Y-Love recently spoke to BrooWaha about rhyming in Aramaic, the political influence of Chuck D and the rise of Jewish alternative music.
BrooWaha: Growing up black as the son of an Ethiopian-American father and Puerto Rican mother in Baltimore, what initially drew you to Judaism and what motivated you to convert at such a young age?
Y-Love: My initial encounter with anything Jewish was honestly a commercial on TV when I was 7-years-old. It said â€œHappy Passover from your friends at Channel 2.â€ At that point I said â€œmommy I want to be Jewishâ€ and I went around drawing six-pointed stars on everything in the house. It was like an instinctive thing. I wanted to be Jewish my whole life from that point. I always knew that there was a group of people called Jews and that I wanted to be one of them, whatever that meant. In second grade I used to give a kid in class my lunch money to teach me what he was learning in Hebrew school.
After that initial encounter with seeing that commercial on TV my mother went to work the next day and she ran into a Jewish woman she worked with and I canâ€™t really imagine what she said but it was something like â€œmy son wants to be Jewish.â€ So they invited us to a Passover Seder when I was 7-years-old.
My maternal grandmother wanted to be Jewish her whole life. She was always interested in everything Jewish. She bought me my first menorah for Chanukah when I was nine and my first copy of the Torah when I was 12 and so as I maintained interest she kept encouraging it.
So I kind of grew up with Judaism being a thing that I was oriented towards.
B: After starting conversion at 21 and traveling to Israel to attend yeshiva you were introduced to an emcee named David Singer, aka Cels-1, and you both started to rap to the text of the analysis and commentary part of the Talmud called the Gemara. How important was this period in honing your rhyming skills?
Y: At the time it was definitely intrinsic to my personal and spiritual development because that was the way I literally learned how to learn Gemara. I went to yeshiva six weeks after conversion and that was where I got all the building blocks of my learning.
When Cels-1 and I started learning together he was not really engaged with the text and the classes that much. I was really gung-ho about learning as much as I could but for me I was still learning as if it was a college lecture â€“ take notes, review the notes, things like that. The text wasnâ€™t really coming alive. So hip-hop just was a way to improve learning and it wasnâ€™t the only tactic we were using. We were also acting out some of the text. We were using various types of mnemonics but hip-hop was what was working the best. And so learning day after day in yeshiva, eventually the text became much livelier and we quickly shot up in the class and moved up an entire program in the yeshiva from the intermediate to the advanced program because we were learning faster than everyone else was.
B: How did you initially hook up with your manager Erez, aka DJ Handler?
Y: I was at Ohr Somayach yeshiva in Jerusalem with DJ Handler. He had a radio show at the University of Maryland and was really into hip-hop. That was when he was first starting Modular Moods Records (Y-Loveâ€™s music label). He had a couple of hip-hop bands he was working with and I used to go over to his dorm room in yeshiva and be like â€œyo Iâ€™m the hottest freestyler ever. Check this out.â€ And I put together my little two or four lines from that dayâ€™s class or whatever and he was like â€œwhy donâ€™t you come back to me later.â€ So I used to approach him and tell him I was the sickest emcee.
B: When did you get your stage name Y-Love and what is the meaning behind it?
Y: Cels-1 initially gave it to me. When we very first went on stage together in 2001 we went on as David Singer and Yitz Jordan and I was like â€œwe canâ€™t go on like that and you already have Cels-1,â€ because he had already been doing reggae under that name. So I was like â€œwell what am I going to be?â€ and he was like â€œoh, well youâ€™ll be Y-Love.â€ And I was like â€œY-Love? Why Y-Love? Why not Y-Murder or Y-Thug or Young-Y or something? Why does it have to be Y-Love?â€ And he was like â€œnah, it fits you, just stick with Y-Love until you come up with something better.â€
So that was my initial reaction to it. But then as time went on it definitely kind of grew on me.
Not only does Y stand for Yitz, Y also stands for Yisrael -- the whole idea of Jews coming together in unity and love. Y also stands for the transliteration of the first letter of Godâ€™s name -- so representing the whole idea of God loving us. Of course people always ask me â€œis that a question, Y-Love?â€ And Iâ€™m like â€œnot exactly.â€ So I think of it sometimes as Y is the question and Love is the answer.
B: Your multilingual rhymes include Hebrew, Yiddish and Arabic, but your revival of the ancient Talmudic language of Aramaic is truly unique. Why do you rhyme in Aramaic and do you think Aramaic still has relevance today?
