The Antagonism And Optimism Of Israeli Pop Agitator Noga Erez

Shai Franco

The Antagonism And Optimism Of Israeli Pop Agitator Noga Erez

Shai Franco

The Tel Aviv singer and rapper on her exciting new album KIDS, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and more

Noga Erez has always been angry. She describes her childhood self as “extremely wild and curious,” known for her bad temper and disobedient nature. Over a grainy video call in February, she offers potent remnants of that fierce and incorrigible kid. Seated on the floor of her living room, her green-eyed gaze is characteristically steely, her voice gravelly, and her delivery unflinchingly clear—but she softens while reflecting on how those “common outbursts” of anger have changed her, and her music. While her 2017 debut Off The Radar was charged with much of that rage, her impressive sophomore album, KIDS, is a pop-oriented homage to the parents that raised her through childhood tantrums, who helped her transform her frenetic energy into something creative, and to parents everywhere who “shape the future” we live in.

Growing up in the suburbs of Tel Aviv, Erez was encouraged to try movement as a cathartic outlet for her unruly emotions, reasoning that creative expression could be a powerful anger management technique. She started with dance lessons, then transitioned to piano lessons, which led to joining punk bands and indie collectives. Erez was conscripted for a mandatory stint in the IDF’s entertainment group before she ultimately arrived at electronic music in college. Through electronic production, she learned composition and self-reliance. “The computer became my answer to independence,” she explains, and fundamentally transformed the way she could create.

Her comfort with electronic music has given her a unique sound, leaning heavily on gritty digital instrumentation and unexpected hooks, which make for unnervingly dark pop music. Today, her independent and eponymous project is mostly collaborative, giving way to a rich creative partnership with her longtime life partner Ori Rousso (producing under his own mononym ROUSSO). Rousso jokes good-naturedly that he “works at Noga Erez”; in addition to helping produce both albums, he’s featured as a solo artist on tracks such as “VIEWS.” Their relationship is the basis for “Story,” a new single from KIDS out today, billed as “a song about a couple fighting and how, in that situation, sometimes what you hear the other person say, is not what they actually said.”

If Noga Erez is a duo, Erez herself is the face of it. In her music videos, she performs alone, interrupting dystopian scenes of people falling from abandoned Soviet buildings with the same expressionless face on her album cover, or singing at the camera lit only by her own headlamp, disorienting and mesmerizing the viewer in what resembles an interrogation room. In one video for her new project, she walks on a treadmill with a labored and uneven gait, on display for a crowd of illegible faces surrounding her. In another, she is thrown around by a malevolent, autonomous robot, occasionally looking to the camera with an unreadable look, both of which convey an uneasy tension between the powerlessness of her situation and the resolute power in her expression. This tension between playful sounds and unsettling intention is an essential quality of her work; she enthralls and unnerves her listeners all at once.

Off The Radar, her debut, displays this nonconformist sensibility in confrontational and experimental force. Shaped by idiosyncratic melodies, distorted synth refrains, unexpected percussive rhythms, and gritty electronic manipulation, it’s an inspired survey of her emerging style. Much of this early work features the sparse ambient structure of electronic musicians she was inspired by, combined with exploratory melodies and percussion. On tracks like “Pity” and “Off The Radar,” Erez employs bold electronic overlay, discordant synths, and her own breathy refrains to build explosive arcs of sound. Others like “Global Fear” and “Worth None” are softer, amorphous tracks, reminiscent of Radiohead’s The King Of Limbs, full of spacey synthesizers over frenetic, snare-driven rhythms. Throughout, the album is shaped by her confident sing-speak delivery (often likened to MIA’s now-iconic style) and her dystopian lyrics hinting at despair, fury, and a sense of ever-impending conflict. Exemplified on the second track, she pushes the boundaries of her fellow citizens’ cognitive dissonance and, taking account of her country’s human rights violations in the region, asks cynically, “Can you dance while you shoot?” It sounds like an apocalyptic techno-dystopia, because it is one.

