Halloween’s already gone by, and Purim is still far beyond the horizon, but it seems like the slight figure standing in the lobby of a luxury Jerusalem hotel is dressed for some kind of masquerade.
The juxtaposition of the dapper black garb of the Belz Hassidim – including fashionable top hat, high, white stockings and tapered suit – with reflector shades, his bronzed skin and his enigmatic presence indicates that this is no ordinary young man from Mea She’arim. But on closer scrutiny, it emerges that his peculiar combination of dress is no mere capricious costume.
He’s had at least three names – Jamal Michael Barrow, Moshe Levy Ben David and Shyne. And they represent the three stages of his life: the first as an impoverished child in Belize with Jewish lineage the third as a gifted New York-based hiphop rapper who hit the top of the charts in 2000 before being sent to prison for 10 years, and the second as we see him today – a Jew spending time in Jerusalem exploring and strengthening his Jewish identity.
The shades are big, black reflectors, and he wears them inside and out. They conceal his eyes, so you can never really know what his expression is. Maybe, they’re a symbol of the street, of his untamed past, or of being on the threshold of a return to international stardom, but this time on his own terms where gangsta shades and haredi chic can coexist.
“It’s been a tremendous year. It’s my 10th anniversary [of his eponymous album being released], and just to have 10 years of anything is a miracle,” said the 31-year-old Shyne sitting in the hotel lounge, taking his hat off – but shades still on – to reveal a big, black kippa that covers his close-cropped hair.
“But to celebrate it with a new album coming out, and to be in the place where my forefathers dwelled, it sounds like something out of central casting, man. You know, Spielberg couldn’t script something better.” Try this on for a synopsis, Steven.
A 19-year-old Belize-born, New York street rapper with an Ethiopian Jewish grandmother releases his smash debut album in 2000, soon after he’s charged with attempted murder in a night club shooting involving his friends Sean (P. Diddy) Combs and Jennifer Lopez. After serving most of his 10-year sentence, the rapper is deported from the US and returns to Belize, where his estranged father serves as 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 and begins studying at a number of yeshivot. 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 BIG – but as an inspirational hip-hopper aimed at exposing the ills of society and through the back door, showing kids the righteous path of Jewish values.
Fade to white as the hero rides off into the sunset.
SHYNE REGULARLY peppers his speech with yeshiva terminology, eagerly recalling biblical stories and figures and regularly inserting himself and his struggles into the narrative. He embraces his Jewish identity with a still-electric fervor, complete with childlike innocence and Hebrew mispronunciations, part and parcel for someone growing up in an inner city environment far from traditional Judaism who is suddenly exposed to its treasures. But he’s no Johnnycome- lately to Judaism, and when he unfolds his long, roller-coaster ride, he does so with such an intensity, it almost seems like his eyes are piercing through those reflector shades.
His Jewish grandmother immigrated from Ethiopia to Belize, and her daughter Frances Franklin, gave birth out of wedlock to Jamal Michael Barrow in 1979.
Shyne’s father, attorney Dean Barrow, initially failed to acknowledge his son, leaving Franklin to raise the child alone with her mother in near poverty. While not traditionally observant, the older woman passed on the Jewish biblical traditions to her grandson.
“My grandmother taught me about the different struggles that Moshe Rabbeinu and David Hamelech went through – those were the point people, the standard bearers in my house,” said Shyne. “I lived the stories she was telling me about.
David was always going to war, but his calling card was always Hashem, no matter whether he was a shepherd or a king, whether he made mistakes or was celebrating in his kingdom.”
When the family decided to move to the US, young Jamal was left behind with his uncle until they got settled. He was sent to them in Crown Heights in Brooklyn when he was seven years old. Later the family moved to East Flatbush, where Shyne’s mother cleaned houses and took care of children to make ends meet.
“You know, life was tough. I wasn’t an angel,” he said about his integration into the US. By the time he was 13, Shyne’s brushes with the law for minor infractions got him taken away from his mother and sent to a boys’ home in Spring Valley, New York, where he turned himself around and excelled in studies and played on the football team.
