Yo! Oy! It’s Global Hip-hop, Orthodox Jewish Style
Walking through Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities outside Israel, Yitzchak Jordan immediately stands out. Aside from the traditional beard and long side curls tucked behind his ears, there’s nothing distinctively Jewish or Orthodox about Jordan’s appearance.
Where the Hasidic passersby wear tall hats and long jackets, Jordan, a devout Jew, sports a beret and an untucked jersey. But what really distinguishes Jordan from others in the Jewish community is the fact that he is a black rapper known to his fans as Y-Love. His first album, “This Is Babylon,” already for sale online, will hit stores in late April.
Y-Love is part of a new school of hip-hop revolutionaries who are trying to raise social consciousness and spirituality through their music. Even so, he may be the rap scene’s most unconventional act. Substituting profanity with religious rhymes in Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin and Arabic, Y-Love takes hip-hop away from the thug culture and into a spiritual realm. He describes his style as “global hip-hop” that aims to promote unity and tear down social boundaries.
“I’m using the holy languages to show that anybody who is on a spiritual level, wherever they are in the world, chances are they’re going to be on relatively the same page,” Y-Love said. “Hip-hop is some type of music that brings people together.”
But Y-Love doesn’t just rap about breaking social boundaries, he does it. As a black convert to Judaism, the 29-year-old computer programmer epitomizes the cross-cultural. His music reflects his religious conversion, which started 22 years ago.
Growing up with his Ethiopian father and Puerto Rican mother in Baltimore, Md., Jordan occasionally attended Baptist church. At age 7, however, he developed an interest in Judaism after watching a “Happy Passover” television commercial. He doesn’t remember why the ad intrigued him, but soon after seeing it Jordan began trading his lunch money for Hebrew lessons from a Jewish classmate. His curiosity grew into faith, and at age 14 he began attending synagogue at Johns Hopkins University. Much against his Roman Catholic mother’s will, at the same time he approached the rabbi with plans to convert. He was turned down because of his age.
“I knew I wanted to be Jewish ever since I was a little kid,” Y-Love said. “Through a lot of time, I was just waiting to convert.”
While his family suggested he would never be accepted in the Jewish community, Jordan remained determined. His conversion finally began when he moved to New York City at age 21. Thirteen months later, Jordan traveled to Jerusalem to attend Ohr Somayach, a yeshiva catering to converts and Jews with little religious background. His learning partner there, David Singer, happened to be a Jewish emcee known as Cels-I. The two discovered that rapping the Hebrew words helped them memorize Jewish scripture. Thus, Jordan’s approach to hip-hop was born.
“When we first started rhyming in yeshiva, people were like, ‘Why would you bring such a non-Jewish type of music into a holy place,’” Y-Love said. “But I can still open up a Gemara to the cases we learned in 2001 and remember what was going on.” The Gemara is a part of the Talmud, a book of rabbinic commentaries.
At the yeshiva, Jordan also met Erez Safar, who later founded the Jewish music Web site Shemspeed and the Modular Moods Records label. Back in New York, Safar, also known as DJ Erez Handler, became Y-Love’s manager. He produced “This Is Babylon.”
“He’s a genius as an individual, an incredible intellectual and a diverse person,” DJ Handler said. “He’s just a great rapper. With that sort of brain and voice, I thought he had the whole package.”
But in the orthodox community, where new technologies and modern types of music are suspect, not everybody agrees that hip-hop and Judaism match so perfectly. Many argue that rap and Judaism don’t belong together because hip-hop was created in America by non-Jews.
But for Y-Love, orthodoxy and progression don’t contradict each other. “I started rhyming in yeshiva, so there was no disconnect,” said Y-Love, who defines himself as an “ultra-modern, ultra-orthodox Jew” who happens to be a rapper. “Orthodox Judaism puts so much stress and emphasis on learning Torah and on learning how to better oneself. So, it can’t be contradictory to Judaism, because I used it in such a way.”
Y-Love occasionally sends lyrics to his rabbi for spiritual authorization. This rabbi, said Y-Love, once explained that the musical genre is unimportant if the content adheres to Jewish beliefs. “As long as the content stays kosher, the musical form is kosher as long as it elicits kosher emotions from the listener,” Y-Love said. He also makes sure to observe the Sabbath and schedule his performances accordingly, which can be a hassle in the summer when the sun sets late.
Staying within his religious framework, Y-Love is not afraid to speak his mind both on and offstage. He once tried to unplug another band’s microphones because he objected to their vulgar language. His profanity-free lyrics challenge political and religious taboos by warning of the dangerous direction towards which the world is heading. His song “6000” suggests that the world is at its worst, and it’s time to turn it around. In other tracks, Y-Love promotes peace and acceptance by quoting from both Torah and the Quran and inviting a Palestinian rapper to join him in song.
Y-Love continues to send a message with his new album. Its title refers to the third chapter of the Book of Daniel where the king, Nebuchadnezzar, sets up a statue in Babylon to which citizens must bow if they hear a musical instrument. Y-Love sees this as a metaphor for the growing influence of the media, which he believes turns people away from God and toward earthly idols. Babylon, as the first place of Jewish exile, became the epitome of an unholy place, which is where Y-Love sees society heading.
In this light, Y-Love’s ultimate goal is to elevate his listeners’ spirituality regardless of their religion. He sees his music as part of a larger educational campaign. He hopes eventually to do political radio commentary and teach.
“The same people who buy hip-hop CDs are the same people who feel most disenfranchised with the political process,” he said. “I’d like to be somebody who can speak to a younger community, speak to progressive thinking people who want progressive music.”