Listen to me: ‘I have a dream’

Rap music is giving a powerful voice to Israel’s marginalized Ethiopian immigrant youth.

ethiopian hip hop 521 (photo credit: Joanna Paraszczuk)
ethiopian hip hop 521
(photo credit: Joanna Paraszczuk)
On a sunny Friday morning in Gedera’s Ethiopian neighborhood, a group of teenage boys have gathered for an impromptu rap session. Dressed in the global urban uniform of hooded tops, baggy jeans, baseball caps and sneakers, they could be teenagers from any city, anywhere. But they are all local boys who grew up in the tiny Shapira quarter, raised by their Ethiopian-born parents.
Yuval and his friend Shlomo are 15. Their friend Moshe is 16. The boys have been writing and performing rap songs for over four years.
Why do they rap? “Because rap is something people can understand,” says Yuval.
Moshe nods his head slowly. “Yeah, rap is real.
It speaks to you.”
Huddled together in the tiny studio they’ve created in the local youth club, at first they just listen to tracks they have recorded on previous sessions. But as the familiar sound of their music fills the room, muffling the noise of the street outside, the desire to join in becomes overwhelming.
Sharing a single microphone, the boys start to rap, and their initial shyness melts away. No longer awkward teenagers, they are transformed into the People with Fire Voices.
Their music is raw, energetic. It’s emotional. It’s impossible to listen to it without being caught up in the rhythms, the lyrics. If these teenagers were shy and awkward at first, now they can speak.
When Yuval gets up on the stage and sings, everyone applauds, everyone’s hands are in the air ’Cause there’s a good flow here, / there’s something vital /And it doesn’t matter that this is local hip-hop...
Fire Voices is a project of Shapira’s community garin (“nucleus”), a small group of around 45 Ethiopian and native Israeli volunteers who live in the neighborhood. The garin volunteers act as community leaders, developing grassroots projects to improve living conditions, fight apathy among its youth, improve local prospects and stop the rise of crime.
INITIATED IN 2005 by Yuvi Tashome, an Ethiopian woman who immigrated to Israel as part of Operation Moses in 1984, the Gedera garin is part of a network of similar groups established in Ethiopian communities across the country by the nonprofit group Friends by Nature.
“Before the garin was established, several projects came and went without making lasting change,” garin manager Avi Dnku explains.
Dnku grew up in Shapira and describes it as a “difficult” neighborhood.
“But we don’t want to create short-term projects.
We want to bring change for everybody living here, including ourselves, the garin members.”
Shapira is typical of most of Israel’s Ethiopian “ghettoes” – poor, almost totally mono-ethnic, lacking in amenities and socially isolated from the rest of the city.
While Ethiopian Israelis make up just over a fifth of Gedera’s 21,500-strong population, almost all live crammed into this tiny neighborhood just a few streets wide and centered on Rehov Shapira, a wide street of yellow-gray prefabs that gives the community its name.
Shapira’s garin has established several initiatives to boost education and self-esteem among this complex neighborhood’s teenagers – many of whom had difficulties staying in school. Fire Voices is unique in that the initial idea for the project came from the street, directly from Shapira’s youth themselves.
The idea for Fire Voices was sparked four years ago, when Dnku and his childhood friend Avi Zaudi allowed local children join in and sing with them whenever they rehearsed with their own hip-hop crew, Roshhor (“headhole”).
“Some of the local kids really wanted to rap with us. Things just developed from there, and we asked the community garin for a project,” recalls Zaudi, who manages the Fire Voices initiative.
What makes rap and hip-hop culture such a powerful draw for these Ethiopian teenagers?
According to Zaudi, part of the reason rap resonates so strongly with these young people is linked to its origins as “black” music.
“The kids’ interest in rap begins with color.
It’s black music, so they see something in common with it. They see it as a shared culture,” Zaudi says.
Dnku agrees. “Rap music is very strong for these kids because it’s black music,” he adds.
“There’s no doubt that color is an influence. Rap is good music, sure, but it also speaks to them and helps them find something meaningful.”
It is not just in Gedera that rap has had an impact on Ethiopian teenagers. Grassroots hiphop groups like Fire Voices have sprung up in other Ethiopian communities across Israel.
In Azorim, a rundown and predominantly Ethiopian neighborhood in Netanya, the municipality runs a teen hip-hop project under the auspices of local nonprofit youth organization Hinuch Bilti Formali (Informal Education).
Called Shahor Israeli (Black Israeli), the project uses hip-hop as a way to let at-risk teens address problems that affect them like street crime, drugs and alcohol.
