I am living with anti-Semitism. We all are, now. It manifests itself in cultural ignorance, careless behavior, and off-handed comments. At its worst, it is deadly. At its best, it is a persistent but mild irritation, almost like a rash. It doesn’t affect how you go about your life, but it never quite lets you get comfortable in any one place, doing any one thing, either.
Lately, I feel as though my relationship with Judaism is being consumed by my commitment to fighting anti-Semitism. It’s not a good feeling. Engagement with anti-Semitism — even the righteous fight against it — is a corrosive interaction, and one which often has a reductionist effect on heritage and culture.
“For Jews confronting the disease,” writes British journalist Ben Judah, “the most important thing to remember and share is the beauty of Judaism.” He’s right. The only answer to this reductionism is to consciously and mindfully remind yourself, and those around you, of all the culture has to offer. Recipes, books, novels. Blessings, prayers, songs. “Do whatever it is that you most identify with from Jewish culture or tradition,” Judah writes. “It all has healing power.”
My offering to this compos mentis effort is this: Jewish rap. Specifically, I’m talking about mainstream hip-hop artists who either are Jewish or have connections to Judaism. A surprisingly diverse array of modern Jewish rappers is making waves in the industry, producing music ranging from quick-witted comedy to frat-rap. This is homage to just a few of the most influential. This is a celebration of Jewish contributions to hip-hop.
Best Jewish lyric: “Just wanted you to be aware, signing off/it’s Mr. Black, Hitler’s worst nightmare, yeah” (from “Mothaland Bounce”).
Nissim Baruch Black (born Damian Jamohl Black) is an American rapper and producer from Seattle, Washington. His relationship with Judaism is more complicated than most — originally a casual Muslim, Black converted to Christianity in his early 20s. Reflecting on his troubled life, he began to question the origins and logic of his new faith. This tension caused the rapper to adopt Judaic values and practices, and before long he was a messianic Jew.
Black retired in 2011 to focus on his conversion to Orthodox Judaism. He returned a year later under his Hebrew name, Nissim, and launched a new career rapping about his relationship with G-d. Since then, he’s released two albums and one mixtape — Nissim, Lemala, and Miracle Music, respectively — and featured on the Shtar song “Rabbit Hole.” He now lives in Jerusalem, and is an active member of his synagogue and Jewish community.
Best Jewish lyric: “I said oops, gotcha, clutch like Piazza/Sneak between the sheets so hide the matzoh/Holler back challah bread” (from “3 the Hard Way”).
The Beastie Boys were the original Jewish rap legends. Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam Horovitz “Ad-Rock,” and Adam “MCA” Yauch not only changed hip-hop in countless ways, they provided inspiration for Jewish youth everywhere. Although they began as a punk rock band, the Beastie Boys quickly found success pursuing rap, and Licensed to Ill cemented their place in industry legend.
Although not often explicitly Jewish in their music, the trio undeniably changed the course of hip-hop forever, and for that they deserve a place on this list.
Best Jewish lyric: “Sicker than the Holocaust/That motherfuckin’ Jewish flow/That Third Reich raw/Concentration camp cold/Now we rollin’ in that motherfuckin’ dough” (from “Jewish Flow”).
Lil Dicky is one of my favorite rappers of all time, and it’s virtually impossible to listen to him without knowing he’s Jewish. He’s made it a central part of his identity — along with his privileged status as an upper middle-class, straight, white male — and takes pride in the rift this persona causes with the traditional profile of an American rapper.
Listening to a Lil Dicky song is similar to watching a Jewish comedian’s stand-up comedy routine. He mines his neuroses for content — from anxiety about saving money to his sexual prowess — and weaves hilarious, first-person narratives out of them. His song “Pillow Talking” is the perfect example of this brand of observational comedy, covering everything from vegetarianism to religion.
LD has almost as many critics as he does fans, spurred by his recent decision to work with Chris Brown and what many believe to be questionable content in his music. Nonetheless, it’s undeniable that he pulls off an impressive feat: skewering both hip-hop and American-Jewish culture, while simultaneously honoring both parts of his identity.
