An Arab rapper in La La land

An Arab rapper in La La land

‘I’m the American Middle Eastern dream,’ says Sameh Zakout, aka SAZ, a Ramle boy who dreams about making it big in Los Angeles after his stint on an Israeli reality show

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Sameh, aka SAZ, on the streets of his Ramle hometown (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Sameh, aka SAZ, on the streets of his Ramle hometown (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Sameh Zakout, the Arab rapper vying for a record deal on the Israeli reality show “Chai be La La Land,” likes to roam the streets of Ramle like a homeboy. He shows off the hand-carved stone relief on the walls of the family restaurant where he first performed, waves to the mechanics taking a break outside his father’s garage and bumps fists with a buddy passing by in a car, all of whom good-naturedly mock Zakout about his newfound celebrity status.

For Zakout — aka SAZ, his stage name — despite dreams of living in Los Angeles or New York, there’s no place like Ramle.

“Getting home is about getting my energy back,” he said. “When you go back to your home, you get focused again. Everything out there is big and over here everything is small. But my personal trainer told me that when you think small, you’re gonna stay small. If you really, you know, think really big like I think nowadays, I’ll eventually be living in LA, in New York, ’cause I want to live there and to have this career and focus on myself as an artist.”

Often photographed with a brooding look under his heavy brows and shaved pate, in person the 28-year-old Zakout is clean-cut and chatty, with a round face and disarming grin that belies his street-talk patter — which, by the way, is all in English. He’s on a publicity mission, this Ramle rapper, having spent six weeks last spring in Los Angeles filming the second season of “Chai be La La Land,” hoping to achieve that near-mythical dream of celebrity success.

The contestants of season two of Chai b'LaLa Land (Courtesy Chai b'La La Land)
The contestants of season two of Chai b’LaLa Land (Courtesy Chai b’La La Land)

“Chai be La La Land” — whose name is a play on the phrase “living in a dream world,” that is, Los Angeles, the city of performers’ dreams — is a combination of “American Idol” and “Big Brother.” The performers live together in an LA mansion and develop friendships fraught with competitive tension over the end prize, an album deal with legendary producer Ron Fair and Geffen Records. Zakout, a last-minute addition to the group after a contestant pulled out, said he constantly felt that he was the underdog of the group as a lesser-known Arab performer compared with the more famous Israeli singers. According to the show’s producers, however, he proved his performing mettle, connecting with test audiences and impressing the behind-the-scenes crew.

“It was great schooling for him,” said Uri Paster, an Israeli film director and producer who acted as mentor to the contestants on the show. “I loved his energy and even though he was a last-minute addition, he came prepared, he was professional.”

Seven months later, Zakout has an American professional coach, an Israeli manager, an Arab booking agent, and high hopes that he will win “Chai be La La Land,” which would get him access to American producers and agents who would help him cross over into the US market.

Small-town kind of guy

It’s a heady vision for a guy from Ramle, an Israeli town with a large Arab population. It’s also home to five prisons and is known for its high crime rate, rampant unemployment and, surprisingly, championship-winning women’s basketball team. This is where Sameh grew up with his twin sister Samah and older brother Shadi, and where he still returns to work in his father’s garage. Ramle is also where he first began performing the nationalistic, emotional raps that articulate his yearning for professional success, personal contentment and a better status quo between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

The Zakout family has lived for generations in Ramle, a city that he calls “religiously normal,” with a Western culture but a strong Arab and Middle Eastern flavor. That said, it’s a small town, and has never offered the cultural volume of a Tel Aviv or Ramallah, much less a major American city. “It’s maybe one block of Detroit or LA,” said Zakout. “You don’t have venues, you don’t have a movie theater. It’s really like the end-side of the end-side, you can’t even find it on a map.”

Saz on the red carpet (Courtesy Facebook screengrab)
Saz on the red carpet (Courtesy Facebook screengrab)

Zakout talks a lot about transcending the drug dealing and crime that many of his contemporaries have fallen into in Ramle, as well as the difficulties of being an Arab in Israel. While he thinks of himself as a “hustler” — a guy who still works in his father’s garage by day and raps at night — he’s gaining a sheen of celebrity-like behavior. In the days before the premiere of “Chai be La La Land,” with Zakout on the proverbial red carpet along with fellow contestants Maya Buskila, Sarit Avitan, Liat Banai, Eli Zolta, Shir Levy and mentor Kobi Peretz, he was fielding phone calls from old friends and reporters, perfecting his story, and acknowledging that he has yet to get used to all the attention.

“I worked my ass off for decades to get to where I am now,” Zakout said emphatically. “I have my message to my people, my culture, to the ‘hood that I come from. I’m the only Arab dude who’s famous in Israeli society. I have to be focused, I’m gonna be on the radar, gonna be on 42 episodes, two and a half months on TV.”

Zakout’s message, as he sees it, is not unlike those of rappers Eminem, Jay-Z or Ice Cube who dug themselves out of poor neighborhoods and created their own opportunities. He raps about using his pen as his sword, fighting for love, equality and coexistence. And as a well-known Arab artist even before he entered the “Chai be La La Land” world, he sees this role as his ultimate responsibility.