The teenagers taking part in Black Israeli, aged 14 through 18, meet each week in a youth club in Azorim, not just to rap but to participate in anti-drug and alcohol programs and self-esteemboosting sessions.
“This is not an easy population to work with,” admits Eti Eichilove, who manages the project.
“Azorim is a difficult neighborhood. Walk around, and you’ll see many young people hanging around the streets who don’t go to school or to work. But despite the difficulties they have, these kids turn up to our meetings.”
Like Dnku and Zaudi from Gedera, Eichilove says that rap is meaningful to Netanya’s Ethiopian teenagers because of its cultural connections.
“They feel a connection with rap because it’s black music,” says Eichilove. “And it gives them a place to talk about their problems, about what’s affecting them. Rap lets them talk about what’s in their hearts.”
Rap and hip-hop culture offers these troubled teenagers something far more significant than just a cool way to hang out. Where almost everything else has failed, rap has given them a vehicle for self-expression, and for creating a shared identity, something that many organizations working with the Ethiopian community admit is in crisis.
Ziva Mekonen-Deku, executive director of the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), the country’s largest advocacy organization for the Ethiopian community, paints a bleak picture of what she unhesitatingly states is a crisis facing Ethiopian youth.
“According to research, one in three Ethiopian children in Israel is at risk,” she says. “We are extremely worried about this situation.”
AT THE root of this crisis is Israel’s abject failure to successfully integrate its Ethiopian immigrants into mainstream society. Despite enormous government-led efforts to bring approximately 45,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel during the 1980s and 1990s, the community remains literally on the margins of Israeli life, crammed into mono-ethnic ghettoes like Gedera’s Shapira and Netanya’s Azorim and Heftziba neighborhoods.
Yet it is not just geography that marginalizes Ethiopian Israelis. Many feel discriminated against culturally. Upon their arrival in Israel, many Ethiopian immigrants suffered the crushing humiliation of having the authenticity of their Judaism called into question by the Israeli rabbinate. And despite government-led affirmative action programs, Ethiopian Jews remain underrepresented in the education system, the army and the workplace.
“We saw from our research that Ethiopian children feel less welcome here than other immigrants. They feel discriminated against, they say there is nobody to understand them and nobody to listen to them,” Mekonen- Deku says.
“Ethiopian kids don’t have adult role models.
When they go to school, there are barely any Ethiopian teachers. When they think about the future, there are hardly any successful Ethiopians for them to emulate. There is only one Ethiopian MK, for example.
“Recently, we’ve noticed that Ethiopian academics are not being hired for suitable positions.
When kids see that happen, they say ‘OK, so why should I bother studying? What’s the point?’” Ethiopian youth across Israel suffer soaring unemployment, disintegrating families, language problems, high rates of school dropout, teenage drinking, petty crime and vandalism.
And the feelings of alienation and the anger and bitterness that stem from discrimination force these teenagers to look elsewhere for their identity, a phenomenon that is causing concern among those seeking to foster improved integration for Ethiopian youth in Israeli society.
“They are searching for an identity, and finding it in MTV and American culture instead of here in Israeli culture,” adds Mekonen-Deku.
“These kids like that American rappers sing about discrimination and racism, because that’s what they feel.”
Rap and hip-hop culture emerged as an important cultural force in Israel’s Ethiopian community in the 1990s. The music itself was born in the early 1970s in the crime-ridden and impoverished African American neighborhoods of the Bronx, New York, and quickly caught on worldwide.
With its combination of raw lyrics, energetic beats and street dance styles, hip-hop spread as a shared culture and means of selfexpression for young people, particularly those from marginalized communities.
Hip-hop culture entrenched itself in Israel’s mainstream music scene in the 1990s, and at the same time Israel’s minorities adopted the music as a vehicle for creating and expressing their own identity, and as a powerful way of protesting and channeling anger.
Young Palestinian and Arab Israelis, like DAM from Lod and PR (Palestinian Rappers) from Gaza, began rapping in Arabic and Hebrew about issues like discrimination, social exclusion and Palestinian national aspirations.
Rap also attracted young Ethiopian Jews: according to anthropologist and expert on theEthiopian Jewish community Malka Shabtay, many Ethiopian teenagers felt shared connections with global black culture and began to define themselves as “black Jews” first, and Israelis second.
When I ask Shlomo, Moshe and Shmulik from Shapira’s Fire Voices crew about their favorite artists and bands, they answer right away: African-Americans Tupac and Snoop Dogg are first on the list (but they add that they admire white rapper Eminem, too).
Of Israeli rappers, Netanya-based Ethiopian and Yemenite hip-hop duo Axum, and Ethiopian rapper Jeremy Cool Habash also rate a mention.