Best Jewish lyric: “At my show you won’t simply put your hands in the air/We can also raise a chair or recite a Jewish prayer/Like Baruch Yitadel Yisrael/Ve’et ha Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, amen” (from “Bar Mitzvah in 1999”).
Drake unabashedly embraces his Jewish heritage. The Canadian-born rapper attended Jewish day school in Toronto, celebrated his bar mitzvah, and openly proclaims his affiliation with the culture. He occasionally sports a diamond-studded chai necklace, and references his Judaic lineage in multiple songs. One of his most recent videos even casts Drake in a tallit and kippah, bowing his head as he reads from the Torah.
A few years back, the rapper also parodied his own bar mitzvah experience in an SNL skit. It’s linked here, because it’s absolutely worth watching.
Best Jewish lyric: “Search the world for Zion or a shoulder I can cry on/I’m the best of all time, I’m Dylan, Dylan, Dylan, Dylan” (from “S.D.S.”).
A self-described “Jewish Buddhist tryna consume the views of Christianity” who sported a Star of David tattoo on his hand, Mac Miller was one of the first explicitly and openly Jewish rappers of the 21st century. Although his early music was defined by the glorification of drinking, smoking, and sex, he ultimately managed to transcend the ‘frat-rap’ label to become one of the most commercially successful and generally talented icons in the international hip-hop industry.
Losing Mac Miller was a huge blow to the entire genre. He will forever be remembered as a rap legend. Baruch dayan ha’emet.
Best Jewish lyric: “I’ve been wilding since the rabbi snipped it” (from “Steve Wynn”).
Nissim Black isn’t the only American rapper with a colorful past and complicated relationship to Judaism. Action Bronson (born Arian Asllani) grew up in Queens, the son of an Albanian Muslim father and Jewish mother. A result of his short career as a chef, Bronson’s Judaism often manifests itself through references to Jewish cuisine in his raps — including rapping about being drunk on Manischewitz and using ‘brisket’ as an R-rated euphemism — and he can often be found frequenting New York’s Jewish delis.
Best Jewish lyric: “Let’s get this bar mitzvah poppin’” (from “Won’t Mind”).
Hoodie Allen is about as Jewish as it gets. Less than a decade ago, Steven Markowitz was an NJB (nice Jewish boy) from Long Island, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school, and employed by Google. Now, he’s an established pop-rap icon who plays sold-out shows across the country.
While unafraid to discuss or mention his Jewish heritage, Allen doesn’t exactly try to fit it into his music, either — he’s best known for lighthearted, melodically poppy music that references his sexual escapades and party-centric lifestyle. Still, though, Hoodie Allen’s chosen stage name alone is a fun reference to his heritage and a celebration of his culture — making him deserving of a place on this list.
Best Jewish lyric: “If I’m Jewish or Christian/does it affect your decision/to see past religion/to simply listen to wisdom?” (from “Just Listen”).
A one-hit wonder, Asher Roth burst onto the scene with his 2008 single “I Love College.” A frat-rap anthem, it resonated with college students across the country, ensuring it charted on Billboard’s Top 40 for weeks. Since then, however, Roth has faded from the limelight — although he’s still performing, none of his subsequent songs or albums have had anywhere near the same impact as his first.
Although Roth rarely talks about his own religiosity — it’s hard to do so while maintaining a pure frat-rap persona, after all — he is still Jewish, and so worth mentioning here.
Best Jewish lyric: “L-O-L-O-L I’m from the Avenue/A rapping labradoodle, half a WASP and half a Jew” (from “Ninjas In Paris”).
George Watsky is my best pick for an honorable mention. While not halachically Jewish, a lot of his work incorporates Jewish values and principles, and he references his affiliation with the religion in a couple of his songs.
Before turning his attention to hip-hop, Watsky burst onto the scene as a renowned slam poet. He was featured on Season 6 of Russel Simmons Presents Def Poetry, and in 2006 won both the Youth Speaks Grand Slam Poetry and Brave New Voices International Poetry Slam competitions. These roots are audible in his rap writing and performance, and an integral part of his identity.
Originally published 4/2/19.