September 5, 2018
Israeli-born MC Sharon Stern aka Miss Red is using dancehall to spread love, unity and defiance in an increasingly divided world. With new The Bug-produced album K.O. released earlier this summer, Sharon showed Cameron Cook her record collection, before the lunar eclipse turned the Berlin sky red.
It’s 27th July, 2018, and much of Europe is preparing to witness the longest lunar eclipse of the century. In the streets of Berlin, parents are setting up telescopes with their children, amateur astronomers are pulling up lawn chairs in crowded parks and packs of teenagers are guzzling beer on street corners. It’s dusk, and the summer streets are bustling. I’m hoofing it up a bridge in Prenzlauer Berg with Sharon Stern, aka Miss Red – the Israeli-born, Berlin-based dancehall MC – and we haven’t stopped talking for hours. As we walk around, we’re touching on astrology (she’s a Leo), family (hers is still in her hometown of Haifa), and the deep legacy of dancehall music – the well she draws from to create her dark, brooding brand of dub reggae along with her creative partner, UK producer The Bug.
Sharon’s roommate, a beautiful Israeli girl with long dreadlocks called Nicola is with us, and she sits on the sidewalk while we try and scope out a spot to see the eclipse. The weed I smoked an hour before in Sharon’s room has worn off, and crowds can make me a little nervous. As soon as I think of suggesting calling it a night, the moon shifts dramatically in the sky, turning from pale pink to a dark, ominous red. The crowd ‘oohs’. When I asked Sharon about her stage name earlier, she said: “Red is strong feminine energy, and that’s just me. I think that in a lot of ways, I am driven a bit from this kind of energy. I get onstage and I just get red. My face turns red, my hair turns red!” So maybe I can chalk this whole day up to some weird cosmic coincidence, but somehow, it doesn’t feel like it.
Hours before our excursion, I’m greeted by Sharon at her apartment in the Wedding district of Berlin. She greets me in a pair of overalls, her auburn hair piled high and wrapped in a colourful head fabric. I’m in her apartment for less than two minutes before she starts offering me food and treats, speaking at a rapid-fire pace that she maintains for the entirety of the evening. “Do you want watermelon juice?” she asks while firing up her blender. “You have got to try these,” she says, offering me a bowl of plump, frozen dates, which are delicious. “I’m addicted to them — I have them at home all the time.”
“Home” is a nebulous concept to Sharon at the moment. Although she’s relatively new to Berlin, she’s not sure how she’s going to stay. Sharon was born in Haifa, but met The Bug (aka Kevin Martin) in Tel Aviv, when she got on the mic at a party he was DJing. “When we met, we had this show where I just grabbed the mic and we were introduced,” she explains. “I wasn’t grabbing mics like that at the time. I would wait, the guys would be singing for an hour, and then I would come, do a verse, trash the place and leave, you know?” She laughs, hard. “I loved the fact that I could just be the only girl who had the bones to grab the mic. But when Kevin was playing I was like, ‘I’ve never heard this fucked-up dancehall.’ It was completely thrilling. He was like, ‘Because it was so good tonight, come grab the mic in London.’ I said ‘OK…’ That somebody who is working with MCs, who has had 20 years experience, would tell me to come and play with him?! I was like, ‘I don’t care about the army, I don’t care about money! Sayonara! Vibing it to the max in London!’ And since then, it’s just kept rolling.”
Oh yeah, let’s rewind: Sharon was in the Israeli army, and quit to pursue her love of dancehall, following Kevin to London, and then again to Berlin. Before all that though, she fled Haifa amidst bombings in the early 2000s. And somehow, it was dancehall and dub that was her lifeline.
Was there such a thing and a dancehall thing in ‘00s Haifa? “It wasn’t a thing, really, it was just me. I was really just a music nerd,” she states. “My parents used to just put me in front of MTV and leave me. My brothers and sisters are older than me. When they they turned 15 or 16, I was just starting to become conscious. They left me with all of their music, all the time. It was quite easy for me to suck on this shit, because that’s what I was doing all day. ‘Yes, Snoop Dogg! Yes, Beastie Boys! Yes, Bob Marley!’” She says this as we begin to sprawl out in her spacious bedroom, a corner of which is spilling over with a few crates of records. It’s the collection of a nomad — a bit messy, not organised, let alone alphabetised. But much like the way Sharon conducts the interview, there are wild tangents that take you on a bit of a journey, but then loop back around and make perfect sense.
