Happy 50th birthday

How hip-hop became a key tool for Jewish nonprofits to connect communities

Jewish groups have used the musical style to engage with a younger generation and to serve as a bridge between different U.S. cultures for more than 20 years

Nissim Black was born into hip-hop royalty; his parents were pioneers in the Seattle rap scene, launching him into his own career under the name D. Black in the mid-aughts. His videos received play on MTV and he was considered to play Notorious B.I.G. in the 2009 biopic “Notorious,” but he gave it all up when he began his Jewish conversion process in 2011.

“Hip-hop has always been a part of my life,” he told eJewishPhilanthropy. “And for me to take my Judaism serious, I left [hip-hop] behind as one of the things that I sacrificed for my own life.”

But friends encouraged him to pick up the mic again. Rabbis encouraged him, too, and in 2012, he stumbled upon a broken microphone and saw it as a sign. “I was inspired by God to use my hip-hop back to give back to the community.”

Now a practicing Hasidic Jew living in Beit Shemesh, Israel, he said, “I don’t think I would have been able to even elevate spiritually if I wouldn’t have used my gift in order to give to others.”

Since his return to music, the “Mothaland Bounce” rapper has released three albums and partnered with numerous nonprofits including Amudim, Kisharon and the Jewish Learning Exchange. “Almost 80% of my concerts are run by Jewish nonprofits,” he said.

For more than two decades, Jewish organizations – nonprofits, youth groups, federations –  have used hip-hop to engage a younger generation and to serve as a bridge between cultures.

Hip-hop was born almost exactly 50 years ago when DJ Kool Herc first looped together records in his family’s Bronx apartment in the summer of 1973. Since then, hip-hop has blossomed into an international phenomenon, which includes MCing, DJing, breakdancing, graffiti, fashion and more. Rapping especially is a language that speaks to people from all backgrounds, allowing wordsmiths to translate their experiences into rhymes. Today, many nonprofits use hip-hop culture to connect with their communities and donors.

This unorthodox approach to engaging young Jews was why JDub records was founded in 2002.

“Institutional Jewish life really didn’t understand young people and really didn’t understand that the culture has sort of moved away from expressive forms of Judaism,” Aaron Bisman, JDub’s founder and a member of the second cohort of the Joshua Venture, the early aught’s nonprofit incubator that also helped launch the iconoclastic Heeb magazine, told eJP.

JDub, which was funded by UJA-Federation of New York, Natan and the Jewish Center in Los Angeles, also launched the careers of Matisyahu and Socalled, who crafted hip-hop beats from klezmer music.

“A federation event could be amazing and still max out at a few hundred people,” Bisman said. “But if you handle it correctly, music can reach millions of people… We cost less than Birthright to reach someone,” he said, referring to the free trips to Israel for young Jews. “For many people, an experience with music and culture can be just as transformative.”

Although JDub shuttered in 2011, amidst a financial crisis, the switch from CDs to streaming and philanthropic dollars drying up once the company was no longer in startup phase, Bisman hopes the company’s influence lives on. He sees younger Jews walking the streets, rocking Magan Davids and “Challah back” shirts, and wonders if he played a part in their embrace of their Judaism with such pride.

“Hopefully part of our legacy was making young Jews more comfortable expressing their Judaism,” he said, “and helping both the culture space but also American culture at large to be more open to expressions of Judaism that were not contained to synagogues or Jewish spaces.” 

This legacy is evident with newer nonprofits who use hip-hop to not only introduce people to Jewish history and culture but create dialogue between communities.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when Adam Swig, the founder of Value Culture, began holding Soul Vey events via Zoom, he worried that many in the Black and Jewish communities didn’t know or understand each other. “We wanted to bring light and educate both communities,” he told eJP.

The inaugural Soul Vey event, held on July 3, 2020, was a Kabbalat Shabbat dinner that lasted over three hours; it was sponsored by the ROI Community at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and featured conversations and performances with Holocaust survivors, comedians, rabbis and rappers, including Kosha Dillz, the late Gangsta Boo and Akil from the Los Angeles based hip-hop group Jurassic 5.

Approximately 200 people attended. Since then, Soul Vey has held six events, first on Zoom, then in person in San Francisco and New York, averaging 300 attendees from all different backgrounds and cultures.

