For Israeli Arabs musicians, apolitical is not an option

Dismissed in Israel, rejected abroad, Arab musicians find themselves torn between the passion to succeed, national identity, and their status in the Arab world.

Arab musicians in Israel face a complicated situation. In an increasingly polarized society, they strive to pursue artistic and commercial success as their identity crisis deepens. “Artists in Israel are screwed, so being an Arab artist in Israel is even harder,” said Israeli Arab rapper Sameh “Saz” Zakout.

Hip hop is the main musical genre in which Israeli Arabs have been able to break through. One of the pioneers of Arab Hip hop in Israel the rap Group DAM.

One of the most politically outspoken groups in Israel, DAM’s criticism of Israeli policy has contributed immensely to their popularity in the Arab world, paving the way for other Arab Hip hop artists in Israel.

Zakout, a former member of DAM, speaks about the difficulties of being an Arab artist in Israel.

“Being a Palestinian-Israeli artist is bizarre. There’s something negative about it, because you were born in a country that doesn’t really support your language, which makes you feel unpopular and persecuted. That’s why I can’t be a-political – if I ignored that aspect I’d be lying to my audience. Our whole life is political,” Zakout said.

“The security situation demands artists like us to step up and speak out against the racist legislation appearing here every other day… and yet no Arab artist has come out with a proper protest song in Hebrew to let the Israeli audience know something is wrong,” Zakout said.

According to Zakout, he faces discrimination from record labels in Israel. “I don’t believe in Israeli record labels. I’ve been around for 10 years, I’m well-known even among Israelis, and yet you won’t find any Israeli label willing to sign with me.”

But Zakout, as many other Israeli artists, wants to make it abroad. “I’m thinking about the world and not Israel… my success won’t come from here.”

Contrary to Zakout, electronic artist Charlie Shaabi from the duo ElectrowaveZ says that he hasn’t encountered much discrimination. According to Shaabi, the main problem is that the Arab audience is not ready for electronic music. “They’ve accepted Hip Hop because it’s political and people like politics. But we’re more about the music than about politics.”

Arab musicians in Israel face also problems in the Arab world. Rock musician Bassam Biromi, whose band is comprised of Jewish Israeli musicians, talks about the complicated situation of playing in a mixed band.

“I was invited to perform in Jordan. I said that I wanted to play with my band mates, who are Israeli and Jewish, but I got a negative response. ‘It’s a matter of security,’ they said, ‘get some Arab guys and perform with them.’ But I can’t replace my band, we a real connection on stage,” says Biromi.

Biromi complains about the lack of acceptance in the Arab world. “I have fans in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Egypt. But the problem is I’m Israeli, and therefore unacceptable.”

Nir Gorali

October 17, 2010


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