“Haifa is a bit different than the rest of Israel,” Sharon says. “All of Israel is fucking stress: ‘Am I Jewish? Am I Arab? Who am I?’ In Haifa, no one gives a fuck. In Haifa, everybody just wants to chill. We don’t have Arab neighbourhoods and Jewish neighbourhoods. Everybody is together, and it’s not so weird. Haifa is on a mountain, in front of the beach, inside a forest. It’s completely in nature, there are wild pigs everywhere! I’m not a city girl at all. But the thing was I wanted to party. At that time, there was this crew in Haifa that threw original parties.”
The venue was called City Hall, and in the 2000s an informal crew of reggae and dancehall DJs, MCs and enthusiasts would hang out there. Sharon lights up while speaking about it. “I was like, ‘What can I do? I also live here!’ So I made flyers, then started to really listen closely to all the stuff that they were playing, which was dub, dubstep, dancehall, reggae. People were coming from London and Bristol and playing Haifa. When I was 14, they started bombing Haifa, and my family didn’t allow me to go anywhere – it was like, ‘you’re staying here with us in the bomb shelter.’
“I just had to run away. So I ran away to the north, which was apparently a bit safer, and there I got completely wild — meeting with guys, festivals, hitchhiking, drugs, everything. I was living a psychedelic life, so I was also checking out trance music, going to a lot of nature parties, just seeing what’s up. But always, my vibe was towards dancehall. I would put on on some roots music, and be like, ‘ugh, thank god!’ Simplicity, thank god! Love, thank god! Suddenly, it would all hit me. I can’t explain why it’s that way, why I want to hear it all the time, why it keeps me irie, you know? It just gets me high.”
She pulls out an LP, apologising for her record player, a second hand clucker that sometimes needs a smack to get going. “This is Jah Thomas’ Dance On The Corner,” she says, pointing to the record’s colourful sleeve. “He’s one of the MCs I really love, I really love this cover as well.” She begins singing: “Dance pon di corner…”
Sharon sings her songs in a high-pitched patois twang, to the point where before researching her background, I just assumed she was African-Caribbean. “Nooooooo! No way!”, she laughs when I tell her. “I just never really have this issue. I have so much love for dancehall. It’s funny that when people come to me and say, ‘We imagined you this way!’ I mean, it’s cool, I think it’s really good actually, from the fact that I can maybe change people’s minds, just a little bit.” When I ask her if she’s ever performed in the Caribbean, she laughs again. “I’ve never been! You understand how sick I am? My first show ever, outside Haifa, was with Daddy Freddy. He’s a legendary MC from the ’90s, he and Lady Saw used to tour America. These are the people who gave me the power to act the way I act. I get so many good vibes from dancehall artists, and it’s not even about where I’m from. It’s just the love for the culture, for the sound system, for the style, for the mindset.”
It’s a fine line, and it seems like Sharon knows it. In 2018, as the debate on cultural appropriation continues, being a non-black dancehall artist can be a tricky thing to navigate, no matter how good the music is. “When I first came to London, people were telling me that I have a problem with authenticity. ‘We can’t really have you here because, like, what are you? We don’t understand this, it’s not authentic to us.’ It was all industry people, though. That’s the funny part, I would never get shit from dancehall people about me being Israeli. Because for dancehall people, that’s the vibe. Of course, there’s history, of course, we’re going to keep talking about it, of course, that’s reality, but we have our little sacred place called the dance. We want to keep the dance fresh. I guess, in a way, it’s a place for everybody. You don’t want to have separation, rules, boxes, whatever. It’s like nah, not allowed.”
I touch upon the word “history”, where I think the crux of this issue lies, that dancehall and African-Caribbean music in general as an expression of blackness, oppression, culture. Sharon knows that she doesn’t contribute directly to that narrative, but is hoping to tap into a broader expression of what dancehall means. “The history is a part of the music,” Sharon says solemnly. “I wouldn’t be like, feeling the vibe of a Burning Spear album when he talks about Marcus Garvey. When he talks about how people suffer. He tells you the history in ways that I can’t read in a book. It makes you just rise up to it. I stand with this kind of attitude. I’m just 20-something years old, and yeah, I’m from Israel. But dancehall is a global thing, it’s international.” She turns to her record player. “Should I put another record on?”
The way Sharon plays records is all over the place, throwing LPs on the deck for a minute, talking about something else, moving on, pulling albums out onto the floor. “Do you want to hear some Lady Ann? She’s really in my voice when I perform, I really resonate with her. ‘Informer’ was her biggest tune.” She dances to it for a minute or so before digging out another album. “600% Dynamite. A collection of of classics. Soul Jazz Records, the best. This is my favourite collection. Prince Jazzbo, Scientist. It’s a rocker thing. Such a classic. Sizzla, Royal Son of Ethiopia. Classic. Horace Andy. Rhythm & Sound. You don’t know this? You’re gonna love this. They’re quite different, a lot of people don’t count it as reggae, but it’s really good. Oh, this is an important one. Do you know Toyan? That’s a bad one. How The West Was Won. Toyan is a genius, man.”
