The scene at the Chipotle on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley at first looked much like any other Friday evening. Six good-looking guys in their early 20s sat around a table eating burritos, laughing and ribbing one another. They had landed at LAX that morning after a 16-hour flight, but despite their jet lag, the vibe was lively.
Then an emergency alert lit up one of their cellphones. Seconds later, a warning buzzed on another device. And then another, and another, and another, and yet one more. It was Oct. 6 — already Oct. 7 on the other side of the world in Israel — and the moment things got very real for as1one, the first-ever boy band comprising Israeli and Palestinian musicians.
The guys had arrived in Los Angeles from Tel Aviv, Israel, to lay down tracks for their forthcoming debut album — a trek made following months of visa coordination and more than a year since the group officially formed, after first being conceived in the United States years prior. The team behind as1one, led by longtime music executives Ken Levitan and James Diener, envisioned a Middle Eastern version of BTS, and in the effort to create it, Israeli and Palestinian casting directors had held auditions in major cities and tiny villages throughout Israel in 2021. (Auditions could not be held in the West Bank or Gaza due to logistical challenges.) A thousand young men auditioned; the six who were glued to their phones at the Sherman Oaks Chipotle had made it in.
There’s Sadik Dogosh, a 20-year-old Palestinian Bedouin Muslim from Rahat, Israel, with a piercing gaze and an acting background. Neta Rozenblat, a Jewish Israeli who’s 22 but looks younger, grew up in Tel Aviv, where he studied computer science before getting into singing, which led to a 2021 performance on the Israeli version of The X Factor. Hailing from Haifa, Palestinian Christian Aseel Farah, 22, is the group’s rapper and its self-proclaimed introvert. Twenty-three-year-old Jewish Israeli Nadav Philips grew up near Tel Aviv, idolizes Mariah Carey and used to perform as a wedding singer. Niv Lin, 22, is a Jewish Israeli from a desert town in southern Israel and played professional basketball before shifting to singing. (He also performed on The X Factor.) And Ohad Attia, also 22 and a Jewish Israeli, grew up in Tel Aviv singing and playing the guitar, a skill he flexes beautifully in the group.
On the surface, the six young men check all the usual boy group boxes: They strike the requisite balance between dreamy and adorable and sing ballads and bangers with heart-melting harmonies about girls, love and “dancing like the whole world is watching,” as one of their songs proclaims. But while each knew they were signing up for a boundary-pushing endeavor simply by joining a group composed of Palestinians and Israelis, they couldn’t have predicted that their message of unity would be so intensely tested before they had even released any music.
When the guys went to sleep at their L.A. rental house on the night of Oct. 6, they weren’t yet sure what to make of the alerts. They had all grown up accustomed to intermittent rocket warnings that often passed without incident. But by morning, it was clear what was happening back at home had little precedent: Hamas operatives had killed about 1,200 people throughout southern Israel in coordinated attacks on villages, kibbutzes and at a music festival. (“Niv lives not far from where that rave was, so he undoubtedly would have been there,” Diener says, adding that the woman Lin had just started dating, along with other friends, was killed in the attack.) Their scheduled sightseeing tour of L.A. was canceled. Instead, the guys spent the day frantically calling and texting with friends and family back home.
As news of the Oct. 7 attacks spread, as1one was given the option to fly back to Israel as soon as possible. But after talking among themselves, they decided to stay. “In the beginning, we really felt bad that we couldn’t do anything, that we couldn’t help our families and friends in Israel,” Attia says. “But then when you think about it, you really realize we’re on a mission and that we can be helpful. We can show the world.”
The next day, as1one went to its scheduled studio session and met with songwriter-producers Jenna Andrews and Stephen Kirk, who together have credits on mega-hits like BTS’ “Butter” and “Permission To Dance.” Andrews and Kirk had already joined as1one for writing sessions in Israel, and that familiarity helped the duo channel the group’s intense emotions into music as the horrific news from Israel continued.
“The toughest moments were during the sessions,” Rozenblat says. “I was told about two friends that were killed, Niv was told about friends of his that were killed — a lot of us found out about really awful stuff during that session, not to mention that now there’s a whole war going on.”
But by the end of the session, they had a new song. Two-and-a-half weeks later, in a sun-drenched conference room in Century City, they play it for me through a beat-up Bluetooth speaker.
“What if we just stopped the world/Hold the phone/Faced the hurt/Take me home/We’re not built for this/We’re built for more/Forget the score/Show me what it’s like when we stop the world,” the sextet sings over a pulsing beat. It’s the kind of anthem that’s vocally reminiscent of the Backstreet Boys’ heyday and thematically evocative of — depending on how you’re listening — either a tumultuous romance or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“How crazy is it to get hugs from Palestinian friends when my Israeli friends died?” Lin says. “That’s our story.”
