Powerhouse vocals turned Israeli working mother into a nationally beloved diva

Exclusive Interview | Riki Ben Ari

Riki Ben-Ari Profile Picture

In 2018, singer and mother of two Riki Ben Ari went on national TV to try out for the Eurovision Song Contest. The 52-year old, who until then had been largely obscure, fascinated the Israeli people with her powerhouse vocals.

The popular singing contest, which is hosted by the European Broadcasting Union EBU, brings together singers from countries all over Europe and the Middle East, who perform their original songs. The finalists from each participating country are decided by popular vote at a national pre-contest. Riki made it to the top 3 for the national pre-contest. Her talent was recognized by world-famous Israeli producer Offer Nissim, who works with Madonna, Cher and other major artists. She has also been collaborating with other famous Israeli producers such as Henree and Avi Ohayon.

In this exclusive interview, the powerhouse diva talks about her road to Eurovision, the impact the singing contest had on her career, and her exciting collaboration with other artists.

Riki Ben Ari performing “What Makes Me Good(Acoustic Version)” Live

――― You are known as “the powerhouse diva” but how would you describe your musical style?

Riki: I love the 70's and 80’s! My favorite kinds of music are Disco, Soul and R&B because of the soulfulness and the great vocals. I was inspired by the great singers like Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Shirley Bassey, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. They all have a big voice, drama, and a great appearance. When I was young, I liked to dress up, put some makeup on and perform in front of the mirror for hours. When I started collaborating more with electric music, people really loved it as I took the R&B diva sound to make it up-to-date with the beats, drums, and base.

――― Your voice is so powerful and amazing! Can you tell us how you encountered music and started your career?

Riki: I started with covers of Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin, you know “The moment I wake up~(starts singing I Say a Little Prayer)”, those types of songs. A lot of people think that I started singing when I entered the Eurovision pre-competition but I was born a singer ! You don’t choose it, it chooses you. I was singing long before the competition in small parties, weddings and always felt fortunate that I get paid to do something I love the most. I was so happy for the opportunity to sing anywhere at anytime. I always had a dream to be famous and sing on a big stage but I was probably afraid to fail. I decided to break the rules, overcome my fear and go for a famous national TV show because I felt that I had nothing to lose anymore. I knew that I still had so much to give on stage and I was ready for a change. I wanted to share my great passion on TV. It was my personal win.

The voice is an energy and it affects people. This voice is not mine. It’s a gift and you cannot keep it to yourself! It’s like magic when people get excited and happy to hear you. This is the purpose of my life.

Riki Ben Ari Promo Photo

――― What is your inspiration for producing music and performing?

Riki: I do write music but I cannot talk about myself as a writer. There is something very difficult for me to be that transparent and write lyrics. But when I’m on stage, I give it all of me. I’d never sing something that I don’t like. I have to have a connection to the song. 

Most of the time, I like to do positive songs. One time, someone wrote me a song about accusing another person of being a liar. I liked the sound and the music was great but when I started recording it, I couldn't finish it. Something was telling me that it wasn’t for me. I like singing songs that make you go “Hallelujah” and with lyrics like “the hard time is over, I feel blessed”. When you sing those kinds of words, you pass on something positive. 

When I’m on stage, I get possessed. I feel the magic happens and I can do anything on stage. I just play my voice as if I’m some instrument. I can go higher or deeper. Amazing things happen when I perform. My motto is to connect with my audience, to feel the vibe and spread love. When I’m performing, I don’t care how I look, I want to reach out to everybody from the stage. That’s why people call me “Dracarys(Dragon Fire)”. I go on stage and present my fire and heart !

――― You were one of Israel's finalists for the Eurovision preliminaries in 2018. Can you tell us about the experience?

Riki: I was 52 at the time. Most people wouldn’t go into that kind of competition at the age of 52. They would stay home. After 50, you’re expected to behave and dress like you’re in your 50's. But my soul is young and I’m ageless. Age means nothing to me. 

I joined the competition hoping that when I’d be on stage, a miracle would happen. All the other contestants were in their 20ies. I did what we Israeli call “ Big Balagan” which is to appear out of nowhere and shock people. I heard a lot of people say “WHO ARE YOU”, “WHY NOW?” and “WHERE WERE YOU HIDING?”. But I knew I had to do it and it has become a life changing experience. I think what helped me through the process is the humble part of me. I presented myself like “this is how I sing, not better or worse. I have a big voice and that’s what I want to give to you”.

It can be difficult when people criticize you. But in those kinds of competitions, you know that’s what’s going to happen. So I promised myself to go in with no ego and no hard feelings. Thanks to that, I was able to compete with the younger artists. I was so surprised and excited. I couldn't believe what’s really happening. 

I advanced to the final with Netta Barzilai (the winner) and Jonathan Mergui (runner up). Both of them are huge stars in Israel with thousands of followers and fans, and they even had their movies coming out. And then there was me, the mother who sings! I didn’t know how it happened but I was just thankful all the way.                     

―――That’s fantastic! Now you’ve been featured in a few songs produced by well-known Israeli DJ / producer, Offer Nissim who has worked with international superstars. How did you come to collaborate with him and how was the experience?