SAZ in Ramle, mixed Jewish-and-Arab city that is known for its rampant crime and unemployment (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
SAZ in Ramle, mixed Jewish-and-Arab city that is known for its rampant crime and unemployment (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“I’m bringing a message that a young person from a small city can conquer the whole world,” he told me, gesturing to the graffitied walls around Ramle. “It’s a cliche but I’m the American Middle Eastern dream.”

Zakout began rapping as a teenager and his first audience was his friends, guys who egged him on although they were more familiar with the words of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album than Eminem or Jay-Z. Zakout chuckled when he thinks about his first songs.

“What’s great about rap is that it’s the poetry of the streets,” he said. “You don’t need instruments, you don’t need vocals. When you do rap, you can’t lose yourself.”

Can he coexist?

He was always a chevre man, the kind of kid who had lots of friends, said Khader Alkalak, the administrator of Open House, a center of Arab and Jewish coexistence in Ramle that functions as a kind of alternative community center for the locals.

“He loved to take part and be involved in all the activities,” said Alkalak. “And when he became a rapper, he still hung out with us.”

Open House is a particularly symbolic place for Ramle Arabs. As a center meant to promote coexistence within the city’s mixed community, it is often only known more to American Jews who donate money and come to visit than to Israeli Jews, said Alkalak. In that sense, it’s a metaphor for life in Ramle and for what Zakout is trying to accomplish with his music.

“We live in a difficult reality,” said Alkalak. “It isn’t always pleasant, it’s a strong conflict. It’s hard for Sameh with his line about coexistence, because not everyone accepts it. In the US they’ll accept him more than here. He’ll do better there.”

SAZ draped in a keffiyeh, a potent Palestinian symbol (Courtesy Youtube screengrab)
SAZ draped in a keffiyeh, a potent Palestinian symbol (Courtesy Youtube screengrab)

For the last few years, Zakout, whose raps about his Ramle reality are in English — which he polished on an Open House trip to the US –and Arabic, has been attempting to find a balance between his Israeli and Palestinian fans. The foreign media often mistake Ramle for Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority, he joked. But while he’s not from that major Palestinian city, Palestinians are among his biggest fans.

“Palestinians love me,” he said. “I can make it there without selling myself. They’re proud of me because I did this all myself, saved my own money. They say, ‘See this dude, he’s not that smart, not that rich, doesn’t have a lot but does have a lot.’”

Yet those who know his work think his ultimate audience will be in Europe and the US.

“As an Arab rapper in Israel, I don’t see any chance for him,” said Paster. “It’s a problem because with a universal message you don’t reach an Arab audience and if you’re not into coexistence you don’t reach the Jewish audience, but in the US they loved him. They loved his energy and his message.”

Zakout is the kind of person who could leave Ramle and succeed in the great world beyond, agreed Gil Karni, the producer and director of “SAZ The Palestinian Rapper for Change,” a documentary he made in 2005 about the young rapper. The two spent the better part of a year together making the film, which included interviews with Zakout’s grandfather, now deceased, talking about the loss of the family farm to the Israelis back in 1948, when many of Ramle’s Arabs were expelled from the city during Israel’s War of Independence.

“He was very right-wing when we made the movie, but now his life has changed,” mused Karni. “It’s a question of how he frames himself, all his songs talk about it. The Palestinians want him to be Palestinian, but Sameh is a person who does understand life, he cooperates with others and that’s a great thing.”

In his never-ending attempt to appeal to all fans, Zakout rapped the Arabic part of “Ramallah-Tel Aviv,” a rap with Israeli hip-hop group Balkan Beat Box for the Fifa 10 soundtrack released several years ago:

This is the home of Tel Aviv
This is the home of Ramallah
Hop Tel Aviv, yalla alla from Ramallah
All the neighbors are playing on the field
Maybe from all the talk there will be peace, inshalla
Maybe after everything there will be a new generation.

For Zakout, it’s all about opportunities like that soccer song, which placed him on the same album with performers like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and rapper Wyclef Jean. This past summer, he met Madonna briefly during her stay in Tel Aviv and bonded with U2 lead singer Bono, making plans to go clubbing the next time they’re in the same place.

“I said one day that I’m gonna sit with Bono and it happens like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “It’s lame to just want to be a superstar, but when you want to have a show in Madison Square Garden, with Jay-Z, and have your own Turkish coffee and hummus served to you backstage, that’s being focused on your goals and aims. If I met Bono, it’s gonna happen.”

Red carpet walks and clubbing with Bono aside, coming from a small town like Ramle is what has kept Zakout grounded this far. He was engaged to his longtime girlfriend, whose photo he waved onstage during each performance he filmed for “Chai be La La Land,” Zakout insisted that while “ladies and bling-bling are fun,” he’s from the Middle East. When he goes to America, he’s not going to have “four beautiful ladies moving their butts. I’m going to sing about having come from the Middle East, the Ramle way, the Arab way,” he said.

“I know I have to focus, have aim, have good thoughts,” said Zakout, gesturing with his fingers and echoing a familiar theme. “I’m like an M-16 with laser sharp aim. My eye’s on the prize, that’s how I talk to myself every day. You’re gonna be an M-16, that’s how you’re gonna do it.”

Chapter One of the second season of “Chai be La La Land” aired Sunday, November 11 at 8:30 p.m. on YES Comedy HD.

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