“I was pretty fortunate. They say you become the son of the congregation when you’re 13, so that was my bar mitzva.
My mom wasn’t religious, so Hashem took me away from her,” he said, looking back on that period, which he called a major transition in his life.
It was around that same time that he discovered his musical talent, after latching onto the hip-hop and dance hall music he grew up hearing. Shyne credited his bumpy childhood for giving him the confidence to believe in his ability to perform.
“I had been through so much, I had lived through a nightmare. And the more you go through difficulty, the more fearless you become. So at that point, I wasn’t afraid to believe I could make music. Because it was all about the ghetto and the struggles and suffering going on there. So it was an easy thing for me to sing about exactly what I was going through – the poverty, the ambitions, the dreams.”
BACK IN BROOKLYN for high school, Shyne was shot when he was 15 in a neighborhood incident, but recovered and graduated three years later, then enrolled in community college. All the while, he was working on his music, writing material and dreaming.
“Obviously I loved music, but I had to be practical about life,” he said. “After I graduated high school, I bought an 18- speed bike and rode around Manhattan as a delivery boy. That’s when my music went to a new plateau. I would ride over the Brooklyn Bridge, and by the time I got to the other side, I had another record written. As someone who never imagined I could make music like my hero Bob Marley was making, or any of the guys I was listening to, all of the sudden I realized that my music was great.”
And so did some other people, most notably hip-hop producer Clark Kent who, according to urban legend, happened to enter a Brooklyn barbershop where Shyne was freestyle rapping.
Impressed by what he heard, Kent brought the rapper to the attention of hip-hop giant Sean “P. Diddy” Combs who signed Shyne to his Bad Boy Records label and featured him on his album Forever.
"I blew the right person away, he told Sean Combs and he heard and he was blown away,” said Shyne, who went from sleeping on his mother’s couch to flying to Beverly Hills first class to record with the giants of hip-hop.
While enjoying the fruits of the lucrative deal he signed with Bad Boy to pro-duce his debut album, Shyne said that the sudden luxury was a by-product not the end all of his desire to make music.
“Obviously, I didn’t have to deliver messages any more. But just like you don’t question when you don’t have anything to eat and you’re stuck with eating bread and sugar, when Hashem decides to put a little rice on your plate, you know, it’s okay, you’re just thankful.”
Shyne admitted, however, to getting caught up in the bling bling mentality of the hip-hop world of Combs and his homeboys while he was recording his debut album in 1999.
“I made a few mistakes when I got my recording contract. I really got into that popular mainstream existence,” he said.
“My t’kuma was rough, and it always happens like that when you’re on that derech. You start to clean it up, but in order for you to get over the hump and have a clean stride, you gotta get slapped up to get rid of the blemishes. They say at age 20, you become the son of the kadosh baruch hu, and this was around the time that all this stuff was starting to happen.”
HE’S REFERRING to having a series of cataclysmic incidents beginning with having shots fired at him in December 1999 while outside a New York recording studio.
“It’s crazy. I was working in the studio one day, really focused, determined, and the next thing you know shots are fired. I went into post traumatic stress disorder. I was shot when I was 15; I had seen guys in my neighborhood get their heads blown off. And the police-civilian relationship in the urban world was nonexistent so that wasn’t an option. I didn’t know what to do, I was afraid for my life.
So I got a gun. It was a terrible mistake” About a month later, at the end of the year, Shyne entered a New York nightclub with Combs and his then-girlfriend, actress/singer Jennifer Lopez. An argument between Combs and another patron ensued. According to Shyne, he knew trouble was rearing its head.
“I know for a fact that this guy is a stone cold murderer from Brooklyn, and I know there’s not going to be too much talking before he pulls his gun out. The next thing you know, someone who was with the guy from Brooklyn pulls the gun, so I did too. I was just defending myself.”
