Even Quentin Tarantino couldn’t imagine this script.
A 20-year-old Belize-born New York street rapper with an Ethiopian
Jewish maternal grandmother releases his smash debut album in 2000,
right around the same time he’s charged with attempted murder in a night
club shooting involving Sean (P. Diddy) Combs and Jennifer Lopez. After
serving a 10-year sentence, the rapper is deported from the US and
returns to Belize, where his father is prime minister.
Becoming religiously observant while in prison, the rapper makes his
first visit to Israel over Rosh Hashana, decides to stay, undergoes a
symbolic conversion, adopts the garb of the Belz hassidic sect and
begins studying at a yeshiva. While still fighting his deportation, the
rapper signs a lucrative deal with Def Jam Records and begins plotting
his comeback – not as a misogynist, profane disciple of the Notorious
B.I.G., but as an inspirational hip-hopper aimed at showing kids the
path of Jewish values.
Meet the double life of Shyne, who’s traded in his oversized basketball
shirts and backward baseball cap for high, white socks and a big black
kippa – at least if it’s on Shabbat or the Torah-reading days, Monday
“I dress both ways. But on Shabbat? Absolutely. Mondays and Thursdays?
Absolutely. But Tuesdays, Wednesdays? I have some leeway,” Shyne told The Jerusalem Post in a far-ranging interview that took place in a Jerusalem Hotel.
Born Jamal Michael Barrow, but now going by the name Moshe Levy
Ben-David, the 31-year-old Shyne has become a ubiquitous presence in
Jerusalem in recent weeks, whether it’s hosting a delegation of Def Jam
executives last week to discuss his new album slated for 2011 release,
working out at the David Citadel fitness center, studying at Ohr
Somayach yeshiva or visiting the Gilad Schalit tent to talk with the
captive soldier’s parents, Noam and Aviva.
Shyne’s troubled youth, which included an estrangement from his father,
Belize Prime Minister Dean Barrow; moving to the slums of Flatbush
Gardens in Brooklyn to be with his mother when he was seven; and being
shot when he was 15, was cushioned by discovering a talent for hip-hop
when he was a young teen.
Discovered and signed by hip-hop mogul Combs to a lucrative deal with
his Bad Boy Records in 1999, Shyne was featured on Combs’s album Forever and was recording his debut record when the fateful nightclub incident took place at the end of that year.
The intensity shone in Shyne’s eyes, even through his reflector shades, when recalling that tumultuous period.
“Someone shot at me outside a studio about a month before the nightclub
thing, and I got a gun. It was a terrible mistake, but I had post
traumatic stress disorder,” said Shyne, who regularly peppers his speech
with yeshiva terminology.
“So 30 days later, I’m in the club with Combs and [then-girlfriend]
Jennifer Lopez and there’s an argument between him and this guy, who I
knew for a fact was a stone-cold murderer from Brooklyn. I knew there
wasn’t going to be too much talking before he pulls a gun out. The next
thing you know, someone who was with the guy from Brooklyn pulls the
gun, and I was just defending myself.”
While spending time in a New York lockup after his arrest, Shyne
recalled turning to the Bible stories his grandmother used to tell him
growing up in Belize.
“When we had to cope with situations growing up, we didn’t deal with
them talking about Muhammad or Jesus, it was with David and Moses. Those
were the standard-bearers in my household,” he said. “What happened to
me was a wake-up call, like Hashem saying to Adam, ‘Where are you?’ This
was my ‘Adam’ moment. He was saying to me, ‘Where is your soul? What
are you doing?”
Shyne’s debut album was released during the period before his trial, and
rose to the top of the Urban charts – and not just thanks to his
newfound notoriety. Fans also found an authenticity in his brand of
hip-hop, fueled by an innate talent to verbalize his frustrations and
struggles into sometimes vulgar, sometimes misogynist, but always
Dropped from his label and ostracized by his former mentor Combs, Shyne
was convicted of possessing a firearm, reckless endangerment and
assault, and in late 2001, he began serving a 10-year sentence at a New
York maximum security prison.
“We’re talking from January 1, 2000, to January 1, 2001. I went from
being arrested, to having a No. 1 record, to being sent to prison. But I
see it all through the grace of Hakadosh Baruch Hu
[the Holy One, Blessed is He],” said Shyne, who started becoming
observant by keeping kosher and Shabbat eight years ago while serving
his sentence. In 2006, he changed his name to Moses Michael Levy.
When he was released last year, he was deported from the US to Belize
after federal authorities determined that, although he was in possession
of a green card, he had never become a citizen of the US. Shyne is
currently trying to get the deportation order rescinded through a
petition to New York Governor David Paterson.
Meanwhile, he returned to Belize, where in his words, he began acting as
a “goodwill ambassador” for the country, and also began rehabilitating
his withered career. The most successful US hip-hop record company, Def
Jam, believed in his abilities and, earlier this year, signed him to a
lucrative distribution deal for two new albums slated for early 2011
release – Messiah and Gangland.
With lyrics still focusing on the difficulties of inner urban life, the
difference in the new Shyne is the omission of profanity, the “N-word”
and misogynist references.
“Already on my second album [2004’s Godfather Buried Alive,
released while he was in prison] there wasn’t any misogyny, but I was
still a little more Ishmael and Esau – you know, a beast. But on my new
records, I’m finally Ben-David. I’m still a warrior, I’m still on the
front line, but it’s sanitized,” he said.
“With my first album, I was a baby, I was a fetus, I was wounded, and I
was just crying and complaining,” he added. “I had a lot to learn.”
That’s what, in part, has led him to Israel. Shyne explained that with
no Jewish community to speak of in Belize, he would fly every weekend to
spend Shabbat in a Shabbat-observant community in Argentina, Guatemala
“Everyone was always telling me to go to Israel, but to me it’s not just going to Israel, it has to really be the emet [truth], otherwise I won’t do it. And for some reason, my neshama
[soul] wasn’t driving me there,” he said. “Then as Rosh Hashana
approached, I was thinking, ‘How can I not go to Jerusalem?’ And by
God’s good graces, I’m in a position where I can decide just like that
to go somewhere, so that’s what I did.”
Saying that his time spent here since his arrival has surpassed all
expectations, Shyne added that it wasn’t very difficult to do so.
“I’m a guy that has simcha [joy] and kedusha [holiness] in a prison cell with rats running – and walking – around. Under the most inhumane circumstances, I would daven
with as much fervor as you can imagine. So to be at the center of the
universe now, I knew that whatever I was doing in exile would be
multiplied tenfold,” he said.
Since his arrival, Shyne has undergone the symbolic conversion that the
Chief Rabbinate provides for all olim from Ethiopia, including a
symbolic brit mila and the adoption of the new name – Moshe Levy
“Once I took care of everything, then you gotta get a new name,” he laughed. “So I replaced Michael with Levy.”
Despite his global travels, his upcoming album that he hopes will bring
him back to the public eye, and optimism that his ban from the US will
be lifted, Shyne was adamant that he’s here in Israel to stay.
“I plan on making aliya and buying a home here,” he said. “So even if
I’m not really here, my soul will be. It will be my stake in the ground
A full profile of Shyne will appear in this Friday’s Magazine.