Ethiopian Israeli musicians use stage to promote struggles

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Photo: Sebastian Scheiner / Associated Press

By Shahar Golan

JERUSALEM — In his song “Handcuffed,” rapper Teddy Neguse addresses police brutality against young Israeli men of Ethiopian descent.

Although the song came out in 2017, it has reached new heights in the wake of street protests across the country following the killing of an Ethiopian Israeli teen by an off-duty police officer last month. This week the 23-year-old artist was invited to perform his song live on the popular news website Ynet.

Neguse said the lyrics are relevant all the time, but they carry extra meaning for him in the current circumstances.

Neguse’s appearance on Ynet illustrates the growing Ethiopian Israeli presence in the local music scene. But its theme also reflects the ongoing struggles against alleged racism and discrimination, some three decades after Ethiopian Jews began arriving in Israel.

They want me trapped with handcuffs on my hands/ they watch me with ten thousand eyes/ they only see my skin color so they push me to the fringe,” he rapped.

Neguse said the lyrics are relevant all the time, but they carry extra meaning for him in the current circumstances.

Neguse’s appearance on Ynet illustrates the growing Ethiopian Israeli presence in the local music scene. But its theme also reflects the ongoing struggles against alleged racism and discrimination, some three decades after Ethiopian Jews began arriving in Israel.

Neguse and other young Ethiopian artists are using the stage to tell the public about their community’s experiences — in particular what they say is unchecked and widespread police brutality.

Large numbers of Ethiopian Jews began arriving in Israel via secret airlifts in the 1980s. The new arrivals from a rural, developing African country struggled to find their footing in an increasingly high-tech Israel.

Today, Israel’s Ethiopian community numbers about 150,000 people, some 2% of its 9 million citizens. While some Israelis of Ethiopian descent have made gains in areas like the military, the police force and politics, the community continues to struggle with a lack of opportunity and high poverty rate.

Yael Mentesnot, 26, another up-and-coming Ethiopian Israeli musician, said that in the past, the community has been “restrained” and “we end up coming off a bit naive.”

This time, “the community has begun to really feel the despair,” she said.

Shahar Golan is an Associated Press writer.