Screenshot of Alicia Keys playing for Israel

As a musician, it was interesting to read about Alicia Keys and the controversy over her performance in Israel on July 4th. Numerous artists, activists and musicians urged her not to perform in Sun City because of Israel’s “apartheid” policies towards Palestinians. Keys refused to cancel and played regardlesssaying to the New York Times that “[m]usic a universal language that is meant to unify audiences in peace and love, and that is the spirit of our show.”

I admit, I do not listen to Alicia Keys nor do I care enough to listen to her music. However, I agree with her that it is a universal language. Musician David Byrne hinted about this in his book, How Music Works, and how our actions can be “shared” with one another:

The ability to experience a shared representation is how we know what the other person is getting at, what they’re talking about. If we didn’t have this means of sharing common references, we wouldn’t be able to communicate.

The problem, however, is that Keys believes that by playing, everything will be solved the following day of her performance. If music was indeed to have a unified audience, then her performance in Israel would not fit into that category. Additionally, appeasement wouldn’t cause anything as Roger Waters eloquently placed it:

Others may try to persuade you that by playing in Israel you may magically effect some change; we know that this is not true, appeasement didn’t work with South Africa and it has not worked in Israel. I know I tried it ten years ago, things have only got worse.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Call is the central point that many people have used to state to Keys that it is not wise to play and people, like Stephen Hawking,  have followed through with it to make a state about such discrimination against Palestinians. Keys followed through with the concert and I am sure it left people disappointed.

Personally, the decision of Keys was a poor one indeed. Her refusal to recognize that a community that has been severely affected is a mistake that does not help her record as an activist with the organization “Keep a Child Alive” for instance. Defense for Children International Palestine and Health Work Committees told Keys to cancel her show as the children of Palestine needed a future as the organization, “Keep a Child Alive”, promises:

Palestinian children have lived under Israeli military occupation for over 46 years. Since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, Israeli forces are responsible for the deaths of 1,397 children in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including 1,031 in Gaza. (Emphasis not mine)

Additionally, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) last month highlighted more problems that are faced in Israel. They cited concerns that they were not provided enough information about Palestinian children’s well being and felt it would not fully benefit the “reporting process.”  However, they did state in one section that they were concerned about torture faced by children with solitary confinement for example:

The Committee expresses its deepest concern about the reported practice of torture and ill-treatment of Palestinian children arrested, prosecuted and detained by the military and the police, and about the State party’s failure to end these practices in spite of repeated concerns expressed by treaty bodies, special procedures mandate holders and United Nations agencies in this respect.

Unfortunately, critics have supported Keys’ decision to play while outright ignoring the issue at hand. Jo-Ann Mort, one critic, wrote in a post on Reuters that lumped the BDS movement with “Jewish activists who support Israel’s grip on the settlements and occupied lands.” The most absurd argument was that Israel was not causing “apartheid” at all:

These activists who campaign under the banner of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) assert that Israel is an apartheid state similar to the former South African regime, where racial discrimination and separation was legislated in every aspect of public life. This is unequivocally untrue about Israel.

Perhaps it is either lost (or just flat out ignored) upon the author that even the South African Ambassador to Israel, Ismail Coovadia, stated that the situation is Israel was apartheid:

I have supported the struggle against Apartheid South Africa and now I cannot be a proponent of what I have witnessed in Israel, and that is, a replication of Apartheid!

Additionally, he refused a certificate by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and 18 trees planted in his name on “stolen land.” This fully establishes that there is merit in saying Israel has “apartheid” policies and not something that should be ignored.

The fact remains that by playing the concert, Keys ignored a vital part of what it means to be a musician. Musicians understand their communities and audiences enough to know the difference between justice and injustice. This is not a question of whether is it fair to punish an audience, but of standing up for people who have been discriminated long enough.

Lubad Hammad, who wrote an article that made me want to write on this, stated the aforementioned facts and related it to Keys’ work as an activist:

These facts throw Keys’ alleged concern for children into question.  As laudable as is her support for Keep a Child Alive, Keys has made clear that her support for children’s welfare and rights ends where that support becomes inconvenient.

A song is an expression that we use in order to display our emotions to one another or privately (until the NSA comes in). For Keys to make such an act devalues her work, but not enough for her to be disregarded which must be emphasized. Musicians have a purpose to allow their audience to enjoy their music enough so that they do not feel such divisions exist while listening with others.

Indeed, concerts are a special form of transforming music from the album to the live setting. For Palestinians who enjoy Keys work, but cannot attend, it is a travesty that must be addressed by the musician on how to solve such a dilemma. By working through the BDS campaign, there is a chance for music to be truly united with a community rather than ignoring the status quo and letting things sort themselves out.