Musicians take note

In their own words, Kobi Farhi, Sameh Zakout, Alpha Blondy and Shyne discuss why their music is more than just entertainment.

Jerusalem Music Conference 521 (photo credit: Amos Bar Zeev)
Jerusalem Music Conference 521
(photo credit: Amos Bar Zeev)
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 future.
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 Jerusalem address.
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 Ministry.
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,’” suggested Shyne.
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.
Here 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.
“Music 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 the Almighty.
“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.
But 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.
“I 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 jail.
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.
“The only 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 creating.
“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.
“You’re 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 it.
“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.”
ALPHA BLONDY: “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 Barcelona.
“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 response.
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.
“So of 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.
“But what 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 or nationality.
“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 government thinks.
“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.”