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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Hot, black Israeli rap duo bubbles over on YouTube


Ethiopian-born Kafe Shahor Hazak rappers grew up in a tough neighborhood, but say their music does not reflect urban distress.

“No garbage cans in the background!” the rappers of Kafe Shahor Hazak (Strong Black Coffee) warn photographer Pavel Wolberg, as they all go out to a Hadera street to shoot some photos for this piece. These two Ethiopian-born musicians, Ilak Sahalu and Uri Alamo, have no problem adopting typical hip-hop poses when Wolberg asks them to, but they refuse to agree with the perception, based on a familiar cliché, that their rap music reflects urban distress and neglect. They did grow up in a Netanya that “wasn’t an easy place,” as they put it, and their texts contain social statements here and there, but the two have since moved on to a better area, in Hadera, and have a different role in mind.
The last time I met Ilak Sahalu was under entirely different circumstances. A little over two years ago I accompanied a group of new Nahal Brigade recruits, from the November 2011 draft, throughout their training period. I was writing a book about the relationship between the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli society ‏(“The New Face of the Israel Defense Forces,” Kinneret Zmora-Bitan; 2013, in Hebrew‏), and Sahalu was commander of one of the platoons.
His photograph, captured in Wohlberg’s sharp lens, even made it to the book jacket in the end. In it he is seen at the ceremony at which the new recruits are awarded berets, giving a friendly pat to the cheek of one of his soldiers, who is a head taller than Sahalu. It’s easy to see what we saw in him: the black commander offering a fatherly gesture to a pale freckled, redhead soldier. How often did one see such a sight in the army 20 years ago? IDF 2013 – not exactly what you thought.
Between the firing range and a platoon exercise in the field, between conversations about the absorption of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel and the IDF training course, the two of us found ourselves returning to a shared obsession: hip-hop. Who is greater, Tupac Shakur or Notorious Big? Is it possible to replicate original American rap in Israel? Sahalu had firm opinions. Nor did he have any doubt about what he would do the moment he took off his uniform: He would return to the career he abandoned when he joined the army, and reestablish the rap ensemble with which he had already enjoyed some success – Kafe Shahor Hazak. The only one from the original five-person ensemble who accepted his offer was his relative, Uri Alamo.
He arrived at basic training in the Nahal Brigade by chance, since he hadn’t even thought about serving as a combat soldier. The platoon sergeant, an amateur DJ before he joined the army, sought Sahalu out and appointed him as his personal signal operator; after some deliberation Sahalu also went on to officers training school. He did the last six months of his service in a home front job, at the headquarters of Central Command in Jerusalem.
Sahalu considers the very fact that he served as a combat officer – still quite a rare phenomenon among Ethiopian immigrants – as a mission, meant to shatter stigmas about that community. “That was one of the considerations,” he says now. “When I walk down the street in Hadera, elderly Ethiopian women say: ‘Good for you.’ I’m not sure they know what a first lieutenant is, but they would see an officer from the community returning home with a rifle, and they’re proud of that.”
Sahalu’s subordinates, however, found it difficult to accept his authority. “Make no mistake,” he once told me during a conversation in the company outpost in Hebron. “When the soldiers in my platoon were imagining who their commander would be, before basic training, you can be certain none of them thought that it would be someone who looks like me. When I came in to give an introductory talk, on the first evening of basic training, the soldiers were surprised. They probably were expecting a platoon commander who looks like …” Sahalu stopped in mid-sentence, but he seemed to be eyeing a blue-eyed platoon commander who was sitting next to him.