Israeli pop queen Netta says Eurovision about music, not politics

The Eurovision Song Contest will be hosted for the third time in Israel this May. But as international artists call to boycott the event, 2018 contest winner Netta Barzilai says Eurovision is about participation.

Almost a year after winning the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) in Lisbon, the 26-year-old Israeli singer Netta Barzilai has released her much-anticipated new single, "Bassa Sabada"  — Arabic for "Bummer, that's Awesome."  

After her inimitable, contest-winning performance of the song "Toy" at the 2018 ESC bought her global attention, Netta's latest electro pop anthem has already clocked near four million YouTube hits just days after release.

But with Netta having earned Israel the right to host this year's ESC in May, a political backlash has the potential to overwhelm her own artistic momentum.

Although the finale will be hosted in Tel Aviv instead of the contested city of Jerusalem (where it took place in 1979 and 1999) — as was originally suggest by Israeli officials — that hasn't stopped calls to boycott the contest.

Last September, over 100 international artists signed an open letter requesting that contestants snub the event because of Israel's ongoing military occupation in the Palestinian territories. And just last week, prominent artists and musicians in the UK including Peter Gabriel, writer Yann Martel and actor Julie Christiecalled on British broadcaster BBC to "press for Eurovision to be relocated to a country where crimes against that freedom are not being committed," referring to alleged Palestinian human rights violations.

But amid the controversy as the May contest nears, Netta told DW that she wants to focus on her music instead of talking politics.

Read moreIsrael music scene struggles with international boycott

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Netta Barzilai performs in the final of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest

DW: You've just released a new song – "Bassa Sababa." It's quite different from "Toy," which won you the song contest in Lisbon. Tell us more about it.

Netta Barzilai: Bassa Sababa" is a slang word, taken from Hebrew and Arabic. So "bassa" means bummer, something that bums you out, you say "ah bassa." "Sababa" means like "alright." It means I take the obstacles in my life, the obstacles this year, and I faced it with "sababa," so alright, let's do this. In the video there is a man running away from me at the altar. I was left so many times in my life, being told I am not good enough, not smart enough and all this. And then I look back at him. And I say: "Oh no honey, mmh, and I run after my problems. I face them.

How much did winning the Eurovision Song Contest help your music career?

It's like 180 degrees different from what I was. I was a blues artist, singing in basements and I did my looper stuff at home. I wouldn't have imagined in twelve months to become this. Never. It all happened so fast. I used to work so hard on small stages improvising, and then I went on this reality show just to pay my rent. After Eurovision I became this idol for so many people, of empowerment, of self confidence, of self love, and I said, why me: like why am I the idol, it empowered me so much. [But] it's the other way around: people empowered me."

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You have said in the past that you also get tons of negative comments, mainly on social media.

Uhh. Like: What are you? Who are you? Lose weight! What are you wearing, you have only one song! BDS! [Editor's note: Boycott Divest and Sanction movement, which advocates an economic and cultural boycott of Israel because of its occupation of the Palestinian territories]. A lot of hatred about where I came from, how I look, what I say. It was so difficult facing all these obstacles and it took me eight months to decide what to do about it. And this is what came out.

Critics also say that holding the Eurovision Contest in Israel is whitewashing Israel's occupation of Palestine. There are calls by international artists to stay away from the event because of Israel's violations of Palestinian human rights. What is your response?

I believe in dialogue, I believe in a healthy one. I believe in protest. I don't believe in bullying. Standing on a 26-year-old musician who doesn't have a political agenda is bullying. Come, participate. It's a European thing. It's not from Israel. Israel just participates. When you don't come, when you boycott, you spread darkness.

Read moreShould Germany snub artists who boycott Israel?

Israeli fans express joy after Netta barzilai's song Toy won the 2018 ESC.

"Toy" was seen by many as a song about the #Metoo movement. The new song is more about your personal freedom to choose what is right for you, no matter what others think. Hence the symbolic image of the rhino in your video?

I think Toy was more a campaign song, very "me too," very girl power. This one is a very independent one. I love it, it's a tribal pop anthem. I grew up in Nigeria until the age of seven. I remember Nigerian women carrying me and singing me to sleep. I feel the rhythm in my heart. So when you hear that, you feel this energy. And that is my energy. This song is my song, I wrote it, together with two wonderful men, Stav Berger and Avshalom Ariel. "Toy" wasn't written by me. "Bassa Sababa" is a piece of me. And I am proud to release it.

It's the first time in 20 years that Eurovision will come to Israel. How do you experience the atmosphere here right now?

To realize that everything happened because of us. We went there and we brought it home. It's incredible. We are waiting for this like a birthday party. Every day there is something in the news about Eurovision, everybody is super excited! I believe it is so magical - all these countries on the same stage."

