Ethiopian hip-hop band entertains, educates young fans

While many of their peers are wiling away their hours playing video games and chatting on MySpace, Eli Ezra and his band are holed up in a recording studio in Kiryat Nordo in Netanya, Israel. There, amid the sound-mixing boards and microphones, they sing about racism, poverty and violence, for what they hope will become their first album.

Ezra, 18, is the lead singer of Café Shachor Hazak, a teenage hip-hop band that has been turning heads in Israel. Since forming in 2006, the group has toured around the country and appeared on “A Star Is Born,” Israel’s version of “American Idol.”

The band is currently touring the United States, and had a stopover for performances in the Bay Area in early May.

All members of Café Shachor Hazak (Strong Black Coffee in English) are Ethiopian Jews either born in Israel or brought there during one of the three airlifts Israel made between 1984 and 1991. Ezra, who was 2 years old when he immigrated with his family, grew up in Netanya and turned to music at an early age.

Spending time at a local community center, Ezra and his friends Moshe, Elak, Uri and Aviram, who today make up the band, started taking classes in music.

There, they learned how not only to write songs, but also to record them on professional studio equipment, much of it donated by Israeli cell phone company Cellcom.

That led to gigs around the country and collaborations with Israeli musicians such as Hadag Nahash and Eli Luzon.

“I hope that our music will be spread all over,” Ezra said in a recent telephone interview.

“We want to pass our message to people who can listen to us and make changes in themselves and the world.”

The promoters hope that Café Shachor Hazak’s Bay Area visit inspires and educates local teens about Israel and breaks down stereotypes about the country’s music and people.

“We want to talk about Israel not as a myth, but as a place that is real and struggling with important issues,” said Ilan Vitemberg, director of the Israel Education Initiative, which helped to sponsor the band’s Bay Area visit.

“We’re facing an uphill battle as Israel runs the risk of becoming less and less relevant to young Jews in the U.S.”

Because members of Café Shachor Hazak are all 17 and 18 years old, they are the perfect cultural ambassadors to carry this message to American youth. Clad in baggy jeans and baseball caps turned backward, they sing about going to school, the mall, fitting in — issues other teens can relate to.

Singing in Hebrew, English and Amharic, an Ethiopian language, the group also tackles adult themes, such as in “A Moment of Quiet,” a song about suicide bombers, poverty and unemployment.

Another is a version of famous Israeli singer Ofra Haza’s “Hand in Hand” that expresses hope for peace and coexistence between Jews and Palestinians.

“They write about issues that are an integral part of their life,” said Yarden Schneider, co-founder of Taste of Israel, another organization behind the band’s Bay Area visit. “They sing about difficulties, but each of their songs encourages hope, love and understanding. Their appeal is that they can see beyond the conflict and stick to their dreams.”

Another topic the group sings about is growing up straddling two cultures. There are more than 90,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, a community that, as a whole, has had a difficult time assimilating into Israeli society. Most adults lacked an education — many were illiterate upon arriving in Israel — and have struggled with learning Hebrew, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. They also have lower incomes than most other immigrants and are more likely to live in impoverished communities where they are segregated from other Israelis.

Despite the problems, the young generation — a whopping 40 percent of Ethiopians in Israel are under 15 years old — is imbued by a sense of hope. Many, like Ezra, have opted to do Nahal, a yearlong community service project, instead of going to the army, and are more prepared for jobs in a modern economy than their parents.

Their Bay Area hosts hope that American audiences will be inspired by the group’s optimism and energy and make more of an effort to connect to their Israeli counterparts.

Says Schneider: “They love their home, and are true leaders in the sense that they have the courage and talent to address difficult issues in order to better their environment in service of their community … And that is a great force.”