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Tel Aviv’s Karma Police

When an Israeli artist reinvented a Radiohead classic as Arabic music, some cried racism. They missed the point.

Liel Leibovitz
May 17, 2013

Three weeks ago, Rotem Shefy was no different than hundreds of other Tel Avivis her age: talented, hopeful, and thoroughly unknown. Despite having served in the Israel Air Force’s prestigious singing troupe and having graduated from Israel’s top (and only) musical academy, Shefy, 28, settled into a life of small gigs and big dreams. She hadn’t the means to cut an album, but her considerable talent helped her secure a recurring spot in one of the city’s most stylish cafés, and she soon won a small but sizable audience.

For most Israeli artists, this is where the story ends. But thanks to YouTube, Radiohead, and accusations of cultural colonialism, Shefy became an overnight sensation.

While still in school, she was part of an ensemble covering Radiohead’s songs. Before rehearsals, she would sometimes entertain herself by singing “Karma Police,” one of the band’s best-known hits, as if it was a bit of Arabic music. Her friends found it hilarious, and the cross-cultural hybrid remained a favorite inside joke. Earlier this year, however, looking for a new project, Shefy thought back to the song and decided it would be fun to record. She did, in one feverish overnight session, and then decided that if her cover was ever to find an audience, it needed a good music video she could put on the Internet. She started her own month-long Kickstarter campaign, collected $1,800 from her fans, and spent them all on costumes and an old horse-drawn carriage. The concept for the video was simple: Shefy would transform herself into Shefita, a sort of modern-day Arab diva, Umm Kulthum for the Nicki Minaj age. Accompanied by a cello, a darbuka drum, and an oud—the pear-shaped string instrument that is the staple of much of Arabic music—she boarded the carriage and rode around the streets of southern Tel Aviv.

Posted to YouTube late in April, the video has gathered nearly a quarter of a million views to date, qualifying it as a minor viral hit. Not everybody, however, is a fan: Of the scores of fans who commented on the piece, many have claimed that Shefy is guilty of a Mediterranean version of blackface. “The karma police ought to arrest her,” wrote one commenter. “Just hate it when people try to make Arab music,” wrote another, “even more when they are from Israel. If you’re not Arab, make your own culture, don’t try to copy another one!” Another yet suggested that Shefy’s accent was as authentic as store-bought hummus.

In an interview with Ha’aretz, Shefy brushed off all allegations of inappropriate musical appropriation. She was born in the northern city of Karmiel, she said, and each morning would wake up to the sound of the muezzin from the mosque nearby. The cover, she added, “was undertaken with much respect. Also, we live in a space in which such voices are prominent.”

Shefy’s argument, of course, is far from new; in many ways, the story of Israeli music in the last two decades has been about a movement away from Western influences and toward more Middle Eastern sounds. But her song—and the controversy it has generated—suggest that the old binary oppositions are rapidly fading, and that a new stream of Israeli culture, impossible only a decade ago, is now on the rise, courtesy, largely, of the Internet.

To better understand this claim, it might be helpful to think of the history of Israeli music in terms of a few distinct periods. Early on, composers whose family trees and cultural affinities alike were rooted in Russian soil forged anthems about patriotism and lost love and future glory. They were sung in Hebrew, but they would’ve been understood just as easily in Moscow. Then, with three or four wars behind it and its existence more or less guaranteed, Israel allowed itself to open up to the world, which largely meant the West, and from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s produced standard-issue, American-style rock and pop records. Slowly, however, pioneers like Zohar Argov took the Mediterranean-inflected mizrachi music mainstream, and before too long even Israeli hip-hop wasn’t free of the instruments and styling audible everywhere from Istanbul to Alexandria. That this eastward sway was the soundtrack of the Oslo peace process was no coincidence; on the radio and on the ground, Israel was contemplating ending its decades-long isolation and assimilating into its region.

It never did. With the collapse of the talks came a shift in sound, and Israeli music turned more self-centered than ever. Nothing was more symbolic of this shift than the official song of Israel’s 60th anniversary, which united Subliminal, the country’s best-known rapper and a strong advocate of staunch nationalism, with the Gevatron, a legendary choir made up of kibbutz members and dedicated to preserving the classic patriotic songs of the 1940s and 1950s. Openness seemed a vision of the past.

Then came YouTube. In its seven years of existence, the video-sharing website has been responsible for many cultural upheavals, from sparking controversies in the Muslim world to launching the rise of Justin Bieber. But it has also, in some nontrivial sense, liberated Israeli artists, allowing them to correspond with the culture outside their own claustrophobic community. First came Kutiman: Trained by the same music school as Shefy, the Jerusalem-based musician remixed a host of videos he found on YouTube into one grand jam, earning millions of views and a notice in Time’s list of the 50 best inventions of 2009. Others followed, even if not on the same grand scale, turning the site into a two-way cultural valve, allowing influences to stream in from all over the world and showcasing the Israeli productions this new openness has inspired.

Anyone arguing that Shefy’s song is an attempt to purloin Arabic musical traditions is missing the point. Shefy isn’t merely trying to sound like a Lebanese chanteuse, say, or an Egyptian rock star. She is a young Israeli artist applying the all-too-familiar sounds of the Middle East to one of the biggest hits by one of the most revered British bands of the century. Seen from a strictly academic perspective, one can talk about such a melding of influences as a postmodern pastiche. Seen from the streets of southern Tel Aviv, one realizes it is much, much more than that: What Shefy has created is one of the more mature examples of Israeli music in years, a work that is simultaneously particular and universal in refusing to choose between Radiohead and the oud, between dreams of London and days in Tel Aviv. It’s all a young artist could ask for and all a youngish country with a culture still being born could ask for as well.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.