Reporting from Jerusalem —
The fast lane of the New York hip-hop scene doesn’t normally merge with the winding side streets of orthodox Jerusalem, but sometimes life makes exceptions.
Shot at 15, Jamal Michael Burrow looked to put gang-banging behind him and poured his anger into music. By the late 1990s, he turned a corner and became the rapper Shyne, the next big thing, protégé and comrade to Sean Combs. The makeover nearly complete, his former life caught up with him. A brawl broke out at Club New York, where he was hanging with Combs and Combs’ then girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez.
Much mayhem, gunshots and a high-profile trial later, Shyne wasn’t shining. He admitted to firing a gun but refused to say who else did. He was convicted of assault, reckless endangerment and gun possession while Combs and Lopez were acquitted. His 10-year jail sentence threatened to spell the end of the rapper’s career and put him back at square one.
It also reconnected him with his roots, and the man emerging from jail in 2009 renamed himself Moshe Michael Levy, an observant Jew. These days, he keeps quite a different posse.
He says he came to the Holy Land to regroup. “This is where my soul resides,” he says.
After arriving last year, he was introduced to a rabbinical court judge from the Belz sect, a stream in Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy. “I didn’t go to the rabbi and say, ‘Yo, I’m Shyne the rapper,’ but ‘I’m a Jew.’” And as a Jew, he was taken in. “‘Wanna study? Fine.’”
So the Belize native, son of the Central American nation’s prime minister, embraced the Belz sect, though says he’s an equal-opportunity Jew, embracing all strains. “I daven [Yiddish for “pray”] everywhere, I’m not ganged up with anyone,” Shyne explains in a natural mix of metaphors.
This past year he’s become a regular if somewhat unusual sight in Jerusalem’s synagogues and predominantly white Hassidic study halls, mixing striped religious robes, side locks and a black hat with Ray Ban shades, flashy watches and activist T-shirts.
Hip-hop and rap are well established in the Israeli music scene, which has been dominated by folk, pop and rock. It went from fringe to mainstream but matured to more outspoken protest, tackling issues including social injustice and the peace process. And it’s probably one of the few places in Israeli culture where Arabs are welcome as equal.
Convict to convert is a cliché, but Levy insists his was no jailhouse conversion but a natural extension of his ancestry; his mother is Jewish. “I was always a Jew,” the artist says. “I just became more observant.” But he’s still Shyne too, with lost time to make up and lots to say. Before arriving last year, he recorded two albums. And his time in Jerusalem has filled him with material to record another five, he says.
“Going to jail is not a boost for your career,” he explains. “That’s a common misconception.” Still, it doesn’t look like it hurt his. Shyne sold a million records while incarcerated and was fortunate to walk out of jail into a mega-recording deal with Defjam. The twin albums are due for release this year. Their titles — “Gangland” and “Messiah” — raise questions about where the rapper resides between these poles and whether his work can accommodate both.
Typically, he’s asked about his faith and practices, but he wants it to be about his music, the hip-hop born of soul and reggae. And he’s not jammin’ in the name of the Lord either, he says. Reconciling his personas, the rapper says, “I’m Shyne. Moshe Levy has had a great impact on the music Shyne makes.”
Admittedly, the rapper’s new religious customs don’t jive with profanity and other genre trappings, and keeping it kosher seems a hopeless challenge. Misogyny is out of his lyrics, but guns and violence still appear in his clips.
Shyne thinks the contradiction is in people’s minds. “I learn and study as an Israelite but live in a world where we have to use guns. It’s a tough world out there,” he said while premiering two videos in a Jerusalem club this year. “I see soldiers with guns at the kotel — the Western Wall — every day.” But he said weapons should be always be used in self-defense: “Better to be judged by 12 than carried by six.”
Besides, he adds, “King David was a general too.” Levy draws inspiration freely, from Mandela to Moses, Marley to Malcolm X, and calls Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, a father figure. But his main man is King David. “A king’s gotta daven and study all night but still get up in the morning to work,” he says.
According to Shyne, religion is about making a divine connection. “We all need help. Some go to a psychiatrist, others to the bartender. I go to the same guy kings David and Solomon went to.”
Now he says he wants to be the greatest musician who ever lived and have a million-dollar corporation — not for the bling but for betterment of others. “My mission is to give from my gift,” says Shyne, who is planning to set up youth programs in Belize and Israel to address poverty and provide alternatives to violence.
For this, his art must succeed and it must have integrity. This is where he tries to bring it together. Some may look at him askance for his combination of Hassidic attire and ghetto chic. But Shyne sees no conflict between a passion for religion and a passion for Lamborghinis.
“There’s nothing in the Torah that says you can’t drive one,” he says with a shrug. “There’s nothing obscene or profane about wealth. It just needs to be redistributed.”