On a rainy Friday night, hundreds of Ethiopian youngsters crowd into Allenby club on Tel Aviv’s Hamasger street. The stifling, smoke-filled club is underground, its walls are festooned with Bob Marley posters, but the loudspeakers are blaring hip-hop music. The room is covered with mirrors, and many of the youngsters, some scantily dressed, are dancing in front of them, watching themselves.
“Those dancing in front of the mirrors are wasted, totally drunk,” says Adiv Kumra, 23, of Ashdod. “All week—at boarding schools or the army—they wait for the party at the club. They want to shake it all out and sometimes lose control,” he says.
Kumra arrived a few minutes earlier, dressed in a floral shirt and close-fitting pants. He is waiting at the entrance, watching the dozens of youngsters crowding at the door and begging the Russian guard to let them in. “I told you, Immanuel, I was inside already. Let me back in,” pleads Kumra. Others crowd around him. He tries to touch the security guard’s shoulder. “Come on, you know me. Let me in.”
A few minutes later Kumra manages to worm his way into the club. He is looking for his girlfriend Sigal, whom he met at the club a month ago. “When I was younger I used to go to the club every week, because it was the only place where they let me in. I thought that after doing army service I wouldn’t have a problem getting into clubs, but that’s where I came across the greatest racism of all. The worst humiliation I ever suffered was two years ago, when I went out with army buddies to the TLV club in Tel Aviv. They wouldn’t let me in. My Israeli friends were allowed in and I waited outside three hours. I swore never to go back there,” he says.
Anthropologist Dr. Malka Shabtai examines the club culture of youths of Ethiopian origin in Israel in her book “Between Reggae and Rap—Music and Identity among Ethiopian Youth” published four years ago. In the first in-depth expose of the black subculture Shabtai writes that “the appearance and development of an American-African-Israeli-subculture, and the identification with black music like reggae and rap, serve to shape their identity.”
“The teenagers express their identity with black music styles by partying in night clubs, listening and dancing in different styles. This is the highest form of identity with music, as it combines musical taste, ideology and lifestyle,” she writes.
Shabtai says, “This pattern is not merely the teenagers’ preference, but appears to be the outcome of the encounter between Ethiopian teenagers and black music styles.”
Close to 2 A.M. hundreds of youngsters, mostly Ethiopian, are dancing in the crowded Soweto and Allenby clubs. The girls are wearing daring, tight clothes, some have bright jewelry, and their hair is braided. One girl, dressed all in white, has a gold Star of David at her throat. She dances in front of the mirror, hugging a young boy. The hip-hop music is deafening. “Israelis go to a club to hear Middle Eastern music, with us its black music. Many may not understand the words, but they identify with the message. They know the songs are about racism and violence, and they feel that way,” says Kumra.
Sarit, 23, of Rehovot is standing near the bar. She started going to Ethiopian clubs when she was 16. “I remember the first time. It was on Independence Day, we were a group of girls who ran away from the religious boarding school and we were terribly excited when we got to the club in Ashkelon. At first I was shocked by what I saw, because some of the girls were dressed in a vulgar way. But after the first time I realized I was connecting to the music and the words, and felt I belonged there,” she says.
In a small, dark room behind the bar sits one of the club owners, Ilan Adamka. “Israel is one of the most racist states in the world toward blacks,” he says. “When I was younger, I tried to connect to Israeli music, go to clubs with white friends, but they wouldn’t let me in. Today the Ethiopian youngsters don’t even try to go. They know this is their place, where they can hear the music they identify with,” he says.
Adamka, 30, immigrated to Israel in 1985, and lives in Tel Aviv. “Although I’ve been here 20 years I don’t feel Israeli. My identity is first Jewish and then Ethiopian. I don’t feel I belong here. The culture doesn’t speak to me. I don’t watch Channel 2. I feel connected to the Ethiopian culture, that has existed for thousands of years, rather than the Israeli one,” he says.
Many Ethiopians in their 20s and 30s, who were born in Israel or immigrated at a young age, admit that although they passed the military “melting pot” they still feel different and unwanted in Israelis’ hangouts and prefer to hang out in their own places. For many, going to black clubs is not in defiance or rebellion, as is often portrayed in the Israeli media, but because they are forbidden from going to “Israeli” clubs and not allowed to fit in. However, most of them admit that Ethiopian teenagers today have given up the attempt to belong and go to places for “Ethiopians only.”
“Where can they go?” asks Adamka. They see their older brothers still going to black nightclubs, so what can they do? I tried to fit in and go to Israelis’ places, but did not succeed.” He says Ethiopian youngsters today start going to black music clubs and dress as rappers from a young age, among other things as a result of MTV clubs.
“Today’s young Ethiopians identify with hip-hop and rap. My generation was raised on reggae, like Marley and Buju Banton, The Roots and the messages of brotherhood and love. Today’s youngsters identify with black protest music in the United States. They too feel stuck in the ghetto.”
“The young Ethiopians feel lost in Israeli society. They have served in the IDF and many go to university, yet they cannot integrate. Many stay to work within the community. They cannot manage to get out,” says Shabtai.
“The youngsters see their elder brothers go to the army, try to escape from their neighborhood, but cannot find work. Why should I make the effort, they think, and remain cloistered in their own society. They no longer want to fit in.”