Miri Ben-Ari: Giving Hip-Hop a Jewish Voice
Miri Ben-Ari once received the following advice from Betty Carter, the late and legendary jazz vocalist who directed a Kennedy Center program for young jazz musicians. “She said, ‘Miri, you’re white, you play violin and you’re from Israel. You better be 10 times better than anyone here.”
“Betty shot me down, but she was right,” recalls Ben-Ari. “Because if you’re going to do something groundbreaking, you can’t just be okay. You have to be extraordinary.”
Armed with her violin and “tons of chutzpah,” Ben-Ari took her mentor’s words seriously as she blazed her own distinctive trail in multiple musical genres. A classically trained violinist, the Grammy Award-winning artist first distinguished herself as a jazz musician in New York City clubs before forging a wildly successful career as the “hip-hop violinist” and performing with rap stars like Kanye West, Wyclef Jean and Jay-Z. And just last year, Ben-Ari released the Martin Luther King-inspired “Symphony of Brotherhood,” the first instrumental single to make the top 10 on Billboard’s R&B;/Hip-Hop chart.
At the same time, Ben-Ari, 28, remains ferociously proud of her identity as an Israeli Jew and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. Most recently, she launched Gedenk, a Holocaust youth-awareness project and, this past April, teamed up with Israeli rapper Subliminal to release “Adon Olam Ad Matai,” reportedly the first-ever Holocaust-themed commercial hip-hop single and music video.
“We’re introducing new ways to talk about the Holocaust, and hip-hop is a genre where you can tell a story in a very real way,” Ben-Ari observes.
At the age of five, Ben-Ari received her first violin as a present from her grandparents. Recognized early on as a prodigy by famous violinists like Isaac Stern, she always took her music “very seriously. I was a very different kind of kid,” she recalls. “I wasn’t very social and could spend hours by myself.”
Yet, Ben-Ari always knew she “wasn’t going to stay with the Paganini. I knew that classical music was going to open another door for me and that’s why I practiced so much.”
Stumbling upon a Charlie Parker CD while serving in the Israeli army literally changed Ben-Ari’s life. Determined to become a jazz musician, she took off for New York City and enrolled at The New School. Struggling to attend classes while earning a living, Ben-Ari was forced to drop out after two semesters. “It broke my heart but it only made me stronger,” she says.
Ben-Ari believes her success has a lot to do with “never taking no for an answer.” She’s also not against defying convention to seize an opportunity. Performing one night with a jazz band, Ben-Ari had the opportunity to play with the famous trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. “Wynton was supposed to take a solo but before he could, I took it,” she says. “This was beyond chutzpah, but I really wanted him to hear me.”
Ben-Ari’s big breakthrough happened when she performed at the Apollo Theater and Wyclef Jean introduced her as the “hip-hop” violinist. Becoming a hip-hop artist also allowed her “to break my silence about my background and the Holocaust,” she says. “My hip-hop friends always talked about their struggle, and I learned from them that by talking about your own struggle, you pay respect to it.”
With an eye constantly toward the future, Ben-Ari hopes to “play stadiums and do the kinds of shows that jazz and classical artists used to do back in the day. I’ve never been a background musician. I get onstage and with my violin, I spit my verse,” she says.
Don’t ever ask Ben-Ari if she’d ever give up the violin for something else. “That’s like asking if I would ever grow tired of being Miri Ben-Ari,” she says in a fiery voice. “I am all about music.”