During my rocky teen years, I listened almost exclusively to Rap music. My frustrations, anger at the world, and dreams of a big future one day found resonance in the rhymes of Tupac, Nas, and others. Most beloved to me though was 2pac. Look, I wouldn't encourage people to look to Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg for an inspiring, spiritual experience. And yes, the most famous rap songs usually focus on themes of power, girls, money, drugs and violent crime. But while 2pac often focused on these themes and had lots of inner demons, unlike most of the others he was a true poet, often touching on meaningful ideas, wearing his deepest emotions, fears, and aspirations on his sleeve. He even wrote a book of poetry, "A Rose that Grew from the Concrete", a title that encapsulated his life: You can shine your unique light and change the world, even if you come from the bleakest of environments.
When going through tough times, I could listen to his intense struggles and felt like I wasn't the only one experiencing the pain I was feeling. In "Keep ya head up" and "Dear Mama", 2pac hailed the greatness of women in our world. Don't let anyone keep you down. I made sure his just released song "Changes" was played at my Bar Mitzvah party, a song that shows the power rap can have in a positive sense when deployed with an elevated message. Gunned down at just 25 yrs. of age, I think 2pac would've eventually moved beyond his thug life persona and progressed into a powerful, positive leader in the U.S.A. We will never know.
At 17, I began to connect with my spiritual side, leading to my exploration of Judaism in depth. By 2007, I was learning full time in a high level Yeshiva in Brooklyn, New York, home to the Notorious B.I.G, Jay Z, and a big Hassidic Jewish community - a perfect life balance for me. When the holiday of Purim came around, I signed up as a volunteer to bring the holiday joy to Jews in need. I was assigned by the Aleph Institute - which serves Jewish prison inmates - to visit penitentiaries in upstate New York, ranging from white collar to maximum security. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that living as a lofty soul in a body that desires only material pleasures is a bit like being in a prison for the soul. Being a prison inmate, then, is a doubled incarceration of the spirit. I felt this was a great mission to undertake, bringing the joy of the Purim salvation to those most in need of feeling redemption.
Armed with hamantaschen cookies, the Megillah scroll of Esther, and other goodies, my friends and I set off from Brooklyn into the snow filled New York night. Our coins for charity weren't allowed in, as the officers worried they would be used to buy things between inmates. During the megillah reading, when reaching the name of the wicked Haman, the graggers (noise makers) shaken by the inmates brought the guards into the room thinking a riot might be starting!
The next morning we visited a prison in Woodmere. One of the attendees looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't remember from where and I doubted I knew anyone in a prison in upstate New York. We sang and danced together, and this sad looking man smiled for the first time. We discussed the story, the power of positive thinking, and soon our time was up. I returned to yeshiva and freedom, celebrating the end of the holiday with gusto.
Years later, while visiting a small town in Italy, I turned on my laptop and read a shocking news story: Shyne, the popular gangster rapper of the late '90's I used to listen to, was free from prison after serving 9 years for an infamous night club shooting involving his mentor Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Jennifer Lopez. But that wasn't what so surprised me. What shocked me was that he had become an orthodox Jew and had moved to Jerusalem to study Torah. And then it hit me: This was the sad looking guy at our Purim party at Woodmere prison!
Now you have to understand something: Shyne wasn't just your average rapper. He epitomized the streets, as authentically gangsta as it comes. To see this transformation was nothing short of incredible. But it makes sense. We can only truly be happy if we nourish our souls like we nourish our bodies. Without any deep purpose or direction to life, nothing stops it from spiraling into chaos, and that's what Shyne felt.
Jews and Hip Hop have always been deeply connected. In the early '80's it was The Beastie Boys who started things off. Soon after, the legendary Rick Rubin founded Def Jam Records, later led by Israeli boss Lyor Cohen, the instrumental label that produced most of East Coast Hip Hop's success of the '90's and 2000's. Today, Jewish rappers Drake, Mac Miller, Lil Dicky and Action Bronson are running things, and producers Alchemist and Scott Storch have produced countless hits.
But it wasn't until Matisyahu came around that deeply meaningful living was incorporated into rap lyrics. Like no one else before him, he fused rap with Godliness and Jewish philosophy, and he impacted me greatly as I too looked to fuse Jewish spiritual living with modern American life and pop culture.
Rappers Nosson Zand, Prodezra, Zeke Finn, Remedy, Kosha Dillz, Darshan, Nissim Black and many others are today doing the same, and it's a beautiful thing.
Judaism teaches that we are to take our talents, passions and creative expression - and to use them to uplift the world. Everything in this world can be elevated to a higher purpose. Musicians have one of the most powerful gifts humanity has to offer, and rap is one of the most clear and direct mediums of artful expression. Describing gritty street life is real and needs to be expressed. But my hope is that talented artists, in whatever they're doing, will more and more use their skills for a greater, elevated purpose, to inspire their audience to be greater. We saw how powerful that style of music could be when Eminem came out with "Lose Yourself."
Whatever talent or passion we have, let's use it to make the world a better, more Godly place. I think that's what 2pac would tell us today.
I will leave off with this religious Jewish dude spitting fire on a street corner in NYC.