Iron Lion: "Black Music" and African Migrants in Urban Israel

Club Rasta is a tiny place on HaRakevet Street in south Tel Aviv: 20 square foot dance floor, DJ booth, nicely stocked bar, a few tables and chairs.  Small as it is, you can’t miss the entrance; it’s marked by a larger-than-life painting of a crowned lion in front of an Ethiopian flag, and the sounds of heavy bass that spill into the street.  Open on Tuesdays and the weekend, Rasta is the neighborhood bar of choice for Ethiopian Israelis, as well as refugees and labor migrants from across the African continent.  It’s one of a growing number of venues that cater to Tel Aviv’s African and Afro-descendent communities.  Although HaRakevet Street is the historic center of Israeli pop, the place where so-called “beat bands” of the 1960s ignited a musical revolution by playing Hebrew-language rock and roll, you won’t hear any Israeli rock at Club Rasta.  You won’t hear Euro-American dance pop either, despite its seeming omnipresence everywhere else in Tel Aviv.  Rasta is dedicated wholly to what’s called in Israel musikah shachora: black music.  Reggae, dancehall, ragamuffin, hip-hop, R&B, and Ethiopian pop comprise Rasta’s nightly fare, and Rasta’s patrons want nothing else.

“Black music” is a term broad enough to make an ethnomusicologist uncomfortable; it suggests that “blackness” is an essential quality, audible across a diverse array of particular genres.  Yet Rasta’s patrons, and many other Tel Avivis as well, seem at ease with this connotation.  “What kinds of music do you like best?” I asked an Ethiopian friend over vodka-Red Bulls at the Rasta bar.  “Shachora!” she exclaimed at once, and declined any further qualification.  “What do you think of roots reggae?” I asked the Russian-Israeli bouncer at a different venue.  He frowned and said simply, “I don’t like shachora.”  A few years back, when Israel’s primary pop radio station (which also happens to be run by the army) got ready to play a hip-hop or R&B track, a sexy female voice would announce that it was “time for something…  shachorrrrrrr.” 

For more than two decades, “black” aesthetics and musical idioms have been a part of Israeli popular culture, an expression of urban Israel’s cosmopolitan self-conceptions and aspirations towards cultural globalism.  Today, however, these easy ideologies are complicated by heated public debate over the demographic implications of African migration.  As tens of thousands of African residents struggle for full civil inclusion, low-income Israelis who share their neighborhoods protest any diversion of scarce government resources to “the refugees,” and right-wing politicians publicly label Africans a “social cancer.”

Clubs like Rasta are a haven in the middle of the fractured city, a place where Africans and Afro-descendents can escape debate, discourse, and demonstrations.  For Rasta’s patrons, musikah shachora of all kinds is their music, sonically affirming identities and strengthening community alliances.  When Rasta’s speakers blast vintage Tupac or Biggie, young men get up from their chairs and start to top rock, maybe venting the frustrations of a low-wage job, a bad boss, girlfriend trouble.  When Diana King cries out for mercy mercy mercy over a driving dancehall beat, women raise their glasses and wine their hips.  And then it’s Ethiopian pop, the full-throated vocals and martial beat of Teddy Afro’s glorious “Tikur Sew.”  Whether they’re from Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Cote d’Ivoire or Nigeria, the men and women all stand and dance, pumping their fists as Afro sings of Emperor Menelik’s historic victory.

Jamaican émigré Tony Ray is Club Rasta’s owner, and he has a lot to say about the power of black music and the relevance of pan-ethnic black identity.  Tony is a reggae singer who brought roots to Israel in the 1980s, and has been playing shows and running clubs ever since.  He believes that reggae’s positive message is as fresh in Oslo or London as it is in Kingston or Addis Ababa.  Yet in Tel Aviv especially, he says, the people need reggae like medicine.  It’s an emotional antidote for the strain of racial tensions, financial problems, and the constant feeling of being an outsider.  Reggae insists, above all, that African people do belong in the Holy Land.   

In much roots reggae, “Babylon” refers to the world of socio-political oppression, materialism and degeneracy, while “Zion” means heaven-on-earth, a place of spiritual unity and moral perfection.  Zion is Ethiopia, the very birthplace of humanity, yet Tony Ray and the Ethiopian-Israeli reggae artists who have followed his lead believe that reggae music has special resonance in Israel.  That’s why Tony has decorated Rasta’s walls with the Star of David alongside maps of Africa, lions, and dreadlocked silhouettes.  The Rastafaris say that reggae people are the Children of Israel;  accordingly, modern Israel must both protect and respect its African populations.         

In a powerful sense, Tel Aviv is both Babylon and Zion, a city of animosities and hardships, but also a home in the Holy Land for Africans fleeing war and tyranny in their countries of origin.  Club Rasta is a tiny place in the sprawling city, yet it can accommodate big ideas like this.  That’s how musikah shachora functions within Tel Aviv’s multi-ethnic African diaspora; signifying and re-signifying, producing its own novel meanings.  When Tony wants to remind his patrons that they are Amjah – God’s people – he puts on the great man himself, Bob Marley.  Often enough, Marley’s golden voice seems to be calling out from the studios of Kingston to the heart of Tel Aviv, speaking directly to Israel’s African communities:

I’m on the rock

and then I check a stock.

I had to run like a fugitive

to save the life I live.

I’m gonna be iron like a lion

in Zion.

I’m gonna be iron like a lion

in Zion.

Sarah Hankins is a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at Harvard University. She is completing dissertation fieldwork on African and Afro-diasporic musical communities in Tel Aviv, Israel, and also researches queer musical performance. Her articles and book reviews appear in Black Music Research Journal, Popular Music, Anthropos, and City and Society (forthcoming). Hankins is a DJ and dance music producer.

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