One Rapper Who Can't Seem To Blend In

By Rachel Breitman

Published September 08, 2006, issue of September 08, 2006.
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Yitzchak Jordan can’t seem to blend in. In the Baltimore Baptist church he occasionally attended as a child, his passion for Judaism was an oddity. Now a convert to Judaism, the African American rapper known as Y-Love feels at home in the Hasidic community of Brooklyn’s Flatbush area, but his dark skin and leftwing politics keep him outside the mainstream.

But Jordan doesn’t care to win favor with mere mortals. As he declares in his song “Slave to the Creator,” he will not be “a slave to slaves.” Though beholden to none but God, the 28-year-old Haredi hip-hop artist has a few fellow travelers to whom he gives shout-outs.

Born Sean Jordan to Ethiopian and Puerto Rican parents, he found understanding for his early stirrings of faith from his maternal grandmother, Clara Lopez. Named after the matriarch of a Jewish family that once gave her father a job, Lopez had served as a “Shabbos goy” and wasn’t shocked when 7-year-old Sean donned a yarmulke to observe Passover.

“As I started separating myself from the rest of the family, she acted as my interpreter,” recalled Jordan, in an interview with the Forward.

Now his music fills that role, translating his faith into freestyle rhymes and danceable beats for diverse audiences. Jordan’s devotion to music is tempered by a religious fervor that precludes him from performing on Jewish holidays or until 72 minutes after the Sabbath’s end. Within these parameters, he will tour college campuses on the East Coast this fall, and appear in New York this month at Irving Plaza, in a Palestinian and Jewish hip-hop showcase at S.O.B.’s and in the all-day music festival Jewzapalooza at Riverside Park.

An early fan of heavy metal and punk rock, he first became interested in hip-hop while studying in Israel. At Ohr Somayach yeshiva in Jerusalem, Jordan met a fellow student, David Singer, and the two began memorizing talmudic texts via rap. “I called him Y-Love, because it has a double meaning, like the question, ‘why love?’” Singer remembered. Singer said he advised Jordan not to hide his identity or try to pass as a Yemenite Jew. “I always tell him, part of your genius and your beauty is that you don’t have to fit in,” he said.

Ohr Somayach was also where Jordan met his current manager, Erez Shudnow, known professionally as DJ Handler. A college radio hip-hop connoisseur, Handler was awed by the ease with which Jordan mixed verses of English, Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic. In October, Handler’s record label, Modular Mood, will release a selection of tracks from Jordan’s first album, “This Is Babylon,” before the full-length version appears next spring.

In early 2007, Jordan will tour Europe, Israel, Canada and the West Coast. But of all these far-flung venues, it is in his Brooklyn neighborhood that his words may be met with the most shock. Though rap isn’t an entirely novel medium to the Hasidic community — such groups as Ta Shma, and the rapper JewDa Maccabi, are also exploring the marriage of hip hop and Hebrew — Jordan’s songs do more than set biblical stories to a synthesized beat. “Yitzchak is in many ways on the avant-garde,” said Moshe Axelrod, guitarist of the frum rock group Eden. “Rap is borrowed from a secular idiom, and he is using it as a medium to express his faith.”

Jordan’s music also raises eyebrows with its criticism of the Orthodox Jews’ support for neoconservatism. His hard-edged track “6000” offers an apocalyptic condemnation: “See Bush tried for his crimes live on Al-Jazeera!” There is also the line “Desecrating the sacred put Sharon on his back.” After teaching himself Arabic in order to read Islamic Web sites and the Quran, he is confident that peace in the Middle East can be achieved only through more fundamentalist interpretation of religious texts. “A religious Jew and a religious Muslim are on more of the same page than a religious Jew and a religious Christian,” Jordan said in an interview.

But he is also incensed by the secular. He disapproves of immodest dress and mixed dancing. At a kick-off event for the Sephardic Music Festival, sponsored by Heeb magazine, he refused to perform until the show’s kitschy blow-up dolls and animated pornography were removed from his view. His song “State of the Nation” bemoans the lack of Orthodoxy evidenced in the National Jewish Population Survey, and in another song he argues, “The cesspool of secularism turned its back on me.”

Still, Jordan isn’t looking to reject his secular fans but rather to bring them into the big, unusual tent of his music. “If you are only going to get the message out to people who dance separately and dress modestly,” he said, “you aren’t going to get the message out.”

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