Where Off The Radar was explicitly political, sonically dark, and usually despairing in the dystopian futures it foretold, KIDS hints at a brighter, if not aspirational, optimism. Erez’s new album is decidedly less gritty, tending towards a more palatable, dance-friendly genre, and gravitating towards pop-influenced elements of electronica. This project is full of lush production, muted synths, velvety choruses, and brassy horn sections, filling every crevice of space with sound. This is exemplified on “End Of The Road,” an upbeat track that builds tension with a taunting, repetitive hook, set over a big-room echo and sharp technical production. Tracks like “VIEWS” and “No News On TV” are more playful, with fluctuating carnival-like scales, fuzzy vocals, and energetic beats, drawing direct comparisons to Gorillaz. Meanwhile, “You So Done” carries vestiges of her older sound, filled with haunting downtempo melodies and disruptive interludes of digital cacophony. But where her debut album promised a fight, her sophomore album just teases at one, jeering the powers that govern our lives with tongue-in-cheek delivery. She confronts her enemies — the wealthy, the apathetic, the patriarchal, the right-wing fascists, the exploitative tech giants dominating our lives — with restrained derision and blatant mistrust.

While Erez doesn’t shy away from antagonism in her music, she speaks far more carefully on the inescapable issue at the center of her life: the Israel-Palestine conflict that has been afflicting the region since decades before she was born. She is hesitant to flatten the historical complexity of being Israeli into a sound-bite, insisting that “if you want the truth, you’ll get an extremely complex answer.” Accurately and fairly depicting one of the most contentious global conflicts in history is not a straightforward task, but Erez articulates her allegiance to a progressive movement and an equitable future in the region. In a 2017 interview with The Guardian, she made her politics explicit, condemning her government’s egregious actions in Palestine and the collective disengagement she’s witnessed in her fellow citizens: “There is a lot of empathy for the other side…[but] the word ‘peace’ is not brought up any more.”

Much of her music speaks explicitly to polarization within Israel, a nominally democratic country rife with religious conflict, violent inequality between its Jewish and Arab populations, and a corresponding rise of right-wing ideology that’s fueled those increasingly militant divides. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has often been compared to the USA’s former president Donald Trump, one of many global proto-fascist leaders consolidating power as autocrats and depriving citizens of their rights. Writer Masha Gessen, an expert on anti-totalitarian theory who has extensively studied the work of scholar and Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt, suggests that Israel is an example of what the USA might look like in a few years, descending towards a fully autocratic government. Gessen is acerbic in her analysis: “Israel is a country that has an idea of itself as a democracy,” but so long as “it systematically disenfranchises, dominates, and limits the rights of a very large minority of its subjects,” she insists it will never be truly democratic.

Erez herself remains a staunch critic of Netanyahu, referring to his five-term presidency as an “ongoing turmoil” and reasoning that he has risen to power both through his anti-democratic practices and by strategically capitalizing on fear. Her music is centered, however oppositionally, around many of those fears. In the same Guardian interview, she rationalized that “you can’t really trust the people who are responsible for running your life – your financial life, your security, everything.” And in our conversation, she insisted that “systems and governments tend to be either blind or deaf or corrupt, or just too badly managed to hear the weak. They need some shaking up.”

Even as she’s faced pushback from within Israel, namely from the conservative Ministry of Culture, she continues to speak openly against the government in her music and activism. “People think it’s brave,” she says, “but I just think it’s necessary.” Set against this politically charged backdrop, KIDS poses an unexpectedly light-hearted turn in her work. Things are getting definitively worse, not better — since Off The Radar’s release, we’ve witnessed the spread of a global pandemic, the accelerated rise of right-wing extremism, deteriorating economic and social stability, and an increasingly unlivable planet, among other catastrophes — and yet, she’s reaching optimistically towards what she considers the ultimate good: family, and its promise of redemption.

