In a couple of short verses, the Ethiopian Israeli hip-hop artist Kalkidan Mashasha mentions Bob Marley, Maimonides, and René Descartes in quick succession. Like the painter Kehinde Wiley—whose portrait of the performer is currently on view at The Jewish Museum—Kalkidan’s artistic process embraces hybrid cultures and a remix of past and present. His music confronts his country’s political struggles and his raps are sometimes deemed too controversial for mainstream Israeli radio, yet they also express the vibrant diversity of modern-day Israel.
The day before his New York debut, in a concert at The Jewish Museum, Kalkidan enters the museum carrying two books: a compilation of the writings of the eighteenth-century Hasidic philosopher Nachman of Breslov and a notebook brimming with scrawled fragments of Hebrew text. Kalkidan often interweaves biblical allusions and snippets of liturgy with his personal experiences to create his syncopated, multilayered poetry.
In Wiley’s portrait of Kalkidan, the young musician faces the viewer confidently, wearing an army-style uniform. Wiley paints him in a meticulously realist style, placing him against a flat, ornately decorative background inspired by a late nineteenth-century Viennese papercut. At points, its flowers break free of their context to twine over his body, symbolically muddling the modern African and older European Jewish visual traditions to which he is heir.
Wiley’s paintings are often described in hip-hop terms, as mashups and remixes, because they celebrate the blending of many histories and traditions that creates a single black identity. They trace the way that discrete cultural categories—race, religion, nationality—combine in a conversation about human heritage and personal empowerment.
As he enters the museum’s auditorium for a rehearsal, Kalkidan takes a moment to meditate on his own portrait, and those of his friends nearby: other young Ethiopian Israeli men. Like Kalkidan, they come from families who immigrated to Israel during a period of strife in the Horn of Africa. He knows the paintings well, not only because he performed in Los Angeles, where some of them were first displayed, but because many of his friends use them as their Facebook profile pictures.
For Wiley’s subjects, the portraits are a source of pride, a statement of their presence in the world and a reminder of the importance of the Ethiopian Israeli community in that small nation. Like so many diasporic populations, Ethiopians in Israel have faced frustrations and discrimination as they integrate into Israeli society.
When Kalkidan begins rapping, I hear all the reasons he’s not played on Israeli radio: the searing critique of the Israeli Health Ministry for destroying donated Ethiopian blood in an infamous 2006 incident, the rebuke to the police for brutality against people of color. The lyrics that, for me, resonate most strongly are both defiant and optimistic:
You won’t be taking anything with you, you are flesh and blood
From ashes to ashes in a circle, completeness is the reality, I’m looking for meaning
It’s not a mistake, I write therefore I am
And I believe in love because we are a product of love
I pray for peace but am ready for war
I look for myself, for myself and for the dream
It will come true, and I’m staying awake until it does
And I’m still breathing
And I’m still writing
And if it’s a crime then I’m guilty
– Levi Prombaum, Curatorial Intern
Related Exhibition: Kehinde Wiley / The World Stage: Israel
Image Credits: Willie Davis, Kalkidan Mashasha performing at the Wind Up with DJ Spooky, The Jewish Museum, March 8, 2012. / Kehinde Wiley, Kalkidan Mashasha, 2011 The World Stage: Israel, oil and gold enamel on canvas
© Kehinde Wiley; Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.