"Wil-Dog Abers is Jewish?" The question comes up often for the co-founder of the sociopolitical salsa-pop-reggae-hip-hop band Ozomatli, which has won two Grammys for best alternative Latin rock. Hispanic fans address the bassist as ese, the Spanish slang for homeboy, and are shocked to learn he's Jewish. But both Abers and the band thrive on contradictions.
Ozomatli's songs condemn corporate greed, the Iraq war and other perceived injustices -- not with punk diatribes but dance party anthems. The band has played benefit concerts for the United Farm Workers, among others.
Abers, 32, is set to play Bet Tzedek Legal Services' Justice Ball fundraiser July 9. He recently flaunted expectations when he lumbered into an upscale Silver Lake cafe. Looking like a homeboy with his goatee and baggy jeans shorts, the affable musician dubbed Ozomatli "the soundtrack to the revolution," then proceeded to order cappuccino and a coconut cream pastry.
So why was this über-radical munching fancy food in a yuppie restaurant?
"In the past, I had a conflict with being successful in a capitalist society," he said. "But the way I do my protesting now is through my band."
Critics agree. Ozomatli "declares apathy a boomer lie and protest season open," the Village Voice said.
Abers' Jewish family background also thwarts expectations, but explains his devotion to the disempowered.
"My father was a founder of the [U.S.-based] Revolutionary Communist party, and my first memories are of him working in a steel mill to mobilize the movement," he said.
During rallies, Wil-Dog (born Will Abers) stayed with his culturally Jewish grandparents, who fed him brisket and taught him to light the Chanukiyah. Once, he discovered his parents had black eyes and torn clothing, courtesy of the police.
Due to fear of the FBI, the family moved often, renting apartments and applying for utilities under assumed names in poor neighborhoods such as Pico-Union. When he was 12, Abers moved into a school bus with his non-Jewish mother in Venice beach's homeless community. (She is now a teacher.)
"I hid my homelessness from my friends," he said. "Since I was often the only Jewish kid at school, I hid that, too."
The change began when 16-year-old Abers attended a camp that explored racism and anti-Semitism, where a friend pressured him to reveal his background.
Nevertheless, the budding musician remained troubled and confused: "I dropped out of high school in the 11th grade," he said. "I was pretty much lost, stealing CDs to buy food, smoking weed, living ... out of my car."
But eventually he found purpose focusing on the problems of others when he began working with at-risk youth downtown in 1994. When fellow workers went on strike, Abers led a sit-in and later put a band together to help raise money for a children's community center. Six months later, Ozomatli was playing the Viper Room, and, in 1998, cut a debut CD with songs such as "Chota" (a derogatory Spanish term for "cops") about police brutality. The bandmates themselves were tear-gassed while playing for protesters at the 2000 L.A. Democratic National Convention.
When Arab Americans faced prejudice after Sep. 11, Ozomotli brought Middle Eastern sounds to a 2004 album, "Street Signs."
Meanwhile, the bassist continued to explore his own cultural roots. He attended services; listened to Jewish bands such as the Hip Hop Hoodios; and participated in Reboot, a retreat for diverse American Jews.
It was there that he met Mitch Kamin, the executive director of Bet Tzedek, which provides free legal services at its two Los Angeles locations. Kamin invited Ozomatli to perform at the Justice Ball.
"They're not only a great band," Kamin said. "They speak out for people who don't have a voice in our city, which is what Bet Tzedek has done for 31 years."
As Abers walked out to his beatup white Ford pickup, he said he was enthusiastic about playing for Bet Tzedek.
"I get excited when I see Jews using their talent to better the world," he said.
For more information on The Justice Ball visit www.thejusticeball.org.