Miri Ben-Ari began studying violin at age 5. “I grew up in a classical music bubble,” the Israeli-American musician told JNS. “I didn’t know anything except classical music as a child. I was so classically trained that I received my first good violin from Isaac Stern.”
If the 44-year-old Grammy Award-winner could tell her younger self what kind of music she makes and performs today, the latter would not believe it. “I didn’t even know about hip-hop music as a child,” she said.
That’s because Ben-Ari is known as the “hip hop violinist,” having performed with Kanye West, Jay Z, Wynton Marsalis, John Legend and others. She has performed at halftime shows during NBA games and at the annual Chabad-Lubavitch-run National Menorah lighting in Washington, D.C., and at Carnegie Hall and the White House.
Ahead of a Feb. 26 “Symphony of Brotherhood” concert at Wells Cathedral Church in Newark in honor of Black History Month—an event the New Jersey-Israel Commission is co-sponsoring with the pentecostal Church of God in Christ—Ben-Ari told JNS about her musical journey, about winning a Grammy with Kanye West for the song “Jesus Walks” and about what it’s like as a third-generation Holocaust survivor to blend classical violin and Middle Eastern sounds with hip hop, gospel and other forms.
‘Music has the power to unite’
JNS asked what Ben-Ari made of the criticism that musicians should stay in their own “lanes” and that borrowing from others is “appropriation,” rather than the highest form of flattery.
She responded that this is a bigger problem for vocalists and rappers, not for a purist violinist.
“I’ve heard this in relation to Eminem, for example,” she said. “It’s the opposite because I am bringing the violin and connecting that with another world. So I’m not changing it. I’m playing a very classical violin. And I’m a purist.”
“I never lost my authenticity. I never lost the fact that I’m a classical violinist. I never lost the fact that I grew up in Israel. I never had to deal with any of this criticism. On the contrary, every world that I come to has embraced me,” she said. “I have a career because of the black community. They embraced me first.”
Her identity as both an Israeli and a third-generation Holocaust survivor is very important to her. At 12, she learned of her family’s story during World War II. “My family came from great struggle,” she said. “I had to carry their story my whole life.” (In 2006, she co-founded the Holocaust education nonprofit Gedenk, Yiddish for “remember.”) “When you come from pain, your journey is more meaningful. Your sound is more soulful.”