One way to describe Israeli pop star Harel Skaat to American pop aficionados is to call him the Israeli “Clay Aiken”—a comparison Skaat might not like, considering he shies away from comparisons lest they smear his individuality.
But like the 2003 “American Idol” runner-up, Aiken, Skaat reached the finale of the second season of his national singing contest, “Kochav Nolad,” only to emerge more famous than the winner. To be fair, Skaat has probably enjoyed more radio hits in his home country, and he’s way more handsome than Aiken; yet their lean frames, thick, spiky hair and happy go-lucky styles have made both teenage heartthrobs. They may have broken their share of ‘tween hearts when they made headlines announcing they were gay.
Six years after winning “Kochav Nolad” in 2004, Skaat felt it was time to come out. He had developed a fan base that appreciated him first and foremost as an artist.
“I was not ashamed of anything and really proud of myself and my choices, and I was proud of how God created me, so it wasn’t difficult, but to expose yourself is always kind of annoying,” Skaat said in a phone interview from Tel Aviv, speaking in English, a skill he’s fine-tuning for an upcoming English album. “I don’t think it changed anything; actually, the opposite. I feel when I go out on the streets people respect me for sharing my life with them, and the fact that they heard me talking about myself like a human being and not a singer or a celebrity, it really affected them.”
He also says Israel has a relatively open attitude to gay entertainers. Pop rock singer-songwriter, Ivri Lider, is another example who enjoys wide commercial success in Israel.
“It’s crazy because Israel’s supposed to be more traditional, and it’s not like that in the real world,” Skaat said. “I’m very happy for that because people are very open-minded here, maybe not all the people in Israel, but most of them, and I see that now.”
His main goal as an artist is to touch people through his soulful pop, no matter if songs are sung in Hebrew, Spanish, or English or if love ballads are directed to men or women. The power of music comes through its emotive storytelling.
“Everyone understands the worldwide language,” he said. “I think I have the opportunity to sing in other languages, even in Hebrew, and touch people by it, even if they don’t understand a word.”
That’s what he felt he proudly accomplished when he took 14th place for Israel and a slew of awards at the 2010 Eurovision Singing Contest. It’s what he plans to do at the Ford Amphitheatre on Aug. 28, when he performs alongside Macy Gray, R&B singer Abraham McDonald, and rapper MC Lyte at Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble’s “Rhythm & Roots” multi-cultural extravaganza benefiting Children Uniting Nations, which also features Los Angeles’ African American Lula Washington Dance Theater and multi-ethnic, interfaith Agape International Choir.
Skaat grew-up in a traditional Jewish Yemenite and Iraqi home in Kfar Saba. He recalls sitting on his cantor grandfather’s lap in synagogue listening to him wail the Hebrew hymns.
“It was a vocal lesson for me,” Skaat said. “I learned how to pronounce the words right, and one of the most important things in music is to pronounce the words right.”
Skaat’s voice has a spiritual quality—it’s smooth and clear, with an angelic yearning and guttural power characteristic among singers of Yemenite origin (Ofra Haza, for one). His first eponymous album went platinum, while his second, Dmuyot (Figures), took gold (20,000 copies sold in Israel). When pressed for his musical inspirations, he lists Stevie Wonder, Barbara Streisand, Elvis, Frank Sinatra, James Blunt, Justin Timberlake, and Beyonce.
“You can see I really admire singers.”
Lately, Skaat has moved beyond the stage and studio to activism. Several months ago, he penned an article in Israel’s largest daily, Yediot Aharonot, urging Israelis to take to the streets and protest social injustices they experience. With such protests now sweeping Israel, he likes to think his words were prophetic.
“I think we are making history now in Israel because we finally went out of our living rooms and out of our conversations with friends about living in Israel and life in Israel and the financial issues, and we went out to the streets.”
He recently performed at a protest rally in Jerusalem, feeling one with the average Israeli, and while he uses his influence as a well-known figure to promote causes that are important to him, he thinks that, ultimately, Israeli pop stars aren’t “idols,” but one of the people.
“People in Israel are the same. You don’t have stars you can’t touch.”