As1one wasn’t necessarily intended to function as a singing six-man answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Seeing how K-pop and Latin music became global forces over the past few years, Levitan and Diener wanted to form a group from outside the Western world that they could build into a superstar act. They had experience with this caliber of artist: Levitan helped develop Kings of Leon, managed Bon Jovi and, as co-founder and president of Nashville-based Vector Management, has worked with Kesha, The B-52s, The Fray and more. Diener launched A&M Octone Records, where he developed acts including Maroon 5, and after the label sold its 50% share to Interscope Geffen A&M, he co-founded the music publishing and management firm Freesolo Entertainment.
Together they looked to Israel, a place, Diener says, where “we felt that what they have to say musically hadn’t really been given a shot on the world stage.” The pair weren’t seeking to create a group made up of Israelis and Palestinians — only to, as Levitan says, “leave no stone unturned” in their search for the country’s very best talent. They began traveling to Israel in late 2021, first to find the Israeli and Palestinian casting directors and consultants who could get them access to local music schools, conservatories and recording studios where they would scout talent. (They’ve been back to the country every two months since the first trip.) Ami Nir, an A&R executive at Universal Music Group in Israel, became their partner in the project and was crucial in creating connections.
Even before meeting any prospective singers, the pair — who refer to themselves as the group’s founders and producers — encountered plenty of challenges: raising investment money, working in a foreign market (and during a global pandemic) and, above all, the historic tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. During one meeting, a potential Palestinian talent scout was so opposed to the idea of a mixed band that she flicked her cigarette ashes at Levitan and Diener.
“We were really working from negative one, not even at zero,” Levitan says of the meeting. “She was very pessimistic.” But as the two explained their history in the business and their vision for the group, the scout uncrossed her arms and listened — and, shortly thereafter, joined the team. Such unlikely changes of heart happened again and again at meetings throughout the country. “I think people felt our sincerity,” Diener says. “They didn’t feel like this was in any way a gimmick or a pretext.”
As Diener explains, assembling a group from this part of the world inherently meant being “confronted by the question of, ‘Are you willing to put together a group that may be mixed?’ ” He and Levitan agreed that they were — but that it would require choosing “the right guys who could handle and appreciate that mix of talent within the band,” Diener says.
As they narrowed down the talent pool during auditions, Levitan and Diener met with families of potential members, selling parents, siblings and extended relatives on the idea, often through translators, and many times while sitting around the family’s kitchen table after a meal.
By this point, they had also enlisted a documentary crew to film the process; cameras were put in place after people close to Levitan and Diener suggested what they were doing “might just be historic,” Diener recalls. Ultimately, the local Israeli team was replaced with a crew from Paramount+, which has since shot hundreds of hours of footage for a forthcoming five-episode docuseries produced by James Carroll (Waco: American Apocalypse, Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer). “It’s in no way a reality series,” Levitan says. “This is something much more thoughtful and cinematic.”
The cameras were rolling during the final phase of the audition process: a May 2022 boy band boot camp in Neve Shalom, an Israeli village founded in 1969 by Israeli Jews and Arabs to demonstrate that the two groups could live together in peace. Here, the guys played instruments, posed for photo shoots, showed off their dexterity with social media and sang together. “You’d be singing to yourself, then someone standing on the other side of the road would be doing a harmony with you,” Attia recalls.
A psychologist was on site as well, not only to ensure potential members were mentally prepared for the demanding work schedule ahead, but also to weigh in on whether they would fit well within the unique mixed-group dynamic. “There were [guys] we really wanted to work with,” Diener says, “but as their community and parents became more aware of what this was going to look like, they couldn’t endorse it in the same way they’d endorsed the audition process, so we lost a few really good prospects.” (Levitan adds that these prospects wouldn’t have necessarily made it into the group.)
A year-and-a-half after starting the scouting process, Levitan and Diener had settled on the right six guys — it was just by circumstance that four were Jewish Israelis and two Palestinian.
When Levitan and Diener Zoomed Dogosh to tell him he had been accepted, the camera crew caught him jumping around so enthusiastically that his microphone broke. “Getting accepted in the band, it was like a fever dream,” says Rozenblat, who had been tracking 25,000 steps a day while pacing around his house waiting for the news.
Recording started shortly thereafter, with the guys intermittently traveling from their respective homes to a Tel Aviv studio. Philips and Lin say they had never spoken with a Palestinian person until joining as1one — a name that the guys chose from a few options that the team had come up with and that is pronounced “as one.” Over time, camaraderie grew, and by the time they gave their first live performance at a private event for TikTok Israel eight months after their inception, they were looking, sounding, moving and working the room like a band. (Levitan and Diener often use the words “brotherhood” and “unity” when describing the group’s bond.)