The boys admit the Israeli musicians are cool, but there’s no question – they like the African- American rappers the best.
“They sing about racism, about their lives,” says Shlomo. “Their songs are real.”
Although these boys openly admire and are inspired by popular US rappers, they do not blindly emulate their cultural heroes, but use rap to explore issues that move and concern them in their own daily lives. Their music offers a moving insight into the problems these teenagers face within themselves, their families and Israeli society, as well as their interests, their hopes and their dreams.
Yuval, Moshe and Shlomo say that songwriting inspiration comes from just about everywhere.
“We write songs about the neighborhood, about going out, about dancing, about the songs themselves and how we love the music, about our friends and our parents. We write what we feel,” Yuval says.
The boys sit and rap a song called “Ptzatza Lohetet” (“Flaming Bomb”). It’s about the neighborhood, and begins with a sampled section of a man yelling in Amharic.
“Hey, listen, that’s my dad,” Yuval says, grinning.
The boys can’t stop laughing.
“When our dads want to tell us off, they yell in Amharic,” Moshe explains.
As the song continues, the boys’ laughter dies down. They pass the microphone around and sing. Their rap is a dialogue between an Ethiopian father and his teenage son. The man’s disembodied voice rings out from the speakers, yelling in Amharic. He sounds angry, confused.
The boys take turns answering him in Hebrew.
They explain their points of view over and over, but the father can’t answer: he’s just a voice on a tape shouting in Amharic.
And here it is: The Ethiopian generation and culture gap, so much talked about, the topic of so many academic papers, conferences, and social projects, neatly summed up in a rap song written by 15-year-old boys.
In another song, “I Have A Dream,” the Fire Voices boys address the racism and discrimination they feel using words and lyrics inspired by Martin Luther King Jr’s famous speech. The boys ask why they are hated: “Just like the wind, / I can’t find my place / I feel as if nobody cares about me at all / I just want a simple life, / I don’t want too much / So why do they hate me, why do they spit on me?” The boys need no encouragement or reminders to write songs or create music like this. They do it alone, and they are trusted without question with the expensive equipment in the club.
“We all have our own keys to the club, and we come here by ourselves whenever we feel like it,” says Shlomo. “But once a week we all meet together here.”
If the teenagers from Fire Voices are often reflective and poetic, Netanya’s Black Israeli writes songs that are often a musical punch to the gut.
Its song “Get Off The Streets” sets out the bitter consequences of gun crime in Netanya. “A single bullet and your dreams are gone,” raps the teenage singer, warning how easy it is for young people to become trapped in street gangs, and of the disastrous consequences of crime.
“This is no mere tough-guy posing. According to Israeli police statistics, the number of criminal acts involving Ethiopian youth has risen steadily since 1996.
“They lured me in, convinced me it’s the real world / I didn’t even see my own family a meter away...”
Part of the allure of hip-hop is its undeniable cool factor, and the teens themselves express a desire to be part of global black culture.
Yet ultimately, for the young people of Fire Voices and Black Israeli, rap is the best way they have to make sense of the difficulties that surround them. Still more than that, rap has allowed these marginalized teens to reach out beyond the confines of their neighborhoods and connect with a wider Israeli public that has until now largely overlooked them.
BOTH FIRE Voices and Black Israeli share video clips of their songs via websites like YouTube and have given public performances.
Black Israeli was recently invited to Paris to perform for a Jewish community there, and “Change,” a moving Fire Voices rap that deals with the difficulties Ethiopian children face in finding their place in Israeli society, generated public interest when DJ Natan Zahavi played it on his popular radio show.
Israel’s Ethiopian community still faces a long, hard struggle to breach the cultural, social and economic gulf that separates it from mainstream Israeli society. Ethiopian advocacy organization IAEJ believes part of what is needed are projects to actively strengthen Ethiopian culture and bring it closer to the mainstream.
“We need to give kids enough confidence to go out of their communities and mix with Israeli society,” concludes IAEJ Executive Director Ziva Mekonen-Deku.
Through their music, Fire Voices and Black Israeli are demonstrating the desire and determination of many Ethiopian teenagers to speak out beyond the confines of their neighborhoods and tell us their hopes and dreams.
Rap has given these teens a voice. We should listen to what they have to say.
“I have a dream that there won’t be a difference / That we’ll all sit together in the Land of Israel / That we won’t see colors like ‘black’ or ‘white’ / That we’ll be together, and hang out together.”
Song lyrics are from “Local Hip Hop” and “I Have A Dream” by Esh Kolot/ Roshhor, and from “Get Off the Streets” by Black Israeli, translated from the original Hebrew by Joanna Paraszczuk.