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Axum Brings Hebrew Hip-Hop to Emory

By Tim Webber Posted: 04/08/2010
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Emory is no stranger to hosting famous or talented musicians, but they’re usually only here long enough to do a show on McDonough Field and sign a few autographs before they’re off to their next gigs.

However, the Israeli dancehall/hip-hop group Axum is proving to be the exception to that rule. The internationally-acclaimed group is in the midst of a two-month residency at Emory, as they spread their unique brand of Hebrew hip-hop to a receptive new audience.

“When you hear a song and it makes you feel something, you don’t have to understand a word,” said Tedross, one half of Axum. “Good music is good music,” added Judah, Axum’s other half.

Axum most certainly makes good music, as AutoTuned vocals and Hebrew verses fall on top of energetic beats influenced by Jamaican reggae and dancehall music.

Some of Axum’s music videos have received almost 100,000 views on YouTube, and an Israeli newspaper said that they were Israel’s biggest hip-hop hope. They have been featured on several taste-making dance and world music blogs.

“The response to Axum has been extremely positive,” said Michael Rabkin, Emory Hillel director. The Hillels of Georgia, Emory Hillel’s parent organization, brought Axum to Emory with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and special funding from Kennesaw State University Hillel. “Their style really resonates with the college population,” said Rabkin.

“The rhymes are very clever if you understand what they’re saying,” said Jay Kaplan, 19, a finance major from Rockville, Md. “It’s a fun alternative to American music.”

While Axum’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics and energetic live show are big drawing points, the group’s fast-paced music doesn’t always fit their venue.

“We have a lot of styles, so we kind of play it by ear,” said Judah, who added that they have modified their songs for performances calling for everything from acoustic to jazzy lounge versions of their songs. “We give the audience more of what they’re expecting and a little of what they’re not.”

While at Emory, Axum has performed at both secular and spiritual events, including a Passover Seder with Emory Hillel, where Tedross, one of the first Ethiopian Jews to be born in Israel, recounted how his parents were among the first to escape from civil unrest in Ethiopia to Israel.

Judah’s personal history is equally compelling. He was raised in one of the poorest sections of the Israeli city Netanya and moved out on his own when he was 16.

Axum channels these experiences into their music, making it a celebration of life and breathing a soul into it that gives it its international appeal.

“Performing makes you feel better,” Tedross said. Judah quickly added, “Why cry if you can smile?”

Axum’s name has religious connotations as well. The two chose the name Axum, the name of the Ethiopian city where the Arc of the Covenant, which supposedly contains the Ten Commandments, is rumored to be located, because it represents both their Ethiopian and Jewish heritages.

Axum’s American presence has not been limited to Emory’s campus. In addition to the various shows and talks in which they have participated on campus, they have performed around the Atlanta area at Georgia Tech, Georgia State and Kennesaw State, as well as at several events held by the local Jewish community. They have also done shows in New York, Los Angeles, Athens, Ga., and Ashville, S.C. during their stay.

“They have a very unique persona onstage that’s well-received,” said Emory alum Russell Gottschalk (‘07C), who is serving as the group’s American manager.

While in town, the members of Axum have immersed themselves in Atlanta’s rich music scene. They developed mutual respect and admiration with the Athens-based reggae band Dubconscious after a show with them. They have also worked with Atlanta hip-hop producer Slade Da Monsta on tracks that may appear on the forthcoming Axum In Atlanta EP and may shoot a music video here with some of their collaborators.

“Living in Atlanta is like living in a forest,” said Judah, who got a tattoo of a microphone with an ‘A’ in the middle of it to commemorate his time here and said that he would consider buying a house in the area in a few years. “As an artist, it’s so inspiring,” he said.

While Axum and other Israeli artists have found musical companions and fans stateside, the thoughts of many Americans instantly turn to politics and conflict as soon as they hear the word ‘Israel.’ But for Axum, politics are the last thing on their mind.

“If all we do is talk about politics, we’re no different than CNN,” Judah said. “We are a product of the real Israel.”

Axum is scheduled to participate in Minds on Mic, a spoken-word poetry show at Harland Cinema on April 10 at 6 P.M. and is scheduled to participate as part of Emory University’s Israel Festival on April 15.

— Contact Tim Webber.

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