Y: Ancient Aramaic definitely still has relevance today. Perhaps not outside of academic circles or Jewish circles, but it is still relevant. But bigger than that, I use Aramaic as a statement. Aramaic was the first language of Jews in exile. Aramaic was the first language of the street, the first vernacular language that was separate from the holy language of the Torah. It was the first language that Jews used when they were outside of their homeland, away from Jerusalem. And thereâ€™s a zeitgeist going through American Jewry today that weâ€™ve reached the pinnacle, the desired goal here in America. And I use Aramaic to partially just accent the fact that this is still exile.
Also Aramaic goes with the whole â€œThis is Babylonâ€ concept which ultimately stems from the third chapter of the book of Daniel, which is also one of the only books in scripture that is written in Aramaic. Basically King Nebuchadnezzar sets up a golden statue, an idol, tells everyone to worship it and he tells everyone â€œwhenever you hear the sound of any musical instrument bow down to the idol.â€ So when one person is controlling all of the media and when one person is controlling everything which you will hear than that creates a force so powerful that it can even convince people to leave their god and bow down to an idol. And so when we see growing media conglomerates and things like that, spinning of news stories, various other things that go on in the media and when we see the idea of greater and greater amounts of control being held by less and less people, that was the concept of Babylon and in Babylon they spoke Aramaic.
B: You mix a lot of politics in your lyrics and your Web site www.thisisbabylon.net keeps a close and critical eye on our leaders as well as tracking incidents of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Have you always been political or has your political awareness been raised recently?
Y: Iâ€™ve always been political. Growing up I was really into political punk rock from the â€˜80s. Rage Against the Machine, anything that was talking about the revolution. Even my mother used to play things for me like Gill Scott-Heron when I was little. Iâ€™ve always been intrigued by the fact that the majority of people are downtrodden and how is it that such a small number of people can keep such a huge number of people down. My mother was involved in the Congressional Black Caucus when I was younger and I could never understand why you would have voting districts that are majority black, yet they send a representative to government that would vote for legislation that completely screws over their district and has totally racist overtones and no one saying anything. So that idea of fighting for downtrodden people, of revolution has been with me almost my whole life and has grown with me and as I was growing up with Judaism. So when hip-hop came into my life as a way to express Jewish concepts in yeshiva, the politics just flowed naturally after that.
B: Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
Y: Like I said I grew up listening to a lot of political punk rock so that definitely still influences me. I definitely love Chuck D. Heâ€™s somebody that I look up to, not just musically but both on and off the stage -- the fact that he took his music and his political voice and made himself a respected political voice in the political arena. I look up to people like Mos Def and Common for keeping positive and conscious hip-hip marketable and out there and for standing against what hip-hop is unfortunately starting to turn into in a lot of cases. Iâ€™m a huge fan of Immortal Technique and System of a Down -- the same idea of taking extremely revolutionary ideas but making them accessible for the masses.
B: What are your goals in bringing your message to the Hebrew masses and beyond?
Y: Obviously I want to see this album do well. But as a medium term goal I would like to sort of follow in Chuck Dâ€™s footsteps and get more politically involved into political commentary and analysis. I think that Mos Def was doing a wonderful job there for a little bit, but I think that there needs to be more political analysis coming from the hip-hop world in the mainstream media outlets such as MSNBC and CNN and things like that. Iâ€™d like to be part of that.
I hope to get more involved in doing Jewish outreach with the youth. Basically the statistic is that if a Jewish kid doesnâ€™t have a strong Jewish identity by age 22 itâ€™s much harder to get it after that. So I want to be out there working with DJ Handler and (Jewish music site) www.Shemspeed.com building more Jewish events and a Jewish party scene and just helping to make the entire movement get bigger. I donâ€™t want to be the end-all, be-all of Jewish hip-hop. Jewish hip-hop should become its own scene and its own voice within the hip-hop world and within the Jewish world.
B: With Matisyahu paving the way for other Orthodox musicians to find more mainstream success, where do you see this movement going?
Y: The whole Jewish alternative music movement I think we have no idea how big itâ€™s going to get. Weâ€™re only at the very beginning. No one had any idea that Matisyahu was going to get as huge as he did except for a few visionaries at JDub and Sony Music. God willing Iâ€™ll also blow up in Jewish hip-hop. God willing the other musicians â€“ Jew Da Maccabi, NIZ, Kosha Dillz, everybody will blow up. I really hope that the mainstream media world has now been awakened to the fact that the new face of a lot of different types of music can be wearing a yarmulke too. And I would hope that now the ears of the A&R world and of the media production world has at least peaked a little bit to whatâ€™s going on with this stuff, whatâ€™s in Brooklyn. So while Matisyahu did pave the way, I think that all he did was just break through a glass ceiling and now that the ceiling has been broken, letâ€™s see what we all can do.
YouTube video: Introducing Y-Love