Black Coffee Has Positive Effect

by Loolwa Khazzoom • August 26, 2012 • Jewish Multicultural Corner

This article was first published in The Jewish Independent, on December 21, 2007.

Black Coffee Has Positive Effect
U.S. visit of Israeli/Ethiopian hip-hop band sparks debate about racial discrimination.

Amir Yarchi, community shaliach (representative) for the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, Ohio, is frustrated by events that promote “Israeli music,” only to feature klezmer bands. “Klezmer is not Israeli music,” he said adamantly. “The discourse about Israel needs to evolve…. Israel is multi-dimensional – so much more than klezmer and falafel.” That’s why, along with the Jewish Agency for Israel and Eli Levi Productions, Yarchi invited Strong Black Coffee – an Ethiopian-Israeli hip-hop group from Netanya – to perform at several Cincinnati venues at the end of November. Additional federations soon jumped on board, and the band played shows throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The most moving performance, recalled Yarchi, was the one at the Freedom Centre, a museum chronicling historical and contemporary fights against slavery. A group of 150 African-American youth from the inner city attended that show. Many had never come face-to-face with a Jew before and they were excited to meet Israelis who looked and sounded like them, with a Hebrew twist.

“It was the most amazing encounter I witnessed in my life,” said Yarchi. “The kids loved the music and were so curious about the band members, asking all kinds of questions about their lives.”

As the rappers performed, song translations flashed on a screen behind them. The audience could relate to the universal, positive messages for youth, such as the assertion that no matter what kind of chaos is in one’s life, it’s imperative to abstain from violence, drug use and drunk driving. The audience also got a taste of uniquely Israeli struggles, through songs about coping with suicide bombings and losing a brother to clashes in Gaza.

Band members were pleased with the enthusiastic response they received throughout the tour, a response confirming they had reached the hearts and minds of American youth. “We strive to change people through the celebration of music,” said Eli Ezra, 18, one of the group’s rappers and songwriters.

Ezra and his band mates work to accomplish this goal not only by performing publicly but also by volunteering in the local matnas (neighborhood centre) in Netanya, where band members grew up. They teach youth how to write, rap and record original music, using the centre’s state-of-the-art recording studio – a gift from Cellcom, Israel’s leading cellphone company.

Cellcom recently began donating recording studios to the matnasim of impoverished areas throughout Israel. Since the Netanya matnas was reportedly the most active in the country, it was the first to receive this gift. Today, the recording studio provides local children with a creative outlet, an alternative to drugs and crime, and even the opportunity to become famous.

Not long after recording their own songs in the matnas studio, and little more than a year after forming their band, Strong Black Coffee attracted the attention of A Star is Born, Israel’s equivalent of American Idol. The group was soon featured on the show, as guest musicians, and proved to be a hit – they were brought back again. Not only did Yarchi then invite the group to perform in Cincinnati, but Hadag Nahash, Israel’s superstar hip-hop band, proposed that the two groups work together on some music.

“I hope other youth can see us as an example,” Ezra mused, reflecting on the success of his musical act. “I hope they feel inspired to look within themselves and manifest their own potential.”

Yarden Schneider – co-founder of Taste of Israel, a new project bringing contemporary Israeli culture to the world stage, and a co-sponsor of Strong Black Coffee’s American tour – sees the band as a role model for Israeli youth. “They have a socially conscious message and give back to their community,” she said. “I hope to see more groups like them….

We need to give the microphone to immigrants and their children, to let them talk instead of silencing them. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish through Taste of Israel.”

Ironically, at the end of November, during the first week that Strong Black Coffee toured the United States and represented the state of Israel, a case of blatant racial segregation was exposed in Petah Tikva, a suburb of Tel-Aviv: four girls of Ethiopian heritage, the only students of their ethnicity in the school, had been put in one classroom, separate from the rest of the children. Two weeks after learning of this incident, the Ministry of Education formally ordered the school to put the four girls into classes with the rest of the children. “If we hear about segregation, we respond to it immediately,” said Michal Tsedokin, media liaison for the Ministry of Education in Israel, emphasizing that segregation flies in the face of Israeli law.

By the time the ministry made its ruling, however, the parents had pulled their four daughters from the school, with no interest in sending them back. “The state needs to shut that school down,” asserted Adam Baruch, a diversity consultant and Ethiopian-Israeli activist, who maintains that the government’s response was inadequate. The national government, he said, needs to send a very clear message to its society: not accepting Ethiopians is intolerable.