The bonding process ramped up in August, when as1one traveled to London to record at Abbey Road Studios with Nile Rodgers, who plays guitar on one of the songs written by Andrews and Kirk. (The session came together after Diener sent Rodgers the group’s cover of Rodgers’ Daft Punk collaboration, “Get Lucky.”) After they wrapped, Rodgers gave his guitar to as1one guitarist Attia, who says he was “literally shaking” and immediately FaceTimed his mother to tell her. (Overjoyed for her son, she cried.)
On Oct. 5, as1one boarded a flight for what was meant to be a monthlong trip to L.A. The scheduling turned out to be prescient: The team had considered flying the guys out a few days later — which, had it happened, would have put the project on perpetual hold amid a war that to date has killed around 1,200 Israelis (and claimed an estimated 240 hostages) and more than 11,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to reports from Gaza’s Health Ministry (an agency that, as The New York Times has reported, “is part of the Hamas government in Gaza but employs civil servants who predate Hamas’ control of the territory”).
While their families remain in the increasingly precarious situation abroad, as1one is in L.A. indefinitely, living in a rented house in Sherman Oaks with Andrew Berkowitz (the group’s executive in charge of talent who was involved in casting and has more than 30 years’ experience in artist promotion at labels including RCA and Arista) and traveling to various local studios making music. “Our policy with them is whatever they need, including if they need to go home, we will make that happen,” Diener says. “There’s a lot of people keeping their eyes on them.”
The group has recorded seven songs in the four weeks since its arrival, with collaborators including Andrews, Kirk, Danja (Nelly Furtado’s “Say It Right,” Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” Britney Spears’ “Gimme More”), Justin Tranter (a go-to co-writer for Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Maroon 5 and Imagine Dragons) and Y2K (Doja Cat’s “Attention”).
The songs as1one performs for me live in this conference room include a stirring ballad with lyrics fashioned in boilerplate boy band parlance (“I wouldn’t be me without you!”), rendered in gorgeous six-part harmony and delivered with passion. (They close their eyes a lot while singing.) When the guys launch into a peppier, sexier jam about being hot-blooded animals on the dancefloor, it’s easy enough to imagine a stadium full of fans screaming along. The songs are clever and well-constructed, and the melodies stay in my head long after the meeting is over.
The guys, along with Levitan and Diener, are quick to clarify that they’re less a “boy band” and more a “male pop group,” given that they play instruments (Attia is on acoustic and electric guitar, keyboard and drums; Lin plays keys and acoustic guitar; Philips plays keyboard; Rozenblat plays keyboard and acoustic guitar; Farah is on percussion; and Dogosh is learning piano) and don’t plan on performing choreography. And Levitan and Diener expect that the group’s story will attract a wider-than-usual fan base for an act of this kind. Still, as the duo sees it, their core fan base will likely be — in the high-pitched squealing tradition of groups like *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys — what Levitan calls “a very, very excited and active female audience.”
It’s not yet clear when the first as1one single will be released, and the group hasn’t yet announced a label signing. (Levitan and Diener say they can’t disclose details on label negotiations beyond that “there’s real interest in the band.”) They’re backed by a 30-person team and 15 lawyers representing each member individually and collectively across trademarks, music, film and general counsel, and repped by WME, where they also have film and TV representation. That documentary crew lives with them, still capturing their every move — from jam sessions at the house (where there is a “No harmonicas after 11 p.m.” policy) to the much darker and more complex moments of their recent history.
All this infrastructure is being forged with a singular vision: to make as1one the biggest musical group in the world. “I mean, seriously,” Levitan says. “That’s our goal.”
The stakes for as1one were always high, but they’ve of course become significantly higher over the last six weeks. Eight of the group’s friends and family members have been killed in the conflict. It would be overwhelming for anyone, and certainly must be for the six young men now living 7,500 miles from their home, where a brutal war is being fought. But whether through coaching or genuine belief, the guys present a silver-lining attitude.
“There’s no way to describe how bad you feel,” Philips says. “Your first instinct is to go back and be with your friends and family. Then a few days later, you realize there’s no better service to the world than what we’re doing, and it just gives us a bigger purpose.”
“We don’t want to be political,” adds rapper Farah. “We just want to be humanitarian.”
They also don’t want to be inextricably linked to the conflict that, like it or not, has defined their formation. “One of the things we’ve told them,” Levitan says, “especially with everything going on now, [is that these events] can be an influence [on the music] but just can’t be directly related, because [the music] has got to be broad enough where everybody can relate to it.”
Right now, though, the inherent message of an Israeli-Palestinian group named as1one may give the act a greater meaning than Diener and Levitan could have ever imagined, regardless of what the guys are singing about. Conversations now aren’t just about being the biggest band in the world, but about the Nobel Peace Prize.
“You may say it’s a pie-in-the-sky kind of goal,” says Levitan. “But what this has become is that important.”