An old bus in Romania is on its way to the MTV Awards ceremony, containing joints the size of dreadlocks and Romanian massage therapists working hard. Amidst all of this, Boaz Arad manages to conduct an interview with Sean Paul. They speak about the Holocaust, Nazism, his Jewish grandfather, Jerusalem and Beyonce's behind. The most famous Jamaican artist since Bob Marley is making his way to Zion. And he's just as excited as we are
Published: 06.22.07, 16:09 / Israel Culture
This is not how it was supposed to go, but nothing is as it's supposed to be in Romania, the twilight zone of Europe. The interview with the Jamaican superstar - due to a series of impossible coincidences including the fact that this reporter is the only one at the newspaper with dreadlocks and the huge bodyguard who loves Israelis because “they make amazing weapons” – is taking place in a smoking old bus.
And Sean Paul? Just as you would imagine him. A stoner. After the first joint it became clear that this interview - which quickly turned into a long conversation, pausing only for a frenzied nap - was going to take a very unusual course.
After the first drag, he wanted to know where the best place to eat hummus in Jerusalem is. After the next drag he wanted to know what the opening hours are at the Western Wall. On the second joint, he talked about the Holocaust, Auschwitz.
This musician, probably the most famous Jamaican since Bob Marley, one of the more successful black artists in the world today, does not need to be taken to Yad Vashem on his way to the Dead Sea. He's been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, seen and cried through "Schindler's List" twice.
“Whenever I perform in Germany”, the dreadlocked rapper said, “I get the shivers”. He paused for a moment, took out his cell phone, and showed me a black and white photograph of a British soldier in uniform on the screen.
“You see, this is my grandfather. When I land in Germany I immediately think of him. He went all the way from Jamaica to Europe to fight the Nazis. He was injured in battle and taken prisoner. Nobody knew what happened to him until the end of the war when they found him in one of the prison camps and brought him home. Everyone was very worried about him, they were scared that the Nazis would find out that he was Jewish and murder him.”
You're kidding me. You're Jewish?
“My grandfather's family on my father's side is one of the biggest Jewish families on the island. They escaped from Spain during the Inquisition, arrived in Portugal and in the 17th century immigrated to Jamaica. But I have no connection to all that. I grew up in a Catholic home. On my mother's side I have a Chinese grandfather.
My Jewish grandfather, who died recently, never spoke to me about Judaism. All that he cared about when he came back from the war with a medal was women and rum. He would sit and drink rum all day like crazy. Last week I was at a bar mitzvah for the first time in my life.”
Whose bar mitzvah?
“A kid whose dad is a multi-millionaire and owns the biggest gasoline company in America. They rented one of the most expensive banquet halls in New York and invited me to perform for 150 thirteen-year-olds. It was crazy.
A lot of money was poured into the event and I was really surprised by it all. I always presumed that this is a religious ceremony that is held with your family, and suddenly I'm there with people like Mel Gibson and Neil Diamond walking around drinking champagne. It felt more like a wedding. I told the kid that I'm just as excited as he was, finally I'm doing a bar mitzvah.”
In Israel when a musician performs at a bar mitzvah, it means that his career is not going too well.
"I'll do a bar mitzvah a day with the money they paid me."
Dad takes a trip
It is doubtful that Sean Paul will have the time to do a bar mitzvah when he's in Israel. Not even a little "brit milah" (circumcision ceremony). His visit to Israel will be short: he's scheduled to arrive on June 28 for a concert that same night and by the next day he'll already be in Jordan.
He does not often come to this area and his many mustached fans in our neighboring countries (“I don't know why I have so many fans there, maybe it's because I look a little like an Arab”) are not happy with the fact that he found the time to come to Israel.
Sean Paul is busy. He has just completed a round-the-world tour with his third album “The Trinity” and for the last couple of months, he has been dividing his time between his Jamaican studio where he's working on his fourth album, and doing off-tour shows in remote countries like Israel and Romania where they are prepared to pay him lots of money to come in between albums.
Unlike most Jamaican dancehall artists, Sean Paul does not come from a poor neighborhood. He grew up in one of the affluent neighborhoods of Kingston. His mother is an artist and his father was a Jamaican water polo champion until he got into trouble with the law. “He was a drug dealer,” says Sean Paul.
“He had a small plane that he would use to smuggle marijuana to Miami, coming back with color TVs and VCRs. Then on a flight one day, the plane ran out of fuel and crashed in the swamps of Florida. He got out okay and loaded the ganja onto a rubber dinghy. He started rowing and after a while, fell asleep. The American Sea Patrol caught him.”
Sean Paul played water polo too, worked at a bank and studied hotel keeping (“the only reason I stayed was because 80 percent of the class were women”), but he always dreamed of making music. When he first held a microphone in his hand, he realized that this was it. Turning his dreadlocks into braids and bringing beautiful Jamaican women into his video clips – a star was born.
Sexy, exotic and with a foreign accent - this was exactly what the dying hip-hop scene needed to bring it back to life. In the last three years, Sean Paul has received three Billboard Music Awards, two MTV Music Awards, one Grammy Award, and three International Reggae Awards. And now he is in Romania to collect the MTV (Romania) award for the best international artist.
A legend on grass
He's a nice guy, devoid of celebrity airs, and not just because he keeps offering me drags from his joint. For two hours he questioned me about Israel, and it seems that he really is interested. His dancehall musician friends Capleton and Buju Banton visited Israel earlier this year, loved it and went back with lots to tell.
Sean Paul needs to be sure, for example, that the church in Jerusalem where Jesus was buried really exists. He's not sure how much he can rely on Banton's descriptions – the guy smokes even more ganja than him. And, anyway, he saw a program on the Discovery channel where they spoke about a different burial spot altogether.
Did your friends also mention demonstrations were held to boycott their concerts? The Israeli lesbian and gay community were not exactly enthusiastic about their songs that call for burning gays.
Yeah, that part of dancehall is definitely a problem. It comes from the inability to understand that there are people who live a very different lifestyle from yours. Personally, I have no part with that. I will not tell people how to live and who to get into bed with.
It's their choice, not mine. I understand that gays were insulted by this, and they should know too, that people like Banton and Capleton don't really mean it. Violent words like those are part of our violent culture.
Their aim is to shock. It's like when Iggy Pop went on stage and spread blood all over himself, or when Ozzy Osbourne ate a bat on stage. It's theatre. They're not really going to burn gays. The problem is that they say it too often, then the whole thing goes out of control.
There's no balance. The gays get angry, dancehall shows overseas are cancelled, and then all the kids in Jamaica get even angrier. They say “What's this? The gays are declaring war on us?” Then they shout “burn them” even louder.
In Jamaica, if you don't play it tough, then you're out.