Israel boycott: Who joins and who performs?

Roger Waters, Pink Floyd co-founder

Waters supports the British branch of the "Artists for Palestine" organization and thus the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights and statehood. BDS is asking musicians to cancel concerts in Israel as part of a broader boycott aimed at putting pressure on the Israeli government to end illegal settlements, for example.

Israel boycott: Who joins and who performs?

Kate Tempest, rapper and Artist for Palestine

She supports Artists for Palestine and makes it clear that she is appalled by the actions of the Israeli government against the Palestinians. "After much thought, I joined the cultural boycott as an act of protest," she said. She has rejected accusations of being anti-Semitic and says she is of Jewish decent. As a result of pressure from both sides. she canceled an October concert in Berlin.

Israel boycott: Who joins and who performs?

Elvis Costello: a matter of 'conscience'

For years, well-known bands and musicians have canceled concerts in Israel. They include Carlos Santana, the Pixies and Elvis Costello, who in 2010 explained the reason for his boycott. Writing on his website, he said it's "a matter of instinct and conscience" to protest "conditions that visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians in the name of national security."

Israel boycott: Who joins and who performs?

Depeche Mode stay silent

During their Delta Machine Tour of 2013-14, the English new wave band shared every day of their tour extensively online. But they did not say a word about the gig in Tel Aviv. Were Depeche Mode ashamed about the concert? In mid 2006, the band had canceled a show in Israel for political reasons due to the ongoing Lebanon war.

Israel boycott: Who joins and who performs?

Johnny Rotten: no problems with Israeli

After calling for anarchy in the UK with the Sex Pistols, he uses real name Johnny Lyden with band PiL these days, and was happy to play a concert in Tel Aviv in 2010 after Elvis Costello had announced his Israel boycott. His reasoning: "Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won't understand how anyone can have a problem with how [the Palestinians] are treated."

Israel boycott: Who joins and who performs?

Elton John takes to the stage

Elton John has often performed in Israel but has faced increasing pressure from the BDS movement since it was founded in 2005. The petitioning hasn't worked, with the Rocket Man playing sold-out Tel Aviv shows in 2016 and 2010, when he greeted fans with the words: "Shalom! We're spreading peace and love on this stage and we're happy to be here."

Israel boycott: Who joins and who performs?

An 'extremely upsetting experience' for Radiohead

Radiohead were also under massive pressure in July 2017 before their gig in Israel. But singer Thom Yorke spoke of his decision to reject a petition signed by Desmond Tutu, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and others asking Radiohead not to play: "There's an awful lot of people who don't agree with the BDS movement, including us. I don't agree with the cultural ban at all," he told Rolling Stone.

Israel boycott: Who joins and who performs?

Michael Stipe encourages dialogue

The R.E.M. singer spoke out publicly during the intensifying debate around the Radiohead's looming appearance in Israel — its first since 2000. "I stand with Radiohead and their decision to perform. Let’s hope a dialogue continues, helping to bring the occupation to an end and lead to a peaceful solution." R.E.M. and Radiohead toured Israel together in 1995.

Israel boycott: Who joins and who performs?

Nick Cave: stands against 'censorship'

The Facebook page "Nick Cave, Hold On to Yourself - Don't Play Apartheid" was set up as part of the Artists for Palestine campaign to encourage Cave to cancel his November 2017 concert in Tel Aviv. But he still played, saying: "[It] became very important to make a stand against those people who are trying to shut down musicians, to bully musicians, to censor musicians, and to silence musicians."

Israel boycott: Who joins and who performs?

'Bryan, tell the world again that you do not support apartheid'

BDS is currently petitioning musician Bryan Adams to "unplug from Israeli apartheid" and cancel scheduled December concerts in Israel. Adams once said that the war in Gaza was a war against humanity. In addition, he canceled his Mississippi tour in 2016 in protest against the homophobic laws there. But Adams hasn't listened to BDS and instead will perform an additional concert in Jaffa.

Israel boycott: Who joins and who performs?

Boney M in Palestine

Concerts in Israel can go on without indignation and protest. In 2010, the German disco pop group Boney M performed in the Palestinian West Bank city of Ramallah, where many Israelis were in the audience. However, they were requested not to sing their biggest hit "Rivers of Babylon," as one line is the biblical yearning for the Land of Zion. The musicians accepted the censorship without complaint.

Israel boycott: Who joins and who performs?

Lorde scraps tour finale in Tel Aviv

The Croatian-New Zealand performer Lorde originally planned to end her "Melodrama" 2018 tour in Tel Aviv, but reversed this decision on the urging of her fans. In a statement, she said visiting Tel Aviv has long been a dream of hers, and that she hoped one day "we can all dance."

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