Jay-Z, 50 Cent and now — joining the pantheon of nicknamed musical wonders — there’s MC Hy.
Though Hyim Jacob Ross is happy to be known by his full moniker, clearly he has taken on some of the characteristics of the hip-hop world. But, don’t call him a Jewish hip-hop artist. Though he collaborates with Wyclef Jean — a member of the blockbuster 1990s hip-hop trio the Fugees — on his upcoming album, “Hyim and the Fat Foakland Orchestra,” Ross shuns musical labels. The record also features Cuban pianist Omar Sosa and the pop-rock giants Dave Matthews Band.
Despite this diversity, Ross’s listeners can’t help trying to pin him down. Is he a 20-something Sting? An American Peter Gabriel? Or, is he, as one enthusiastic fan at Los Angeles’s Knitting Factory suggested, “the Jewish Chris Martin”?
When pressed, the label that Ross gives is “urban world beat.” His debut album, “ Let Out a Little Peace” weaves a tikkun olam message within such sundry rhythms as Brazilian, hip hop, Cuban, pop rock and jazz. The Oakland, Calif., native developed a passion for international unity, he said, both from his own Ashkenazic Jewish cultural heritage and his post-college travels around the world. While he was already fluent with piano and guitar, the trip encouraged him to incorporate instruments like the sitar and the African steel drum into his work. Today, the eclectic maestro, wearing many musical masks, performs both as MC Hy on the new release, “Celebrate Hip Hop: Jewish Artists From Around the Globe,” and as the Bono-like Hyim on more reflective recordings.
“My songs don’t fall into one collective category,” said Ross, who snagged an award for “Let Out a Little Peace,” at this year’s National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences songwriting competition. “I’ve heard other people describe my music, and I’m just amazed at what they come up with. I’ve heard everything from Ozomatli to Randy Newman. But that’s its charm and its beauty.”
Human suffering and the redemption of mankind are two of the major themes in Ross’s melting-pot music. The singer-songwriter, who teaches Hebrew school part time, calls for a healing of today’s global wounds through education, as well as through understanding and tolerance. Music, he hopes, has the power to heal through all three. “Though a lot of people are hurting, and we have a lot of anger,” Ross said, “we need to be aware of how we are affected negatively by our reality and turn that into something positive.”
This optimism doesn’t mean the musician shies away from heavy or difficult subjects. The title track on “Let Out a Little Peace” takes place in an urban café and tells the story of “two large bullets flying through the air/Bombs over an apple/Snapping our sense of security.” “The song is about 9/11,” Ross explained. “It’s about violence all over the world. It’s about external bombs and internal bombs. It’s about the way we treat each other and the violence that permeates society.”
Also permeating society is hip-hop music, and Ross is quick to point out that our global fascination with the genre has as much — or perhaps even more — to do with historical strife as it does with Jamaican dance rhythms. “In some ways this is a culture of violence founded on genocide,” he said. “African-Americans were brought over as slaves. Jews came over who were escaping the Holocaust. [Hip-hop] songs express that sorrow. People, no matter what their ethnicity, want to express that sorrow.”
And while resisting the label of Jewish hip-hop artist, the ever-evolving Ross will concede that the musical art form might have particular appeal for Jews. “Judaism is a tradition of the word,” he said. “If you look at world religions and cultures, Judaism is really about a book and reading and communicating and literature. Hip hop, too, is about oral tradition and storytelling. So the two go hand in hand.”
Malina Sarah Saval is a writer living in Los Angeles.