by Sarit Kashanian
I met with Asaf Goren in the apartment of his friend Guy, whose couch he used to sleep on, to discuss the release of his first album, Rachel.
Goren moved to Los Angeles from Petah Tikva, Israel three and a half years ago with nothing but a dream. You might recognize him from season 12 of So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD), MTV’s Are You the One?, Worst Cooks of America or Britney Spears’ Make Me music video, just to name a few appearances.
And now, the 26-year-old “Hebrew breaker” and reality star is making a name for himself as a musician with Rachel—named after his mother—which he released on May 1. However, the journey from dancing to making music was one filled with hardship, self-exploration and never-ending growth.
How he got started
Influenced by his mother, a contemporary dancer and choreographer, Goren began break dancing at the age of 12. With dancing always on his mind, he dropped out of high school to pursue his passion, breaking both legs and undergoing four surgeries in the process.
“She started it,” said Goren of his mother, adding, “If you ask me, that’s not something she’s happy about. She’d rather me go to university and study something. We’ve been through hell because of me. It’s not easy for a Jewish Ima.”
From B-boy dancing, to making beats
About five years ago, while Goren was still living in Israel, his passion began to transition from dancing to music.
“I was ripping my mom’s carpet, I didn’t have friends, I gave all my life for break dancing because it felt very natural for me and would never believe that something will replace this passion,” he said.
But because dance and music are inherently inseparable, Goren began to find himself intrigued with the tunes behind the pieces he danced to, and studied how to write and produce his own songs. As a break dancer, he grew up listening to hip hop artists like Eminem, Tupac and Biggie, while the Yemenite half of his Jewish ancestry also dictated the type of music he would be exposed to.
After judging break dancing competitions around the world and starring in an Israeli reality show akin to Jersey Shore called “TLV,” he moved to LA to pursue music seriously. And for Goren, dancing was his way to “sneak into the industry.”
It’s a hustle
Goren soon learned that the American Dream would not come easily. Upon moving to LA, he was rejected by America’s Got Talent, was living in the back of his car and spent most of his money on visa expenses.
The aspiring artist took up any job imaginable in order to survive in the new city, which include being an Uber driver, waiter, carpenter and even teaching English to young children with his heavy Israeli accent.
“It’s a real hustle,” he said, detailing how he nearly got shot in the face while fighting over a street location to perform for money.
Goren’s next stop was auditioning for So You Think You Can Dance. With shofar and tallit in hand, he was the first one in line at 4am.
His stunning performance got him through to the next round, but during an arduous week in the Vegas rounds, Goren got into an argument with the judges and was kicked out of the competition.
“What about originality, character, feeling, music?” Goren asks emphatically, following judge Nigel’s critique of the dancer’s audition. Luckily, SYTYCD brought Goren back in time for the live shows to replace an injured contestant. Goren made it to the top 16 in the competition.
Recognizing the negative stereotypes against Jews and his responsibility to represent his country, Goren said of the experience, “At the end of the day, I want be the face of Israel […] I’m happy to take the torch and show the real face of my people.”
Whether for his artistic talent or his TV-worthy looks, Goren’s appearance on SYTYCD has gotten him noticed for other roles, such as Are You the One?, an MTV reality show about finding love, as well as one of the topless male models in the music video for Britney Spears’ song Make Me.
All the while, Goren has made music a priority, even giving USBs of his music to Britney Spears and Jason Derulo, “even though my music sucked,” he admitted.
“I think that when people say this industry is tough, the thing is, it’s not tough because it’s hard to succeed; it’s hard to stay yourself during all this journey and all this hardship,” Goren said. “The real challenge is to stay yourself, to stay real with yourself and with your dreams, and don’t change anything for anyone.”
Currently, Goren rents a small space, sleeping in a bunk bed he built above his recording studio.
“G-d has been good to me,” he reflected. “I still might be in the bottom, but this is the good bottom,” he said.
