How A Brooklyn Musician’s Time In Israel Birthed Her Art And Activism
Ahead of the release of her debut album, Acid Park, Ohal Grietzer speaks on her twin passions.
In late January I profiled Brooklyn poet Aja Monet and asked: where does art end and activism begin? Monet’s desire to combine the two offered one answer. This past week I got another from Ohal Grietzer, an Israeli-born, Brooklyn-based musician and activist. For Grietzer, art and activism are separate yet she “feels equally passionate about both.” The music she makes bears no relation to her work as part of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign, a movement that began in Palestine in 2005 and calls for broad boycotts and divestment initiatives against Israel to help bring an end to the occupation of Palestine. But while Grietzer’s art does not articulate the aims of the BDS movement, the two are still intertwined: it was Grietzer’s artistic path that led her to activism and her current standing as an artist facilitates it.
I sit with Grietzer in Greenpoint’s Transmitter Park. It’s a sunny March day and the Manhattan skyline sprawls out in front of us, seemingly with no end. She’s lived in this part of Brooklyn since 2001, yet her accent is still unmistakable. Born and raised in the small town of Ashkelon in the south of Israel—“like something between Staten Island and Detroit”—Grietzer was studying to be a concert pianist until, in 1999, she made a snap decision to move to Paris. Today she says that this life change was driven by a combination of teenage angst and an infatuation with the Dadaist movement, a post-World War I rejection of early capitalism. Armed with a Casio keyboard and bright ideas, she lived and worked in a Parisian bookshop and travelled Europe for a year before making another move, following an American musician to Omaha, Nebraska. Sticking out like a sore thumb in the midwest, she moved to New York within a month. A train ride in the wrong direction sent her to Williamsburg and into the arms of “a tight community” that included TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, and musician Tyondai Braxton. Over the next decade, she forged enduring friendships with this group of artists, lending her piano skills to studio sessions and live shows.
“Cultural workers and producers must understand that by going to Israel they are contributing to the oppression.”—Ohal Grietzer
Teenage angst might’ve sent Grietzer on the road but she’d always known Israel’s occupation of Palestine was wrong. Her late father was born under British rule in the 1920s and witnessed the birth of the state of Israel. While not activists, Grietzer’s parents never lied about the reality of what Israel had come to mean: “They made it clear the occupation [of Palestine] was not a good thing,” she says. A conscientious objector, her activism began during an extended return home in 2009, shortly after the Gaza War ended. “There is a huge difference in understanding things at a theoretical level and advocating for them,” she tells me. Back home, she “saw the meaning” of the systematic oppression of Palestine and witnessed a new racist and nationalist manner in public expression. The experience spurred Grietzer into action, first with the local chapter of Anarchists Against The Wall and then, on her return to N.Y.C., as part of the loose international network that is the BDS movement.
In 2013, after a decade of piling up unfinished musical ideas, she made the decision to “create something whole.” This became Acid Park, her debut album as Ohal released by Brooklyn-based label Styles Upon Styles this May. The record borrows from the traditions of experimental electronic music but “plays with the pop form” and retains a certain grit inspired by life’s irregularities. It was composed on synthesizers over an insular six-month period, Grietzer’s voice the only other instrument. Preceding it in late February was her score for the German-Korean film Cancelled Faces, a dual tale about a gay couple’s love affair in Seoul and a desert cult in Roman-era Palestine. The score is another first for Grietzer. The offer came from the Iranian director, who had been her next door neighbor in 1980s Ashkelon. Written in collaboration with the directors and cast, the score reflects the film’s duality with both electronic and acoustic pieces. “It was a wonderful experience,” Grietzer enthuses.
Traveling the world turned Grietzer into an artist, but returning home made her an activist. Her time is now split between both endeavors. As part of BDS, Grietzer contacts musicians about the realities of performing in Israel and attempts to discourage them. “The cultural and economic [realities] are tightly linked,” she explains. Such tight links are evidenced in recent legislation in France to outlaw BDS activism and in the claims of a U.S congressman that a boycott of Israel “should be confronted by all means” because of its impact on the U.S economy. “Cultural workers and producers must understand that by going to Israel they are contributing to the oppression,” Grietzer says. BDS struck early victories in 2010 when Elvis Costello and the late Gil-Scott Heron cancelled planned appearances. In late November last year, eight artists with ties to New York—including Grietzer’s friends Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone—stated their endorsement of the cultural boycott of Israel in a new video. Alongside it, Grietzer co-authored an article with the English composer Brian Eno that laid out the rationale for the boycott.
“Art transcends politics” is a common justification to avoid cultural boycotts. And while my faith in that has wavered in recent years, it was one of the underlying ideas behind my profile of Tel Aviv’s music scene last month. Still, is it acceptable to cut out cultural supply to everyday people? “It’s immoral to say ‘I want a normal life’ while it’s ok for millions of people to live in an open air prison,” Grietzer replies, referring to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, now in its fifth decade. It is the very nature of the modern state of Israel that renders it inextricable from its political context: “Palestinians don’t have the luxury of claiming their space as apolitical,” Grietzer tells me. “It is hard explaining to artists that they are entering a situation with a context; it is not a vacuum.” Performing in Israel will never truly speak to the Palestinians’ plight.
The boycott isn’t about offering a political solution but rather “advocating for specific rights-based goals,” like an end to discrimination and occupation. Grietzer hopes these can be achieved in our lifetime. Until then, she continues to find ways to be both an artist and activist, meaningfully.
Styles Upon Styles will release Ohal's debut album Acid Park on May 27 (pre-order here).
This piece was edited on 3/31/2016 to reflect the fact that Ohal Grietzer is based in Brooklyn.