The video for “Pray For My City,” a new song by rapper Tidethegoat, looks like it could have been shot outside a housing complex in Chicago or Los Angeles. “Praying for my city,” Tidethegoat sings surrounded by friends. “Trying to get rid of the hate for my city. I just hope it ain’t too late for my city.”
But the video was filmed in the unlikeliest of places – Dimona, a small desert city in southern Israel 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the country’s nuclear reactor and home to the largest organized African-American expat community in the world.
Tidethegoat, also known as Gavriel Smith, is one of roughly 1,500 Black Hebrew Israelites living in a tiny area of Dimona known as Kfar Hashalom, or Kingdom of Peace, or just the Kingdom, as some of its members call it.
Members of the community sought permanent residency status, and in April, roughly 100 undocumented members received a letter from the Interior Ministry ordering them to leave the country within 60 days. For some of them, time runs out this week.
The Population and Immigration Authority did not respond to Haaretz’s queries on the status of the deportations.
The members of the community in Dimona – whose full name is the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem – believe they are the spiritual descendants of the ancient tribe of Judah, and consider Israel their ancestral homeland.
They began immigrating to the country in the 1960s, most of them from Chicago. Today between 2,500 and 3,000 Black Hebrew Israelites live mainly in Dimona as well as in Mitzpeh Ramon and Arad nearby, and in Tiberias in the north and Tel Aviv.
Smith has been writing songs and gracing stages since he was 3. His father is a pianist, his brothers also make music, and his mother, though not a musician, was the family’s “hype man,” Smith says. He and his siblings moved to Israel from Washington when he was 8 after his mother died in 2011.
The violence outside
Smith, who writes and produces his own music, describes his style as “feel-good, turn-up music,” but says he wants to touch on more personal topics like his experience with the world outside the community.
“I want to put out a different picture of Dimona …. When people say Dimona and the kfar [village], they think it’s all peace and love, and it is,” he told Haaretz. “But once you step out of that, that sanctuary, it’s a lot of stuff that comes with it. You step out into a world that has violence and negativity. That’s what I want to speak about.”
Kendrick Lamar famously brought attention to the Hebrew Israelites in his 2017 album “DAMN.” “I’m an Israelite, don’t call me Black no more,” Lamar raps in the song “YAH.” Another track on the album, “FEAR,” includes a recording of Lamar’s cousin, Carl Duckworth, taking about the “true children of Israel.”
Florida-born rapper Kodak Black also references his Hebrew Israelite identity in his 2020 album “Bill Israel,” whose cover features a Star of David and what looks like a rabbi.
Musicians from the community have made inroads in Israel, too, notably rapper Ben Blackwell and singer Ketreyah, who made it to the Israeli finals in the run-up to the Eurovision Song Contest in 2018.
“Music has always been an integral part of our culture, even during the galut, during the dispersion, during the exile, and it was a very, very crucial element in our awakening and return,” says Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, information minister the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem.
“When we were in the West, in the Americas, as enslaved people, we weren’t allowed to read, write, preach or teach. And so we kept alive our oral traditions and our narratives via song,” Ben Yehuda adds.
“So working in the fields we didn’t sing about the River Gambia, the River Volta, the River Niger from where the slave trade picked us. We sang about the River Jordan; we didn’t think about Mali, Songhai or Timbuktu. We thought about Jericho, Jerusalem and Canaan’s land, we thought about this land.”
A form of worship
After arriving in Israel in the mid-‘70s and early ‘80s, a band known as the Soul Messengers began sharing the message of the Black Hebrews through their spiritual fusion of soul and funk. “The Soul Messengers were the signature band that performed all over Israel back when we didn’t have any [legal] status. We used to do free shows for the army,” Ben Yehuda says.
“Several other groups spun off from that,” he says, and younger generations got more and more involved in music.
Ben Yehuda, who himself is a drummer, describes music as a sort of after-school activity in the community. Hip hop struck roots in the Kingdom in the mid-’90s and is now a popular genre among the younger generation. And a handful of musicians in Dimona are pursuing rap more seriously.
“Soul has always been a foundational element of our culture here in Israel,” Ben Yehuda says, adding that music and dance are viewed as a form of worship in the community.
For now, those who received deportation notices are awaiting responses to their appeals.
“We’ve been trying to resolve these people’s cases for two decades, and so now that their roots are well developed, the families are intertwined. Now you want to rip them out?” Ben Yehuda asks.
“We’re not going to lay down and allow it to happen like that. And if it requires civil disobedience on our part of it, we’ll fight. We’ll fight it legally, we’ll fight it politically.”
While Smith declined to give details on his legal status, he says he’s worried about having to face racism and police violence in the United States, and says he wouldn’t want a raise a family there.
“Police kill people over here, but over there, it just happens so much,” Smith says. “It’s like you never know, you know, you get stopped one day and then that’ll be your last day. It’s way worse over there. “America just wasn’t the place for us.”
He sees himself as fully Israeli, and says he wants to serve in the military eventually.
“I don’t think I’m gonna be able to be deported. I don’t see anybody else being deported, because of how much support we have,” Smith says. “I’m Hebrew at the end of the day. That’s how I was raised, that’s who I am, that’s who I’m always gonna be, regardless of where I go or what I do.”
Despite the specter of being deported to an unfamiliar land, Smith is focusing on his music. He says he hopes to grow his Israeli audience first and foremost, and from there expand to Europe and the United States. But music isn’t the only thing on his mind.
“I’m actually talking to a pretty Ethiopian girl, you know, she’s Jewish,” he says. “I got my life here. Yeah, I’m not planning on leaving.”