If you live in Kiryat Gat, the small southern Israeli city, chances are you know of Bazzi B. Anywhere he goes, a fan turns up, just like when Bazzi B walked into a gas station kiosk in the city last week, for some beer and a snack. “Hey, Bazzi! When’s a new song coming out?” asked the enthusiastic salesman behind the counter and high fived.
Bazzi’s band, KGC, which stands for "Kiryat Gat City," broke up in 2018. But Bazzi reassured the fervid follower that a new single would be coming out the very next day.
There hasn’t been such a buzz in Kiryat Gat since the emergence of Ninet Tayeb, the singer-actress dubbed "Israel's Sweetheart," who became a national sensatinon after she won the first Israeli version of "American Idol."
I met the musician at a hilltop in town. “Fresh air, a view of the city, what more do you need?” he asked. His pride in his hometown is evident in the name he chose for his (defunct) band, and in the song he released last month: “Periferia" (Periphery), referring to the city’s location outside central Israel. It racked up more than 203,000 views on YouTube and became one of the platform’s trending songs.
Bazzi seems as hyperactive as his name implies (that's how Israelis pronounce “buzzy”). Every few minutes he breaks into song; he also tends to speak in quotes, taken from everywhere from the Bible to Disney.
The pendant he wears, a gift from his mother, shows a map of Ethiopia with his name engraved on it. He tends to speak of himself in the third person and to close a topic with a cutting punchline when he doesn’t like the direction the conversation is taking. He earns his living mainly from performances and temporary jobs, and is slated to release his first album, “Tatka” (Amharic for “primed”) soon. The music and lyrics are his.
Moshe Tatka Tasma, 30, was born in Safed but the family moved to Kiryat Gat when he was a year old. He has two older sisters. His parents came from Gondar, Ethiopia where his father served as a mayor for 15 years, and sat in jail as a Prisoner of Zion, Bazzi says. “He had the power to forge visas to get Jews to Israel,” he said, but declined to elaborate, “for personal reasons.”
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Bazzi’s musical talent first emerged in the framework of his bar-mitzvah. He skipped his lessons with the rabbi and when he was called to the Torah, found himself performing freestyle, right there in front of his family. “That’s the day they said on high, ‘Give him music: it’s his,’” he says.
His model for emulation was Tupac Shakur, from the do-rag on his head, the portrait on his shirt, his cadence and the way he sings lyrics, with the accent on the words’ first syllables.
A few of his friends, some of whom are partners in his creative work, joined us during the interview. They share a goal: for Bazzi to break through to the Israeli mainstream with his new album, after more than a decade of activity on the hip-hop scene.
“We’re all one big family. It goes beyond business. It’s about values, honor, principles, respect. That’s a greater virtue,” Bazzi says. “I see myself as people’s voice, and because of that, they back me up,” he added. “They know we’re part of the same struggle, marching together.”
Hit with a stun grenade
The struggle in question is that of Ethiopian Israelis against racism and specifically, against police brutality, which triggered a wave of protests in 2019. Bazzi says he went to all of them, was tear-gassed, and hit in the back with a stun grenade.
He recalled “women lying on the ground, cops surrounding them. I think that says everything. I have 1,001 reasons to flee this place, and 1,001 reasons why I don’t.”
The protests did chalk up one significant achievement, in his view. “In the past, if the police visited, the parents would blame the child. Today, the parents realize that the policeman is the enemy. It’s sad, but that’s the only change. And it’s significant, even though that isn’t the outcome we really need. The police are supposed to protect us. I’m supposed to see a policeman and feel safe. But that’s not how I feel. Entire neighborhoods say this. But in Ramat Aviv Gimmel and Neot Afeka, this sounds bizarre,” he added, referred to two upscale neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.
Over the years, Bazzi has encountered the police a number of times. He counts at least 15 arrests in which he was detained for 24 hours or less and then released due to reasonable doubt. He also served two prison terms of a few months each.
In one case he was convicted of threatening a police officer in Kiryat Gat who had arrested him and a friend on charges of abetting an attempted car theft.
His most recent encounter with the law was in April. He was arrested on suspicion of attempting to murder the head of a rival criminal gang, the “Caucasian gang”, which allegedly competes with the “Ethiopian gang.” Other suspects were indicted about a month ago, but Bazzi was released and the case against him was closed.
In 2016, the Palmor Report was released. It stated that Ethiopian Israelis accounted for a significantly higher proportion of criminal cases and indictments than their proportion in the population. Both minors and adults are often arrested for petty offenses, it continued, but being jailed sets them on the path to more serious crime.
“I won’t say I’m a saint, but many times, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and wound up bars without having done anything wrong,” he says.
“We did nonsense that we’re not proud of. People say I was unlucky. What does that mean? I need to think twice before I leave the house to buy cigarettes. It makes me think I don’t need to be criminal for them to arrest me. It’s sad, but we’ve learned to live with this.”
Asked if the reference to “things he’s not proud of” refers to his latest arrest, he elaborates: “I was referring to my personal and artistic journey through life, not to any specific incident. Sometimes we make good decisions and sometimes not so good ones, but that’s how we learn. It’s important to learn and always to strive to move forward.”
Asked what exactly happened in that case, he replies, “It’s no secret that my community suffers from over-policing, and so do I. The police have tried to pin cases on me more than once or twice. As to the case that was reported recently, it was proven that I wasn’t involved in it, but they nevertheless chose to say I was released due to ‘lack of evidence.’ That says it all – they want to pin a headline on me and smear me. But I’ll continue to fight for my community. For the sake of the young people who have fallen victim to the police and continue to suffer from over-policing even in 2021.”