As Sharon takes us through this mini crash-course in her collection, her Miss Red persona begins to appear and her influences begin to pop out, from Lady Ann’s high-pitched chatting to Rhythm & Sound’s almost post-punk take on dub reggae. But what strikes me the most is how different, by comparison, her new album K.O. sounds, not how similar. It’s dancehall, for sure, but its shuffling beats, distorted vocals, dark lyrics and static-laced instrumentation make it an otherworldly listening experience. Her previous mixtape, Murder, also produced by The Bug, was dank and raw. This album builds upon that feeling with more depth.
“The mixtape, and everything that came before it, was strictly fun,” explains Sharon. “I was like a nomad running around Europe, after all this time of being in London, hustling, sleeping anywhere I could. Suddenly I was 24, 25 and I was like, ‘Stop in Sharon, build your life! You need to be legit, you need to get a visa, you need to do all these things that you didn’t want to do. I need to give somebody a tax number! I don’t want to get kicked out of Europe!’ My brain started ticking – I need to get some shit out on paper. I told Kevin, ‘Let’s do an album. I’m ready. I’ve been practicing my lyrics, I can express myself now.’”
Those songs, born from this chaotic, transient period in Sharon’s life, scintillate with a sort of darkness – like ‘Money Machine’, a track that starts off with rapid-fire verses and ends in a slowed-down, syrupy drawl. “I started to write straight away about difficulties in the Babylon system, and in my country, the fact that I am coming from a minority of a minority of a minority, inside a city of minorities inside a country of minorities, and everybody is fucked. All of these nationalist movements around the world, in the UK, in America, in Israel — every time I see too many flags I know something’s wrong. Put down the flag, your flag’s no good, man! When are human beings going to reach a point where they look inside?”
‘War’ and ‘Memorial Day’, are two slow, hypnotic tracks on K.O. that deal with Sharon’s take on the current state of world politics, specifically in her home country. “‘War’ was the first song I wrote for this album. It and ‘Memorial Day’ come from a depressed place,” she confides. “In Israel there’s this thing, every summer there’s war. Every summer, on the clock. It doesn’t make sense, how does it keep happening? It ticks like money, it doesn’t tick like war. It doesn’t tick like hate. Everyone knows that’s fake, people in the right wing government don’t want to end the war. I lost my prom date in the war. I lost a lot of people — everybody loses people in a war.”
At this point, we’re huddled on chairs in a corner of her bedroom, rolling a joint, as the Lady Ann album spins in the background. “On Memorial Day in Israel there is this big ceremony. Everybody is in pain, and the day after is Liberty Day. People prepare meat on Memorial Day, and cook it on Liberty Day. Don’t prepare the meat on Memorial Day! Be there, talk about this shit. And instead, what do you see? The president falls asleep, live on camera, during the Memorial Day ceremony. The president! And you’re like, ‘this is doomed.’”
I think this is what Sharon means when she says dancehall is universal. It’s the prism through which she sees the world, through which she processes her emotions. The “irie” feeling she describes is her emotional balm, and taking what can be a bouncy, jovial, chilled-out genre of music to an eerie and strange place is how she comments on her discontent with what she sees around her. “I hate getting into little discussions about the government, and what they should do, and what they should be like,” she sighs. “Wake the fuck up! If there is a society and someone wants to be included in it, reach for the good. Doesn’t it say in this book that they keep talking about, that we’re Jews because of that? So why is everyone acting like materialistic, capitalist bitches?”
She pauses. “If I lived in Israel right now, I’m not sure I would be speaking this way. How you feel towards Donald Trump, I feel towards Bibi Netanyahu. Right now everything is going right-wing, and it’s not going to end well. And if I am here to make my art at this time in history, I am not coming with guns, and I am not coming with knives, I’m coming with words of unity. Don’t choose to shoot first. I hate when people get nervous and start shooting, you know?”
The record player has died down, and it’s starting to get dark – that long summer dusk that lasts for hours. There’s talk of going to see the moon, but first, Sharon wants to take me to her favourite shawarma place in the neighbourhood. She swears that it’s the only shawarma she’s had in Berlin that compares to the ones back home. Apparently, I walk by it every day and have no idea. Nicola tags along, and we set off through the twilight haze, pon di corner, to watch the moon turn red.
Photos by Kristin Krause