The incident in Petah Tikva, Baruch continued, was just one of several that recently have come to light. Together, they have had a horrible effect on the Ethiopian community throughout Israel: “Every Ethiopian child who hears this kind of news feels deeply wounded. He asks himself, ‘Exactly what society am I living in?’ It’s emotionally and spiritually damaging to grow up with the feeling that your peers want to kick you out of your own country,” said Baruch.

When asked about the incident, Ezra shrugged it off as unfortunate but not representative of mainstream Israel. “Mostly things have changed, but there are still people who are racist,” he said. “It’s sad to hear that there are still these cases.”

The experience an Ethiopian-Israeli has, Ezra continued, depends on where the individual lives. “There are some places where people will look at you a certain way,” he explained, “but I didn’t have that experience – with the exception of one or two times, when someone shouted kushi [roughly the equivalent of nigger] at me.

“How someone treats you comes down to personality,” Ezra concluded, “along with how well-educated that person is and how he was raised – open- or closed-minded.”

Baruch disagreed, asserting that many people in the community just don’t want to deal with how bad the situation is. Throughout Israel, he said, Ethiopians are cloistered in the equivalent of inner-city ghettos, where they are victim to racism, poverty, violence and, ultimately, despair. “Educated people like me, with a master’s or doctorate, struggle with finding work. We’ll apply for jobs and, when the employer hears our voices over the phone, there’s no problem, but when we turn up for the interviews with our black skin, suddenly the jobs are no longer available.”

This reality, he continued, sends Ethiopian-Israelis the message that there’s no point in pursuing higher education or following one’s dreams. “Parents with this kind of experience don’t see any reason for their kids to study,” he said.

It’s the same situation that faced Mizrahim (Jews of eastern descent) in the 1950s, said Hezi Hakak, media liaison for the city of Petah Tikva and an Iraqi-Israeli. He feels that the country is repeating mistakes from that time, as if it has learned nothing in the past 50 years. “My parents said [the recent incident with the school] was exactly what they went through,” he explained.

The Minister of Education expressed shock and outrage over the recent segregation, Hakak continued, but the incident could not have been a surprise, considering ongoing racism towards Ethiopians and repeated incidents of this nature.

Whereas the state government demanded that the four girls in question be allowed to integrate fully into the school, the municipality of Petah Tikva rescinded

city funding for the institution. “Maybe the uproar over this case will cause the country to finally change its outlook,” Hakak said hopefully. At the very least, he added, the incident has motivated the municipality of Petah Tikva to officially “join the battle that the Ethiopians are fighting.” The city is now seeking to extend its influence to the national level, pushing three reforms:

1. As it stands, Ethiopian immigrants are given $80,000 to buy a home for their families – meaning they only can afford to live in the worst areas of any given town, in a ghetto of Ethiopian immigrants. The proposal is to increase that sum to $120,000, enabling the immigrants to live in integrated areas.

2. The children of Ethiopian immigrants are forced to go to religious schools, because the state questions whether they are “really” Jewish. In contrast, this demand is not in place for Russian immigrants, many of whom are confirmed non-Jews. The proposal is to allow Ethiopian immigrants to attend whatever schools they want.

3. For families already stuck in Ethiopian ghettos, the proposal is to bus the children to integrated neighborhoods, so that they can study in integrated schools.

Ultimately, Baruch said, the solution is to recognize the pool of talented and promising individuals in the Ethiopian community, ensuring that they are given equal access to resources and opportunities. Considering the success of Strong Black Coffee, following simple access to a recording studio, Baruch’s vision rings true.

Dialogue around these issues is “not comfortable,” said Yarchi, but it leads to a meaningful discussion of Israel today. It’s one of the reasons he was so excited to bring Strong Black Coffee to America. “I see the beautiful parts of Israel and I’m not ashamed to face our problems,” agreed Avi Kagan, community shaliach for the Jewish Federation of Columbus, Ohio. “The manager of the school in Petah Tikva is an idiot. But that doesn’t define what’s going on elsewhere in Israel. It just shows that we have work to do.”

Loolwa Kazzoom has published internationally in such outlets as the Washington Post, BBC News, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire. She is also the editor of The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage.

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Loolwa KhazzoomLoolwa Khazzoom has worked with leading media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. In addition, she has published two books and has lectured at prestigious venues including Barnard Center for Research on Women, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Harvard University. Loolwa is passionate about health, music, dance, multiculturalism, and Judaism.

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