with it, I sure didn’t hear about it,” she said.
What Gray has been hearing for the last few years to her chagrin in reviews of her four subsequent albums since On How Life Is is that she’s been squandering her talent by adopting styles like she changes hairdos.
According to the music bible Pop Matters, “Gray’s work [since her debut] has been spotty and strange, saleable and then disappointing, too eager to please and also not pleasing enough. Passed around to a variety of producers, Gray’s glorious and idiosyncratic voice has been a star performer. But like an R&B Denzel Washington, Gray has too rarely found vehicles worthy of her star turn.”
Gray doesn’t buy the criticism, explaining that it’s her prerogative to express herself differently every time out.
“I’ve gotten such hassle from the press for not repeating ‘I Try’ every time. But it was never my aim to outdo myself, I just wanted to make interesting records. I don’t know what everybody expects from me,” she said.
That’s the reason she ironically called her latest 2010 album The Sellout – ironic because, if anything, the album is the most eclectic of her career, featuring not only her trademark Billie Holiday via helium vocal cords wrapped around classic soul tunes but also disco and danceinflected material, as well as duets with artists as varied as rockers Velvet Underground and bad boy Bobby Brown.
“That’s it exactly. I called it that in response to those who told me not to try other things. It’s a comment on the whole situation of being told what to do,” she said.
A relatively late comer in the music business, Gray didn’t begin singing until she was 20. While attending the University of Southern California, she wrote a song for a friend and when the scheduled singer for a recording session for it failed to show up, Gray stepped in at the last moment.
“I didn’t think I had a great voice. At that time, people like Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige were big, and I thought that was the way you needed to sing. And because I couldn’t sing like that, I didn’t really take myself seriously,” she said.
By the time the wheels slowly turned, Gray was 32 and the mother of three when she recorded On How Life Is. Rather than being able to handle success with more balance than a teen pop star, Gray admitted that she was taken aback by the sudden glare, and it took a while for her to regain her equilibrium.
“I’m not sure age makes much of a difference when you’re on such a whirlwind. My perspective may have been different because I had more experiences to write about than a younger person and because I was already a mother. I was definitely a late bloomer,” she said. “I definitely wasn’t grounded for a long time after that first album.”
Gray appears to be on a roll now, however; and instead of her customary three to four years between records, she plans two releases in 2011 on top of last year’s The Sellout. “I want to do a jazz record. I want to do a rock record. I have so much music in me, I’m kind of doing myself a disservice by not putting it out as fast as it comes.”
And regarding the upcoming shows in Tel Aviv, Gray put the issue into the proper perspective. “It’s a grave and unfortunate situation and so deep that I think anybody who doesn’t live in Israel or in Palestine can truly understand it. But for the life of me, I do not see how not performing helps the situation.”