Erez asserts that the family, and motherhood in particular, are redemptive forces because they hold momentum, ever-unfolding through the next generation of humanity and society. The logic follows that people have kids, and the way we raise kids can change the world. It’s simultaneously a collectivist belief and an individualist one, derived from a theoretical sense of social change and an atomizing ethos of individual accountability. While lamenting larger structural issues, she reaffirms that “it all comes down to personal responsibility for what you do on a very small scale.”

Therein, KIDS is a primarily personal project, inspired by the tragedies and joys of her own life, and one in particular: In the same week that Off The Radar was released to critical acclaim, Rousso’s mother passed away after a long fight with cancer, drawing a profound dissonance between Erez and Rousso’s professional and personal lives. It was a period of deep reflection; for Erez, she recognized that this loss was both unique and universal, that “most people will lose the person that gave them the most in their life.” The personal loss gave way to broader reflections on “the relationship between kids and their parents, and how insanely influential that can be for people outside of the family.” In the album, Erez explores the relationship between parents and children not through any specific lived experiences, but by interrogating the theoretical possibilities of raising children.

In a musical landscape that largely ignores the filial dynamics of our lives, intergenerational connection is a unique area of inquiry. Of course, the album is not targeted at kids — it is driven by beats that would flourish in a club, an inexhaustible and sometimes-hostile delivery, and similarly trenchant lyrics. There are vivid features from artists like Reo Cragun and Blimes and exceptional samples from Erez’s own mother, Yehudit. KIDS skirts the boundaries of hip-hop and pop with energizing momentum, and sometimes returns to vestiges of the apocalyptic aesthetic that marked her earlier work. It is inspired by widely varying subjects, from fire kites to social media clout, but she insists that at its core, the album is about “something so, so simple.” She insists, “I’m talking about my mom, about Ori’s mom, about my unborn children.”

The title track might emulate this theme best; with a warm, but deceptively simple, production, it is the most narrative-driven song on the album. Erez explains that it is about “the political situation here in Israel and Palestine,” urging me to “imagine you have a parade of people walking the streets, full of people you’re not used to seeing together, people from Israel, people from Palestine, so extremely wounded, traumatized, injured, but somehow they’re walking together.” The call leaves little space to consider the improbability of that vision at present, accounting for the millennia of violence, genocides, racism, boycotts, sanctions, apartheid, terrorism, military-industrial aggression, and the thousand-year-old religious beliefs that fomented today’s conflict. And it risks a false equivalency, suggesting that Palestinians and Israelis face the same oppression when the power is imbalanced, perhaps exemplified when, just last month, Israeli authorities chose to donate their COVID-19 vaccine doses to allies around the world rather than share them with the millions of Palestinians inside their borders.

On “KIDS,” Erez sings about Israel’s Zionist expansionism and the Six-Day War in 1967 that established many of the geopolitical preconditions for today’s struggle. The song is deceptively energizing, built on brass instrumentals and sinister hooks, functionally disguising her cynical outlook, deeply frustrated with a country that she wants to love. She continues, “Moms raise their children with this story about their country, the land of Israel… then these children grow up to become soldiers for this country,” who will fight, kill, and die for an idea. She describes this as a destructive generational inheritance, “something our parents gave to us, that we transfer to our children.” And she concludes, “The one thing that all these people can walk together towards is the funeral for the concept of peace,” echoed in the song’s sardonic opening lines, “Peace is dead now/ Rest in peace.”

In our conversation, I ask if there was a contradiction between the peace she advocated for and the immense reparative justice required to get there, so long as she felt that peace was contradictory to fighting. Instead, she reasons that love was the foundation of social change, and that “people who work in the name of solidarity, helping people who don’t have the power to help themselves, usually have to be fighters.” Articulating every syllable with measured clarity, she clasps her hands together on the table and leans towards her own computer screen thousands of miles away. “You can see how people do things with an energy of love for people they don’t know,” she says. “But eventually, you become a fighter. If this is the task of your life, then you’ll eventually have to fight for it. Love fighters, freedom fighters always have that contradiction within them. The world is complicated.”

Dudi Hasson

KIDS is out 3/26 on City Slang.

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