“They’re a party but with the purpose of bringing our communities together in a collaborative and fun way,” Swig said.

Many of the Soul Vey events were partnerships with the organization Spill the Honey, which is funded by the Margaret and Daniel Loeb Foundation, Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, the Rowan Family Foundation and others. The Spill the Honey website says its “vision is to use the transformative power of the arts to change hearts and minds and seeks to move people to act for social change.”

Shari Rogers, the president and founder of Spill the Honey, told eJP that her organization uses “hip-hop to ignite change, to really ignite empathy and action,” especially within the Black and Jewish communities.

They do this by educating rappers and introducing them to historical figures, including Holocaust survivor Eliezer Ayalon and Martin Luther King Jr’s speechwriter Clarence Jones. Then the rappers create music that educates and inspires others.

“In terms of learning about history, we make it interesting,” Rogers said.

The use of hip-hop to spark change was one of the foundations of hip-hop culture, Swig said. “Hip-hop started as a way to bring awareness to community issues.”

Grammy award-winner Miri Ben-Ari, known as the Hip-Hop Violinist, believes so strongly in the power of music that she thinks it could mend strife around the world.

“When there is a conflict, if people just picked up instruments and played together, they would look at things differently,” she told eJP. “Imagine leaders, politicians, imagine they jammed together. A real jam session, and then you sit down and talk.”  

From 2006 to 2017, Ben-Ari, who has collaborated with Jay Z, Alicia Keys, Wyclef Jean and Kanye West and performed for first ladies Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, ran her own nonprofit, Gedenk, the Yiddish word for remember, which promoted Holocaust awareness and tolerance, but after finding herself bogged down in running the organization, she decided the best way for her to help others was to use her music to foster understanding.

She’s probably worked with every Jewish nonprofit, she told me, laughing. “I’ve probably headlined their gala. I still do.”

Often the audiences she performs for skew older. She sees herself as a window into hip-hop culture.

“I find that especially [in] the not-for-profit world where they have the conservative, older audience or conservative audience, [they] book me in order to almost bridge that culture because I’m playing a very classical instrument,” she said.

Getting involved in nonprofit work is a great way to bond with fans, said rapper and “Wild ‘n Out” cast member Kosha Dillz, who has teamed with both Value Culture and Spill the Honey. Fans get to know what you care about. They want to help, too.

“When you tug at the heartstrings and it’s meaningful to people, it’s an amazing way to connect with people,” he said. “You get to have a fun time and raise money for charity.”

Dillz sees participating in events that bring Blacks and Jews together as being obligatory for Ashkenazi Jewish rappers.

“Jewish kids love hip-hop,” he said. “Hip-hop is a Black art form. I’m a guest in hip-hop. It’s sort of my duty to bridge those two [demographics] together.”

Since the birth of hip-hop, there’s been concern over its exploitation by outsiders, including Jewish music executives who might not understand the culture.

“There’s appreciation and there’s appropriation,” Bisman said. “And appropriation is [saying], ‘Oh, that thing is popular or that thing someone else made is cool, I’m gonna use it to get people to do what I want.’ That’s appropriation. Hopefully, [JDub] never did that.”

But fine artist and muralist BournRich, who has teamed with Hillel, Artists 4 Israel, Black Jewish Entertainment Alliance and Creative Community for Peace, believes Jews and Blacks have been bouncing ideas off each other since “Moses and Tziporah,” and hip-hop is a culture that is ever-evolving.  

Hip-hop is “an organism,” he said. “It grows. It started out in the city, and it just keeps going to different parts of the world where you would never think… It’s huge in Israel. You go into a club and they play all the latest hits.”

Hip hop is “sample culture,” BournRich said. It’s innovation and mixing genres and using old beats and art to uplift yourself and your community. “It’s finding a song, maybe an old Jewish tune that no one ever knew, and slowing it down and changing reverb, making it a sample and then making a song out of it.”

And if a nonprofit can use hip-hop for good, they should, he said. “Why wouldn’t you use it?” Hip-hop is a beautiful art form that’s made tons of babies and tons of money, and it’s about bringing people together through the art form.”