Three people were wounded in the shooting incident and Shyne was arrested and brought to a New York lockup. He claims that Combs refused to bail him out, and that for solace, he returned to the Bible stories his grandmother used to tell him growing up in Belize.
“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? You gave me these big ambitions and dreams, and I took you from nobody believing in you to giving you every dream you ever wanted. Get it together!.’ So sitting there in the detention center for a couple of weeks with the new year on us was perfect wisdom on Hashem’s part.”
Eventually released on bail, and awaiting trial on charges of attempted murder, Shyne was back to living with his mother in Brooklyn, as all his money went to his defense counsel. Then things got even stranger. His Big Boy debut album was released and became a huge hip-hop hit, rising to the top of the Urban charts – and it wasn’t only due to his newfound notoriety. Fans and critics also found a real authenticity to Shyne’s brand of hip-hop, fueled by a innate talent to verbalize his frustrations and struggles into honest, but obscene and sometimes misogynist, rhymes.
“I went from January 1, 2000, not knowing where my life was going, barely having $3 to get on the train to see my lawyer and make sure my mom had something to eat, to having a hit record, becoming one of the most popular urban artists, touring in front of 50,000 people and being on MTV,” said Shyne.
“And it was all through the grace of the kadosh baruch hu. I’m not a guy to wax religiosity, but when I was in jail, I got on my knees, I cried, I prayed. I said to Hashem, ‘Listen, I gotta get my album out. You can’t do this to me, You can’t send me back to the ghetto. You can’t do this to all the kids who are going to have their lives changed by my music. What do I gotta do?’ And He said, ‘Be a shomer brit, make all these sacrifices and everything is going to work out.’ “The problem with most men is that when they get a response from Hashem, and the response isn’t conducive to what they want to hear or the sacrifice they’re willing to make, they’re not willing to hear it. You can say what you want, ‘What is this guy talking about? God talks to him?’ but all my dreams came true that year,” he said, adding that the trial that was hanging over his head was inconsequential to the “miracle that just took place.”
DESPITE THE MIRACLES, Shyne was convicted of possessing a firearm, reckless endangerment and assault, and in late 2001, began serving a 10-year sentence at a New York maximum security prison. In prison, he began keeping kosher and observing Shabbat, and in 2006, changed his name to Moses Michael Levy. Shyne explains it as the continuation of a long process that didn’t start with prison, but with the Jewish identity he’s felt ever since he was a child.
“When I was in that boys’ home in Spring Valley, praying to help me get out of that place, it wasn’t to Jesus or Muhammad, it was to Moshe Rabbeinu,” he said.
“It’s like when you go in the army, you need to get all your equipment first. I was doing that with Judaism in prison – getting to the different stage of being that I needed to live as an Israelite. Obviously, as far as becoming a halachic Israelite and learning the law, I had a lot of time on my hands in the pen, and that process was accelerated there.”
But, like the forefathers of Judaism who Shyne identifies with so much, there was another challenge awaiting him when he was released last year, after serving nine years of his 10-year sentence. 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 naturalized US citizen.
“Yeah, it was kind of being given a Band-Aid with vinegar on it, but it wasn’t too much of a surprise,” said Shyne who admitted that while his mother was a US citizen, he had never bothered to go through the process. His father, Dean Barrow, who had moved up the political landscape in Belize and in 2008 became prime minister, was behind a petition sent to New York Governor David Paterson asking for a pardon for his son to enable his return to the US. Noted civil rights Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, whom Shyne calls “my other father,” also has gotten involved in the campaign to clear his name. So far, the process has not borne any fruit, butShyne is optimistic that it’s only a matter of time.
“It’s a process, Rome wasn’t built in a night, not with a snap of the finger,” he said. Meanwhile, he made lemonade out of this lemon by returning to Belize and taking on the role of a goodwill ambassador, promoting the country and working with youth there.
“Instead of going boo hoo hoo, I looked at the deportation as an opportunity to do what I can for my people, whether monetarily or spiritually. It’s a great country, a diamond in the rough,” he said. “Of course its devastating that I can’t walk down Fifth Avenue and smell that polluted New York air, but I try not to dwell on the negative.”
