All strings considered
Violinist Miri Ben-Ari fiddles with hip-hop
Those who continue to doubt hip-hop's ability to make the impossible real have never heard of Miri Ben-Ari. Conventional wisdom says the last thing a female violinist from Israel would have is a standalone hip-hop career. But not only does Ben-Ari hold the strings, she's pulls some, too.
Her impressive resume includes arranging the strings on Alicia Keys' first hit, "Fallin'," as well as accompanying Jay-Z on stage during his 2003 Showtime concert special. Most credit Wyclef Jean with putting Ben-Ari on hip-hop's radar, but Kanye West and Janet Jackson are just a few others who have utilized her talents.
In Israel, Ben-Ari, who began playing the violin at age 5, was not exposed to hip-hop. Jazz inspired her to make this country — New York specifically — her permanent home. Lack of finances pushed Ben-Ari out of collegiate-level musical training — she lost her music scholarship because she missed classes to work — but talent got her into the late, great Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead program for emerging musicians. That experience changed her life. "She was very revolutionary with her creativity," Ben-Ari says of Carter. "Right before she died, she was trying to take jazz to the next level and she liked my mind. She liked to say I was doing something different."
It was Carter who helped Ben-Ari find her voice. Carter also gave Ben-Ari the advice she has built her career on. "She said, 'Look, you are not Afro-American. You're from Israel. You are a girl and you're playing the violin. You better be a hundred times better than anybody over here,'" recalls Ben-Ari.
"I appreciated that and I always remember that. She was right, too," continues the former Israeli soldier. "When you're trying to make a difference, you have to be good. You have to be on top of your game in order for people to listen to you."
After a year of being pushed back, her album, The Hip-Hop Violinist, finally dropped last month. Though Americans generally associate violins with classical music, here the instrument grounds the album in an overall hip-hop/R&B vibe, with sprinkles of reggae and spoken word. It may be hard to imagine Anthony Hamilton, Scarface, Kanye West, Akon, Musiq, Fabolous, Fatman Scoop, Lil Wayne and Baby on one album, but Ben-Ari delivers those heavy-hitters and more.
Cuts like "Sunshine to the Rain," featuring Anthony Hamilton and Scarface, highlight highly introspective lyrics that touch on manic depression. "Fly Away," with Fabolous, Kanye West and Musiq, and the gospel-tinged "Hold Your Head Up High" with Lil' Mo pleasingly break away from the urban music norm where voices are often drowned out by overbearing beats. Listeners can clearly hear what each singer and rapper is saying. Ben-Ari has even thrown in the rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" featuring Doug E. Fresh, which is how she landed an album deal to begin with.
Ask her if she's surprised by her success and she says, "What I do is music. It's not words. Music is international. When people hear me play, it's not like I'm speaking a foreign language. I'm speaking the music language."
That universal language, she insists, has allowed her to break through music industry barriers. "The very basic rule," she says confidently, "[that] a violinist cannot have a major career [or] be a major artist with a major label — and definitely not a female violinist, definitely not a female violinist from Israel playing hip-hop — hell no. I broke all the rules because people love music."