He is confident that everyone in Kiryat Gat knows him, yet the radio stations not so much — which is “insane,” in his view. Nor does he hold much hope that the treatment of the community might change under the new government: “I don’t trust anyone. I believe only in the Creator. I’m not pinning my hopes on any politician.”
In his 2019 song “It’s Time,” Bazzi demonstrates hip hop’s power to describe social injustice. The song opens with a list of Ethiopian-Israeli victims of police violence. With each name that he tosses into the air, his listeners learn how widespread and destructive this problem is. In this song, Bazzi emulates the Black Lives Matter movement, which shouts out victims’ names at its demonstrations to memorialize them and put faces on the struggle.
Some cases of alleged police abuse are well known in mainstream Israel, such as Yosef Salamsa and Solomon Teka. There are also less well-known stories, like that of Aharon Makonnen, who was shot by the police in Ashkelon at age 21.
But the government’s allegedly racist policies against the Ethiopian-Israeli community don’t end with over-policing and arrests. “They gave our women shots to prevent them from having children, but despite them, we continue to multiply,” the song says. “They sent inexperienced circumcisers to circumcise us, but our dick is still bigger than theirs.” And then it says, “A system that doesn’t see any value in me will fall like Goliath before King David.”
“It’s Time” is one of Bazzi’s most successful songs, with over a million views on YouTube. KGC’s music is also very popular on this platform; the 2015 song “Sweet to Bitter,” which is fronted by Avior Malasa, has racked up over five million views.
Yet Bazzi hasn’t reached the narrow circle of successful Israeli rappers. Artists like Tuna, Shekel, Ravid Plotnik (aka Nechi Nech) and Static have become familiar household names in recent years as hip hop has gone mainstream. Bazzi has remained largely unknown outside Kiryat Gat. This may stem partly from the musical gap: the others draw inspiration from modern hip hop, but Bazzi prefers to remain old school, loyal to the hip hop sound of the 1990s. Amit Sagie’s musical production of “It’s Me Again,” for instance, recalls the world of soul as revived by Alicia Keys and the melodic rap of Lauryn Hill. It’s nostalgic without getting stuck in the past.
It might also stem from a difference in ethos. Tuna and Plotnick tell personal stories. Bazzi sticks to the political protest style of hip hop pioneers such as NWA (an abbreviation for “Niggaz Wit Attitudes”), Public Enemy, and, of course, Tupac Shakur.
Haaretz’s hip hop critic Amos Harel, an admirer of the American rapper, once explained what he called Shakur’s “magical power to attract.” When he interviewed Shakur, he wrote, the singer’s mother Afeni Shakur was on trial for aiding the Black Panthers. In other words, he was the son of a heroine of the Black protest and the battle for equality. “Tupac isn’t just a star, but a social and cultural icon,” Harel wrote. “He... was arrested, jailed, tried and released, quarreled, got interviewed and was ultimately murdered [at age 25]. He played in films, he looked like a movie star, and he described life in the ghetto. You don’t have to be from the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles of the 1990s to identify with him. You can also be from Kiryat Gat or Netanya.”
Asked about the hip hop stars in the local scene, Bazzi isn’t thrilled about answering. It’s a small community and despite having been on the scene for a while, he hasn’t collaborated with any of its prominent members. “I don’t follow them so much,” he said. “I’m not belittling them, but I don’t connect with them so much. Some of them have contacted me. I didn’t rule it out, but I said I’m busy with lifting the boat known as Bazzi B. I don’t need anyone. I’m in favor of collaboration, but first of all, I want to plant my stake.”
Nor does he cooperate much with the media. “Every time there’s a protest, the major outlets invite me,” he said. “They’ve never invited me when I put out singles, only when a cop attacks a young Ethiopian-Israeli man. I turned down Channel 2 news and [the newspaper] Yedioth Ahronoth. They think that without this, nobody would know about me, and they’re wrong.”
'More kosher than Badatz'
An hour into our meeting, Bazzi is already restless. Another friend has joined us on the hill and we proceed to the living room of “the Captain” of Kiryat Gat, who owns a studio where he recorded his album, to listen to it together. Bazzi’s crew had refused to send me the album in advance of its release, lest it leak.
Three of his friends are there. They know every note and every word. His authority is very evident. When interrupted, he chides: “Is this how you were taught, bros?”
He performs for youth in residential schools and rehab facilities, sometimes gratis. “I’m crazy about teens,” he said. “The next generation has to be more than we are. The next time Haaretz comes to Kiryat Gat, it will be for these teens.”
Again and again he reverts to his expectation that his music will be able to reach the young and influence them. “Hip hop has lost something because it isn’t given a platform,” he said. “I have a line in one of my songs – ‘More kosher than Badatz, and fuck it if I’m not heard on Galgalatz,’ he added, referring to the ultra-Orthodox kashrut authority and army radio station, respectively. “What I have to transmit to the younger generation I’ll transmit; fuck me if I’m not heard on the radio.”
Does he feel like an underdog? “Word! Yes. But an underdog who can’t be ignored for long. It makes no difference what song I come out with, how big a hit it will be. If you take my song and turn it into Mediterranean style, there would be mass confusion. If it was another genre, if the performer wasn’t Bazzi, I would have gotten more stage time. But Bazzi is an underdog, he goes against the system. If I didn’t represent this place, there would be no one to represent it. I could easily have gone mainstream, but that’s not the way I want to go. I don’t believe you can erect a glass ceiling for someone like me. But I wouldn’t lie and say it isn’t there. You can see it on the really big stages. I usually feel like I’m the enemy,” he added. “They prefer to deny me. I think they’re afraid of me. Even if the music were to be a breakout hit and rise to the top of the top, it will be because they had no choice.”