Riki: Well, I asked for it! I had an interview with one of the biggest newspapers in Israel. They had a major section about me when I advanced to the final. The interviewer asked me where I see myself going after the competition and I told him that I wanted to collaborate with Offer Nissim for electronic music, and also I wanted to be in a musical and to make a soundtrack for a movie. 

Offer Nissim’s mother read my article and told her son to watch me sing because I had a big voice and wanted to work with him. Literally the next day, Offer Nissim called me. I was like “Oh my gosh!” I adore him, he is a genius! He thinks differently and he is very professional about his music.

He’s amazing. You can be the biggest star in Israel but if he doesn't like your voice, he wouldn’t do anything with you. You can be a homeless person on the street and if you can sing and touch his soul, he will take you in and work with you. He doesn’t care for fame but he cares about music. 

Fortunately, he liked my voice. He told me that he had to create a cover of “Fame (by Irene Cara)” for a Microsoft commercial. He was allowed to invite a singer from anywhere in the world because they needed someone with a powerful voice and good accents. Then he chose me! The song became a big hit in Israel and in Europe! That’s how I started working with Offer Nissim. 

――― Oh for sure! You’ve mentioned being a mother a few times. Having and raising your own children, how has it influenced your music and career?

Riki: I have 2 boys, one who is 20 and a soldier in the army, and the other who is 17 and still in school. When you’re a mother, you don’t always think about your career. You have to think about making a living first. I wanted to be at home and be there for my kids, I wanted the dinner to be ready on time, to take my sons to school, to soccer or basketball. I was only singing for my soul to feel alive. I didn’t really think about making a career of it. But then they grew up and I had some free time for myself.

When one of the producers of the TV show called me for an audition after watching a video of me singing, I first declined because the name of the show, “New Star Born(in Hebrew)”,  was not for me. But he kept calling. 

One time, my younger son was next to me. I said “Thank you but no thank you”, and my son asked why not. I told him that he doesn’t understand how reality TV shows work, they wouldn’t care about me or my music. My son said to me “Mommy, you are so good, you’re gonna win. You have the biggest voice ever!” I realized that he believed more in me than I believed in myself. So, I decided to go for the audition and the rest is history.

Now when we are driving and my song comes on the radio, I turn the volume up because I’m excited. My kids complain it’s too loud but they are so proud of me. At heart, I’m still the same mother who loves to cook and bake. But I’m also the diva who dresses up to shine in front of thousands of people on the big stage. I’m nobody’s mother then. It’s really fun. Especially when it’s a Pride Week here. I performed for around 180,000 people at The Tel Aviv Pride.

――― That must be exciting! I really would love to visit Israel for the Tel Aviv Pride. Can you tell us more about it?

Riki: It’s amazing! Tel Aviv becomes so colorful just like Mardi Gras. I’m proud to be a part of it. Last year I released a song called “Love is Love” for Pride. The song has a message “to give rights to the people because they are people.” It doesn’t matter if you are a girl in love with another girl or a boy with another boy, or a jew in love with a Muslim! Love is love, and it’s for everyone. You have to respect others. That’s what this song is all about.

The gay community in Israel really welcomed me with open arms, especially for me being a mother who sings about its unconditional love. Gay people started inviting me to their weddings to sing and to even marry a couple. It’s beautiful. They usually choose “Love is Love” or my other song “Better man” for me to sing after the ceremony. 

――― That is so sweet! Speaking of the support for the gay community, New York has a big community, and house music is deeply rooted there. Back in May, you’ve released a cover of the 90's mega-hit song ‘It's Gonna Be Alright' with Israeli’s finest DJ / mixer Guy Scheiman in memory of the deep house diva, Ceybil Jefferies (SWEET SABLE) who passed away due to COVID-19. Can you tell us more about this project?

Riki: So Guy was actually making a remix of “Let Go” for me. It was the middle of the pandemic when everybody had to stay home and was feeling down, so we were thinking about doing something positive together. My manager suggested the song “It’s Gonna Be Alright” which we thought would be perfect. 
A few weeks later, I got a call from Guy telling me that Sweet Sable died due to coronavirus. We said we gotta do it for her sake, and right away we went to the studio and recorded it. We wanted to make people feel more positive by covering the song for the community and the music scene. 

――― It seems like it was meant to be. Do you know any Japanese artists that you’d like to collaborate with?

Riki: I know of J-pop but I’m not really familiar with Japanese artists. I’d love to collaborate with someone since I know that you have the second-largest local music industry. If you have any suggestions of Japanese artists that I should collaborate with, please let me know. I always want to challenge and expand my boundaries. 

10 years ago, I actually had a chance to sing and perform in Tokyo for a gala dinner. I stayed in Japan for 10 days and I enjoyed it so much.  Since, my husband has been to Japan twice but I haven’t had the chance. I know I have to come back! I just adore everything about Japan! I never ever felt secure anywhere else like when I was in Japan. Everybody is so humble and so nice…I think I will definitely make it back to Japan someday! 

――― It’d be wonderful to have you back here in Japan! Do you have a message for the Japanese audience?

Riki: Believe in yourself. When you want something, you have to set a goal and focus. Don’t be ashamed to write down a list of what you want and what you have to do. Don’t be afraid and say that it won’t happen. That means you don’t really believe in yourself. Don’t do it at the expense of others. Just believe in yourself and a focus, and then magic happens!