And with the story of Shyne, as many negatives as there are, there always seems to be even more positive elements. One is that soon after his release, he was approached by Def Jam Records, the biggest hip-hop label, to sign a distribution deal for two new albums he is planning to release next year – Messiah and Gangland.
“There was was no guarantee I would come out of jail and have investors or have anybody interested in who I am.
You know, in the entertainment world attention deficit disorder is the rave and 10 years is a long time. So the fact that I came out and I had guys like Jimmy Iovine [chairman of Interscope-Geffen- A&M], Lior Cohen [Warner Brothers] and LA Reid [chairman of Def Jam] wanting to be in business with me and feeling I had any potential left was a miracle.”
“We’re very excited about working with Shyne. He’s a revered hip-hop star, and we want to give him that special attention he deserves,” said Steve Carless, national lifestyle director of Def Jam, in a phone call from his New York office. Carless and colleagues from Def Jam flew here last week to meet with Shyne in Jerusalem.
JERUSALEM, where Shyne is spending most of his time now, is the other positive that resulted from a negative in his life.
There’s virtually no Jewish community in Belize, meaning that upon his return there earlier this year, the Shabbat observant Shyne, flew to a nearby country with vibrant synagogue life, like Argentina, Guatemala, Panama or Costa Rica, each Shabbat.
“I was trying to figure out where to go for the High Holy Days. I’m an organic kind of guy, and even though everyone was telling me go to Israel. To me it’s not about just going to Israel. It has to be real – it has to be the emet, and for some reason my neshama wasn’t driving me there,” he said.
“Then I started thinking, we say next year in Jerusalem, how is it that I’m out of prison and not going there? By the grace of God, I’m in a position where I can decide to come and go pretty quickly, so I just flew here. So what do I do when I get to Israel? Go to a kosher McDonald’s or do I go daven Shaharit? That decision determines the kind of relationship you’re going to have with Israel. I went to Bnei Brak and davened Shaharit. When you have a beginning like that, things tend to work out for the rest of the trip.”
Shyne has become an ubiquitous presence in Jerusalem in recent weeks, whether working out at the David Citadel fitness center, studying at the Or Sameach, Belz or Mirs yeshivot or visiting the Gilad Schalit tent to talk with Noam and Aviva Schalit.
“I’m just a guy getting connected,” he said. “I met the head of a yeshiva who told me I should learn, but he understood I have to be in the world – I’m a businessman and an artist, but my intellect could always use some more refining and studying Talmud is a good thing, so I set some time aside.”
Saying that his time spent here has surpassed all expectations, Shyne added that it wasn’t very difficult to do so.
“I’m a guy that has simcha and kedusha 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. “I plan on making aliya and buying a home here. So even if I’m not really here, my soul will be. It will be my stake in the ground here.”
Since his arrival, Shyne has undergone a symbolic conversion that the Chief Rabbinate provides for all olim from Ethiopia, including a symbolic brit mila and the adoption of a 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.”
“He has a humbleness about him and a respect for the rabbis and authorities,” said Jeff Seidel, a rabbi who learns with Shyne at the Or Sameach yeshiva. “He’s very dedicated to learning; his questions are intellectual, to the point and not from left field. He’s focused and concentrating on what he’s learning.”
SHYNE JOINED SEIDEL this past Shabbat in Prague for a shabbaton Seidel organized for overseas university students here.
“He spoke to the students and was very well received. He’s a warm, sincere individual,” said Seidel, an observation seconded by Charley Levine, the head of Lone Star Communication, who is advising the singer on ways to use his Jewish identity to inspire Jewish youth worldwide.
“I see that he electrifies young people; he sincerely wants to use his newfound Jewish identity to not only excite young people but excite them in a direction of Judaism and Israel,” said Levine. “He’s a very intelligent guy. I may have been biased, not knowing much about his world and knowing he’s just out of jail.
