Netta Barzilai, who won Eurovision this year representing her home country of Israel, owes the Holy Land a debt.
And Israel owes Netta Barzilai a debt as well.
In an in-depth live interview in New York City this weekend, Netta explained that since she grew up in Nigeria attending an international school till the age of seven, returning to Israel was a shock for her. In a class of forty Israeli students, “everybody looks the same and I did not,” she said. “Different is often feared,” she said, speaking with a believable frankness about being bullied throughout her childhood. Making “funny noises,” singing, and trying to get people to laugh — “that was my social leverage and my escape,” she said.
After high school, Netta (who’s on her way to the kind of First Name Fame enjoyed by Beyonce and Madonna,) served in the IDF, the Israeli Defense Force, as a singer in the navy band. There, too, she grew a thick skin.
“It’s the greatest school ever,” she said, of performances for exhausted, homesick Israeli soldiers. After her service, she struggled to find a niche in performance. “I was performing in bars in Tel Aviv, they paid me in beers,” she remembers, laughing. “It was a fun part of my life, and I couldn’t pay my rent.” Connecting with producer Avshalom Sassoni, Netta found that when she could control the full experience of her performance — writing her music, laying it down on a looper, incorporating “funny noises” — she could develop a unique sound. “I’ve been told [what to do for] so many years,” she said. “Dress in black! Cover yourself, it’s more flattering! Sing Aretha Franklin, sing Adele, they’re two big female singers and they made it.”
Netta, winning Eurovision 2018
But then she won Israel’s Rising Star competition, and things changed. Her unique sound was an asset. Her look wasn’t alien, it was relatable. She imitated the process people go through on the way to becoming her fan — “What is this? I don’t like it. I like it. Okay, let’s give it a chance — Oh my god, I love this! People in Israel went like that,” she said. “People in Europe went like that. It’s amazing to see how if we don’t open our minds to something different, we wont evolve as a species.” Reception in Israel since she competed and won Eurovision, she says, has been marked by rejoicing. “I wasn’t expecting at all…” she chuckles, “the explosion.” Her win is as much for Israel as it is for her. “I’m in love with the idea, and I’m in love with the message, and I’m in love with what it did to my people back home, and that is the best,” she said.
“Toy,” she says, isn’t about a specific “boy” in particular, but about the world — a world that told Netta, “That I don’t deserve to be a leader because of the way that I look…that I don’t deserve to be loved…that I’m not intelligent.”
The response from the world, and from Israel in particular, of specifically young fans who relate to the song, is overwhelming, she says. But she is determined to respond. “Toy” sings about “the feminism I love,” she said. “The one that takes what it deserves.” She went on, “This is why I love gay pride — it’s a display of pride with a festival…it’s the best way to protest something.”
Enjoy Netta’s full interview here:
Jenny Singer is the deputy lifestyle editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny