(JTA) — Two popular Israeli singers — one the “Madonna of the East,” the other the “king” of Mizrahi music as well as a convicted rapist — have teamed up on a new song in honor of their country’s 75th birthday.
The twist: Both Ofra Haza and Zohar Argov have been dead for decades.
Their collaboration, “Here Forever,” wasn’t unearthed in a dusty archive. Instead, the song and its accompanying video are essentially deepfakes, created using artificial intelligence that mined recordings from when they were alive to fabricate a lifelike performance of a song composed long after their deaths.
Their families signed off on the song, a soulful duet about Israel’s bygone past that has caught on among Israeli listeners. But some in the country are asking why Argov, who died in prison while facing another rape charge, should be a centerpiece of Israel’s Independence Day celebrations.
Meanwhile, others who were close to the artists, including Haza’s longtime manager Bezalel Aloni, have panned the song.
“The song does not resemble the tone of her divine voice,” Aloni told Israeli news outlet N12. “She broke through thanks to her artistry, and none of that is reflected in this piece. ֿI want to cry for her.”
An Argov impersonator who was part of the team that created the song also slammed it in the press, calling it “shameful” for not accurately reproducing Argov’s voice.
The song is part of a growing trend of using AI to create new tracks with pop stars’ voices. Fresh, but fake, songs or covers have been published using the vocals of artists like Drake and Rihanna, raising ethical questions as to who owns an artist’s voice or likeness.
The new song’s popularity — the video has racked up 200,000 views since launching last week, and the song is the 16th-most-requested in Israel on Shazam, a music app — also suggests that Israelis are embracing nostalgia for a shared Israeli past at a time when the country is occupied with social strife and political upheaval.
“Not to be too cliched, but with everything that’s been happening in the last three months, that offered a lot of inspiration,” Oudi Antebi, CEO and co-founder of Session 42, the Israeli music production company spearheading the AI music project, told the Times of Israel.
The video for “Here Forever” uses archival footage of the singers to make them look like they’re singing the song, combined with grainy scenes from Israel during earlier eras of its history.
Both Haza and Argov played a role in shaping that history through their music, which earned them distinctive nicknames. Haza, who died in 2000, was dubbed the “Madonna” of Israel, and is perhaps best known to American audiences for her singing on the soundtrack of the 1998 animated musical film “The Prince of Egypt.” Her musical style blended Mizrahi influences and pop.
Argov was called, simply, the “king” of Mizrahi music, and he helped mainstream the genre that is rooted in the songs and poetry of Jews from across the Middle East and North Africa. But his life and legacy have been tainted by a conviction for rape as well as other criminal charges. He died by suicide in a prison cell in 1987 while facing his second rape charge, nearly 10 years after the conviction. Even so, in the decades since his death, his music has become ever more popular. He is one of the most-played artists on Israeli radio, even after growing awareness of sexual abuse in the years since the beginning of the #MeToo movement.
“I had hoped, but it’s hard to say I expected” that attitudes toward Argov would change, Orit Sulitzeanu, executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, told the Times of Israel last year in an article exploring Argov’s legacy. “Until there is societal shaming, sexual violence will continue all over the place,” she said. “There have to be people pushing for it … the only way to make change is through activism.”
In a column last week, Israeli music journalist Avi Sasson suggested that Argov’s rape conviction should have been grounds for excluding him from “Here Forever.”
“What about this pairing?” Sasson wrote in the Israeli publication Ynet. “After all, Ofra Haza and Zohar Argov worked in parallel in the ’70s and ’80s, and when they could have collaborated, they chose not to. Moreover, did anyone stop to think about the fact that, had Ofra Haza been alive today, in the #MeToo era, perhaps she wouldn’t have opted to record a duet with Argov, a person who was convicted of rape and later ended his life in a jail cell?”
For his part, Aloni said that Haza “vehemently refused to collaborate with Zohar Argov,” but the manager did not attribute that refusal to Argov’s rape conviction. Rather, although Haza is widely described as a Mizrahi singer and was of Yemeni Jewish descent, Aloni said Haza did not consider her musical genre to be Mizrahi.
Antebi said that after conducting a poll to see which artists best represented Israel, the vast majority voted for Haza and Argov.
Antebi told the Times of Israel that the track is “a love song for the nation.” Its chorus seems to allude not only to Israeli resilience but also to the technological innovation that made the song possible — and that has placed new words in Argov and Haza’s mouths long after their passing.
“I’ll stay here always, I’ve missed you,” the lyrics read. “Even if you can’t see it, we are here forever.”