I’m expecting one thing, and the guy shows up and he’s very smart, articulate, is very sincere.”
That observation emerges despite the two sides of Shyne that Levine has seen – the pious hassid, and the T-shirted hiphopper.
“I believe that he reflects Jews who are going through a strong identity transition in their lives. All the rest is sort of a sign of the tumultuous period he’s going through,” said Levine.
“That’s why it’s one day one thing, another day another thing. On the first day I met him, he came in wearing a Pink Floyd shirt and a kippa, The next time he comes in with the whole black suit gig, and I said, ‘What’s this?’ He said, ‘Trust me, I’ve got the Pink Floyd shirt on underneath.’ And I hope he continues to do that because that’s part of who he is.”
Shyne acknowledged that he’s not going 100 percent haredi, but insisted that it was not done on a fashion whim.
“I dress both ways. But on Shabbat? Absolutely. Mondays and Thursdays? Absolutely. But Tuesdays, Wednesdays? I have some leeway,” he said.
Leeway has not been something that’s been part of Shyne’s lexicon much in his life, as he’s always seemed to live on the edge. With his new physical and spiritual base in Israel, he’s hoping to take some of the edge off, and that begins with his new persona as a PG-rated rapper instead of the XXX rhymer he started as. With lyrics still focusing on the difficulties of inner city life, the difference in the new Shyne rhymes is the omission of profanity, the N-word, and misogynist references.
“With my first album, I was a baby, I was a fetus, I was wounded and I was just crying, complaining,” he said “Already on my second album, 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.”
“I’m not a Jewish rapper, I’m not making Jewish music,” said Shyne, explaining how intends to incorporate his budding beliefs into a form of music built on rebellion, violence and negative images.
“Back in the 1950s, music came from the churches and the choirs. Ray Charles took gospel music and turned it into hit records. Aretha Franklin was a choir singer. So music comes from a place of kedusha. So what I’m singing about is relative to all human beings. There’s poverty and people stand by and watch it happen.
I don’t rap about it in a halachic way using Hashem’s name; I talk about it in layman’s terms,” he said, beginning to recite the lyrics to one of his new song called “Roller Song.”
“My name ain’t Obama and I ain’t Lebron/I ride a baby on the wing/And life is hard/There’s nobody to blame/This is all I walk/I say an ex-con can’t get no job/So what am I supposed to do/To feed my mom.”
“The honesty of those words is devastating,” he explains. “There are so many Africans and Latins in the US and around the world who have this problem.
My music may be sanitized, but I always say that vulgarity and obscenity is not in the words, but in actions. People starving, and people not caring about people starving, there’s nothing more obscene than that.”
DEF JAM’S Steve Carless doesn’t see the double issues of a clean Shyne decked in haredi getup and his inability to currently enter the US as obstacles to returning him to the public eye, merely challenges.
“With the rise of technology, it alleviates a lot of the complications about promoting him without him actually being here. It’s always great to be able to sit down and see someone perform live, but I don’t think it will hinder our efforts to reintroduce him to the audience,” he said.
“As regards to his Judaism, hip-hop is all about self expression. Look at the Brand Nubians, they’re Muslim, and Russell Simmons, the head of a major label like Def Jam, is Buddhist. So Shyne’s Judaism won’t be a problem at all, when we’re able to explain to everyone what he’s is all about now.”
What Shyne is all about, or what he’ll be about when and if his entry ban to the US is rescinded, is a good question.
Is his seemingly sincere interest and adoption of a Torah life here to
stay, or will it fall by the wayside now that the bling and temptation
it brings is returning to his life? As a reporter pulls his car to the
front of the hotel to take Shyne for his study date at Or Sameach, he
reaches across and opens the passenger side door.
“That’s okay, I’m used to sitting in back,” the rapper said, as he
closed the front door and sidled in to the back seat. It was unclear
whether he was referring to the times in his life he’s spent in
limousines or in the backs of police cars. Either way, it was impossible
to tell what he was thinking, because his shades were still on.