Judaism and hip-hop. To some, the word association may seem odd or even contradictory. But an array of young Jewish musicians aims to change that perception. Whether Orthodox, Hasidic or Reform, hip-hop artists performing in the Washington Jewish Music Festival, running until May 21, are fusing the ancient tenets of Judaism with this relatively modern musical genre, one born of American urban culture.
As the festival comes of age — it’s now in its 13th year (mazel tov!) — the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center is showcasing a wide spectrum of artists. From Israel’s Hadag Nahash, who will perform at the Fillmore on Thursday, to the Chilean Jewish songwriter Yael Meyer, the diversity of artists is a fitting symbol of Judaism itself, of a religion and people that span continents.
“When you’re able to see and hear this amalgam of rhythms, it helps us understand that Jews have lived all over the globe,” said Carole Zawatksy, chief executive of the Jewish Community Center. “Jews are part of the cultures they’re embedded in.”
But the most surprising acts at the festival are the number of hip-hop artists performing original music influenced by Judaism.
Australian Hasidic rapper DeScribe, who now makes his home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, raps in English and Hebrew. His music celebrates spiritual messages found in the Torah.
“I try to keep away from harmful, negative associations like politics, gossip and hating and try to focus on making good music with good people,” said DeScribe, 30. “. . . My spiritual message is a part of me, and therefore my music. I see it as my inner way of communicating my message to the world.”
Kosha Dillz, 30, started rapping after meeting Matisyahu, the formerly Hasidic reggae artist who rose to prominence in 2004.
“I was rapping and recording street music with a hint of Judaism attached,” Dillz said. “People are always surprised, but they have a great respect for it. I try to make it all an oxymoronic experience . . . like a big Jewish party that is spiritual.”
Dillz and Erez Safar, 32, a producer and DJ who takes his stage name, Diwon, from a holy book of Yemenite and Arabic prayer, will perform their brand of electro hip-hop at “Balagan Boogaloo” a dance party at Eden nightclub on Saturday. Safar, who started the independent record label Shemspeed shortly after he graduated from the University of Maryland in 2003, mixes the Arab and Middle Eastern sounds of Yemenite music with electronic dancehall tracks. He calls it “post-hip-hop,” a fusion of world music that intrigued the festival’s organizers.
“We wanted to bring in contemporary artists who are pushing the preconceptions of what Jewish music is,” said Lili Kalish Gersch, music director of the festival. “It was less about hip-hop and more presenting great music that is part of your musical heritage.”
Those unfamiliar with Jewish hip-hop might find the association curious. How did this group of Jewish artists, many of whom identify with most traditional branches of the religion, come to find hip-hop as a medium of choice?
“The obvious start was the Beastie Boys, not Matisyahu, who was more reggae and not much of a rapper,” said Arye Dworken, creative director for Heeb Magazine, an alternative Jewish publication based in Brooklyn.
Dworken said the Beastie Boys, all of Jewish descent, conveyed a message that appealed to young Jews coming of age in the 1980s and ’90s.
The Beastie Boys “were barrier breakers in what was an exclusively an African American genre at the time, and they had that Jewish flavor,” Dworken said. “It was hard to pinpoint it in a specific lyric, but their sensibility and humor was very Jewish.”
Their song “Shadrach,” released in 1989, contains one of their most obvious references to Judaism: “We’re just three MCs and we’re on the go/Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego,” a reference to the Book of Daniel.
Also rap is a medium in which lyrics are paramount, making it ideal for performers wanting to share a specific message, Dworken said.
“Rap is all about alter egos and identity, and there’s a lot of room in rap for language,” Dworken said. “Hip-hop is such a good area for Jews, because it has this irreverence and intelligence and depth that we can relate to.”
Recent examples of mainstream Jewish rappers have proved more controversial. The rapper Drake released a profanity-laced video for the song “HYFR” — which stands for something not fit for newsprint — last month as a tribute to his Jewish roots. The video caused controversy for his raucous, sexualized portrayal of what he called his “re-bar mitzvah.”
Yet Safar, who is Orthodox, says the medium is not the message. Most of the artists on his label came to the genre via mainstream hip-hop and have learned to meld their spiritual messages with the medium.
“There is this saying in the Sefer ha-Chinuch,” Safar said of the 13th-century book that dissects the commandments of the Torah. “ ‘A man is what he busies himself with.’ If we’re in the club hitting on girls and drinking all night, that’s what we’d rap about. But that’s not we do. What you involve yourself with comes out in your music.”
Safar’s Shemspeed record label has a diverse group of acts, from Hasidic to non-Jewish artists. He said most of the artists he signs are not “overtly Jewish” in their lyrics.
“There’s no hard-core overt mission in our music,” Safar said. “There definitely is Zionist hard-core hip-hop, but that’s not really what we do.”
Festival organizers also wanted to show the link between American and Israeli hip-hop, inviting the popular Israeli band Hadag Nahash. The group’s songs often contain political commentary on civil rights issues and pacifism, with an overt message about life in the region.
“There’s a new understanding about what Jewish music is,” said Shaanan Streett, the lead vocalist of Hadag Nahash. “We hear similarities between our music and American Jewish music. We are two branches of the same tree.”
Through May 21. Visit washingtondcjcc.org for a complete list of ticket prices and events.