(February 24, 2023 / JNS) Miri Ben-Ari began studying violin at age 5. “I grew up in a classical music bubble,” the Israeli-American musician told JNS. “I didn’t know anything except classical music as a child. I was so classically trained that I received my first good violin from Isaac Stern.”
If the 44-year-old Grammy Award-winner could tell her younger self what kind of music she makes and performs today, the latter would not believe it. “I didn’t even know about hip-hop music as a child,” she said.
That’s because Ben-Ari is known as the “hip hop violinist,” having performed with Kanye West, Jay Z, Wynton Marsalis, John Legend and others. She has performed at halftime shows during NBA games and at the annual Chabad-Lubavitch-run National Menorah lighting in Washington, D.C., and at Carnegie Hall and the White House.
Ahead of a Feb. 26 “Symphony of Brotherhood” concert at Wells Cathedral Church in Newark in honor of Black History Month—an event the New Jersey-Israel Commission is co-sponsoring with the pentecostal Church of God in Christ—Ben-Ari told JNS about her musical journey, about winning a Grammy with Kanye West for the song “Jesus Walks” and about what it’s like as a third-generation Holocaust survivor to blend classical violin and Middle Eastern sounds with hip hop, gospel and other forms.
During her army service in Israel, Ber-Ari said she fell in love with jazz, particularly its improvisational nature. If she could improvise, she could do just about anything, she figured, including forging her own style.
She moved to the United States and found that music school did not agree with her. “The best study is on stage,” she told JNS.
Blue Note Records signed her for three jazz albums, and soon, she was attracting the attention of some of the top stars. Marsalis was part of the third. “I really got to play with the best,” she said.
Then she met Haitian musician Wyclef Jean. “He was the one who titled me the ‘hip-hop violinist.’ And I was introduced to the hip hop scene by Jay-Z, by Kanye West, and my career broke on the Apollo stage in early 2000,” she said.
Isaac Stern, who died in 2001—right around when Ben-Ari’s decidedly unclassical career was taking off—did not get to experience her signature musical blend. But Stern’s supported her with a scholarship. “It was very sweet,” said Ben-Ari.
At one point, Ben-Ari was also called “the bad girl of violin,” she told JNS. “But because I’m so classically trained, no one could hate on me and say, ‘Hey. She cannot play, so she’s doing this music.’ No. I learned violin by the best of the best.”
“I practiced all my Paganinis,” she said of the 19th-century Italian violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini. “I came from there. So you couldn’t say I chose hip hop because it was easy, or anything like that. No. It’s really what I wanted to do.”
Ben-Ari’s music is about both producing and performing, so comparing it to playing classical music would be apples and oranges, she said. For Sunday’s event, which will include gospel music with a choir, she is charting new territory even for her.
“I’ve done it with Kanye West, actually. We’ve done concerts where he used a choir. And he loved using choirs,” she said. “But when Kanye used a choir, Kanye was the featured artist. Now I am the featured artist. It’s a whole different approach.”
‘Music has the power to unite’
JNS asked what Ben-Ari made of the criticism that musicians should stay in their own “lanes” and that borrowing from others is “appropriation,” rather than the highest form of flattery.
She responded that this is a bigger problem for vocalists and rappers, not for a purist violinist.
“I’ve heard this in relation to Eminem, for example,” she said. “It’s the opposite because I am bringing the violin and connecting that with another world. So I’m not changing it. I’m playing a very classical violin. And I’m a purist.”
“I never lost my authenticity. I never lost the fact that I’m a classical violinist. I never lost the fact that I grew up in Israel. I never had to deal with any of this criticism. On the contrary, every world that I come to has embraced me,” she said. “I have a career because of the black community. They embraced me first.”
Her identity as both an Israeli and a third-generation Holocaust survivor is very important to her. At 12, she learned of her family’s story during World War II. “My family came from great struggle,” she said. “I had to carry their story my whole life.” (In 2006, she co-founded the Holocaust education nonprofit Gedenk, Yiddish for “remember.”) “When you come from pain, your journey is more meaningful. Your sound is more soulful.”
Since she had brought up so many famous musicians who were colleagues and had mentioned West several times, Ben-Ari was asked about how the rappers—and the one who now goes by “Ye,” in particular—took to her as an Israeli.
“Politics is for politicians, and there are enough of them doing what they’re doing,” she said. “Music has the power to unite. It’s a whole other medium.”
She was reminded that just as music giveth, it taketh away; it can unite and divide. And musicians can be forces of unity or hate.
“I actually had a great experience working with Kanye. I worked with him when his mother was still alive and from what I’m hearing, based on everything that I read, maybe it is a different Kanye,” she said. “I can only say my experience was great. I spent more time in the studio with him than any other artist.”
“I was always treated with the utmost respect. Really, I have nothing but great memories from this journey,” she said. “To read this just makes me very sad because I know a different Kanye. … I just go ‘What happened?’ ”
The performance on Sunday, which will also feature gospel musicians Derrick Starks and Melanie Daniels, is like the religious services at which Ben-Ari performed with West. This event, however, will bring Jewish and black communities together, with the gospel choir salted to sing “Eretz Zavat Halav U’Dvash” (“Land of Flowing Milk and Honey”).
“We’re all going to enjoy music. We’re going to sing. We’re going to rise. We’re going to connect with the power of music,” she said. “Music really takes you to another zone.”
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