Once-notorious rapper takes a 'Shyne' to Jerusalem

Moshe Levy Ben-David’s saga involves an Ethiopian Jewish grandmother, a night club shooting, immersion in Orthodoxy and aliya plans.

Shyne rapper 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Shyne rapper 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 and Thursday.
“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 straightforward rhymes.
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 or Panama.
“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 Ben-David.
“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 here.”
A full profile of Shyne will appear in this Friday’s Magazine.