Performing under the stage name XTRDNRY, which he justifies as a reminder that he is extraordinary despite all the obstacles life throws at him, Goren wrote the lyrics and produced all but three songs on the album. With his mother as his inspiration, Rachel embodies Goren’s true, vulnerable self, rather than the cocky, inane persona often portrayed on TV.
With 12 songs primarily from the past year which combine prayer-like melodies with forceful rapping, as well a sprinkling of languages outside of the primary English, the album certainly does not abide by one particular style. Goren utilizes his Israeli roots to create poignant art, stressing:
“My weapon is my culture. A lot of people, a lot of friends of mine are ashamed, or trying to hold back with it, but I think this is what makes us special. So we have to use it, and even to extend it—to exaggerate it.”
The first song on the album, also called “Rachel,” is a freestyle which depicts a difficult time in Goren’s life. When his mother’s boyfriend, who is like a father figure to Goren, suffered from a heart attack, Rachel was on her own, and Goren was unable to fly to Israel to console her because he did not yet have his green card.
“I cannot listen to ‘Rachel’ without crying,” he said, adding that listening to “Imposter” and “Back n Forth” also makes him emotional.
Upon mention of his song “Imposter,” Goren threw out a few expletives and confessed that it was “definitely the hardest song” for him to talk about, as it relates the emotions of his first real heartbreak.
He wrote the song following the breakup with his ex-girlfriend, an Israeli-born actress who he dated for a couple months. While Goren took the relationship very seriously, he found out that the woman had solely been dating him as experience for her next acting role.
Goren offered me a snack called Cookie Pop, owned by Adam Cohen, who sponsored the music video for “Flowers.” The video, which places Goren in the role of a suicidal person standing over the edge of a rooftop, is meant to pay homage to those who feel misunderstood or unsupported by their environments.
Goren himself was once a depressed child who felt unaccepted by his community.
“I had a very low self-esteem. I was a depressed kid. My dad left when I was four. My mom grew us, me and my sisters, by herself, and I was always the weird kid, the break dancer with the All Stars,” he revealed.
“Flowers” also conveys Goren’s sentiments towards fake people he has encountered in LA. “I will never trust a friend again,” he quotes from a line in the song. The flowers in the song are a metaphor for the success Goren hopes to obtain from going his own way in life.
“Look up, k*ke, look up!”
Goren belts out the phrase repeatedly in this aggressive, eclectic song on his album. According to Goren, he first heard the word “k*ke” when a Southern cast member on Are You the One? greeted him with “What’s up, you f***ing k*ke?”
Instead of getting offended by the racial slur, Goren decided to turn it into a term of empowerment, which he incorporates into a few songs on the album.
The Japanese lyrics of the song have their own story behind them. Goren had planned an appearance in Japan and had even started learning Japanese, but missed out on the opportunity last minute when his green card did not come in the mail in time for his flight.
“Look Up” is Goren’s way of giving himself encouragement in light of unfortunate life circumstances such as the one above. The Japanese words “yaruki” and “daitan” in the song mean “motivation” and “aggressive,” respectively.
Several times during our conversation, Goren indicated how his family has served as the drive behind his pursuit to the top.
“I know I can change so many lives,” he said. “It gives purpose to my life, and it’s blessed what I’m doing […] I’m doing it for the name of my people. I’m doing it for the name of my parents, my friends, family, community. Because at the end of the day, I want my mom to be proud of me.”
Yet even more than the drive to be successful, Goren says, his dream is to be a young father.
“I want to have five kids,” he said.
The self-proclaimed “mama’s boy” stressed that despite how he may appear on the outside, he is a “serious person” looking to settle down, once he has the time to do so.
Some interesting facts
While the lively character had many interesting facts to share about himself, here are a few points to sum up Goren:
- He loves to eat peanut butter before bed, “…and then I have sweet dreams,” he said.
- He does a handstand every time he gets into an elevator.
- He talks to his grandmother four times a week. “She really wants me to get married,” he said. “Forcing ”
- He has been vegan for about four years.
- He has gotten kicked out of bars for jumping into their pools and splashing attendees.
Asaf Goren’s album Rachel is available everywhere, now.