Q&A: Miri Ben-Ari
The Grammy Award-winning violinist and producer talks Kanye West, Jay-Z, and serving in the IDF
The first time I saw the classical-hip-hop fusion thing was probably before you came to New York. LL Cool J did this amazing show for MTV Unplugged where he did his album “Mama Said Knock You Out” backed by a 30-piece orchestra with strings, and it was just him, no shirt, 400 people.
I did a tour with LL. But this is very different from what I do. I’m not a part of the orchestra. I’m like the LL. I wanted to be treated like an artist, not like someone who backs someone up. That was the hard part. Because strings in commercial music are being treated as behind the singer.
There has to be a crazy amount of steel in you to push that idea through. That’s a crazy level of focus and purpose.
Absolutely. And craziness too. You have to be crazy.
You’re releasing an album in the fall, and it’s going to be more of a soul R&B album?
It’s an original sound that’s influenced by everything that I know and bring to the table. You already heard two compositions, Symphony of Brotherhood and the 10 Commandments, and it’s commercially very musical. I tell the story with the music, you know, since I don’t use words. Nothing changed since I fell in love with Charlie Parker. I’m about to release a single called “Dim the Lights.” It has this soul feel, like feel-good type of music with a crazy solo violin in the middle. Only in rock do they do stuff like that. And we just shot a music video for that in Israel. If you told me you were there I would have invited you to my set because I just got back.
The way you’re talking about the songs, you’re talking like a producer.
I am the producer, and the only one. I programmed everything, I performed all instruments, and I’m doing some vocals too. A-Z. And it was important for me to produce a song like that because I take pride in a being female producer, and being able to sit in the studio and program and play all the instruments and engineer.
“Dim the Lights,” my single, also features fashion. I produced the music in a fashion show for Zac Posen last year, I performed at Ms. Universe, I did a few shows for Donna Karan, so when I wrote it, I kind of imagined the runway. It’s very feel-good kind of fancy fabulous. But still with a lot of backbone in my solo. And I’m wearing the craziest wardrobe in the video. You have to understand I grew up in Israel wearing jeans and a wife beater. I mean, people wear Crocs to work. Do you see anyone here on the street wearing Crocs?
All the little kids in Brooklyn wear them.
It’s all good, it’s beautiful—because it makes me the down to earth person that I am. A lot of things, like discovering the whole fashion world, were very fresh for me. Like, you know, everything discovering everything in my career was like it was the first time. It was so new. And it was so much fun.
Yes, it’s great to grow up listening to Stevie Wonder. Now imagine what it’s like to listen to Stevie Wonder for the first time when you’re 20 years old, after you know music enough to appreciate it. You’re like “Oh my god, what’s that genius?”
Israelis now have a different relation to American culture than they did 20 years ago. The cultures have come closer together in part because Israel has changed, in part because more people have been going back and forth. And I feel that there is this way in which Israelis are sort of becoming the new Jews in America. They are the people who are coming with the outsider perspective and yet who are able to hear and see things in the culture that people who are in it can’t see or hear. You see Israeli TV shows being picked up and redone as American shows. And you see Israeli technology businesses being very quickly picked up by American companies. You’re a representative of that, too.
You are what people say you are. So it’s good to hear when listening to you, I’m like, OK, being Israeli, that means cool.
If you’re too distant, you can’t see it and feel it. If you’re too close, you’re part of that thing and you don’t have that extra leverage. Jews in America once had that perfect amount of distance to achieve that cultural leverage, but now they’ve become part of the elite. Where an Israeli can not believe in any of the bullshit because I’m not one of them, and yet I understand enough to get them, and what do I have to lose anyway?
One thing I can say is that people always thought it was cool I was from Israel. They know that Israel comes from struggle. It fascinated them that I went through the army, that my people been struggling always. It’s very interesting being an Israeli in America. And you’re right, it’s definitely a different experience than being a Jewish American. I understand racism in a different way. My entire family from my dad’s side, actually both sides, were shot and shoved into a hole. Their murder story is probably one of the worst stories I’ve heard in my life. And you know, I’ve been carrying this. And it took me a very long time to even deal with it. With struggle I guess comes a certain amount of maturity.
That’s been one of the main emotional roots of black music in America, has been coming from struggle, and to be able to feel that immediacy.
This is why I felt I had the, the—I don’t have a better word—right to put out a commercial song featuring the audio and video of Martin Luther King Jr., even though I’m not a black American. Because I understand that struggle, you know?
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