TIMES OF ISRAEL REPORTS / ISRAEL – Meet Shefita, the latest in a long line of Israel’s Eurovision Song Contest hopefuls. Shefita, otherwise known as Rotem Shefi, is the glammed up singer currently sweeping “HaKochav Haba,” the reality singing competition from Keshet based on the Rising Star franchise. The show’s winner will be positioned as Israel’s Eurovision hopeful.
Yet Shefita’s approach to performance is entirely different from that of Netta Barzilai, Israel’s 2018 Eurovision winner. Shefita sings covers to a selection of alternative rock classics (Nirvana’s “Lithium,” Aerosmith’s “Pink,” “Karma Police” from Radiohead, for example), in Hebrew with an Arabic accent. But Shefita, or Shefi, is 100 percent Jewish, born and raised in the northern city of Carmiel.
Her act is funny, but not everyone is laughing, because it feels more than a little bit inappropriate. There are viewers berating it all over social media, comparing it to the blackface once used by white comedians in the US channeling African-American characters.
One social welfare website, Drove, posted a campaign opposing Shefita’s possible representation of Israel in the Eurovision, writing that “Shefi enjoys and ignores the cultural appropriation. For her, it’s a game, a way to make cultural capital and a lot of money, all by means of mocking and imitating an Arab woman.”
The story of Shefi’s performance began at the Rimon School of Music, where she studied singing.
At the time, she performed with an ensemble that covered the songs of the English alternative rock band Radiohead, and would sometimes fool around by singing “Karma Police,” one of their hits, with an Arabic accent — but just for friends, according to several profiles in the Hebrew press.
After Shefi graduated and was looking for work, she decided to record her version of “Karma Police” professionally as a way of finding an audience.
She set up a Kickstarter campaign with a friend, a cellist named Leah Sabbat, and collected $1,900, and they transformed Shefi into an Arab-styled diva, complete with horse-driven carriage and a trio of a cellist, darbuka drummer and oud player.
When it was posted to YouTube, not everyone loved the concept, and some accused Shefi of appropriating Arab culture. Shefi has said in interviews that she did not intend any disrespect or undermining.
It feels like she’s pulling a sort of Sacha Baron Cohen stunt, making the most obvious social gaffes in her sprint for stardom.
During every performance of “Kochav Haba,” Shefi enters the theater trailing an entourage, sometimes throwing toffee candies at the judges, making the most of her time on camera.
Shefita, Shefi’s performance alter ego, is an attention seeker, with outlandish, ultra-feminine outfits chosen for each performance. She always draws attention to the designers and stylists who work with her, tagging them in posts on Facebook and Instagram.
Her performances have charmed viewers and the judges on “HaKochav Haba” as much as they has incensed the viewers and critics who have called her covers racist and overbearing.
Yet Shefi is a trained singer, with the voice, skills, stage presence and musical choices of a professional, a combination that has impressed the “HaKochav Haba” judges.
It’s clear that she loves the attention, but the jury is out on whether this performer will be the right choice for Israel at Eurovision — a song contest known as a bellwether of social progressivism — due to be held in May in Tel Aviv.