Jewish-born hip hop star Shyne tells the Forward that he spent his nine-year prison stint “wrapping tefillin.” Could he soon be rapping about tefillin? Freed from U.S. detention 15 months ago for injuring three people when he opened fire in a Manhattan nightclub in 1999, the 34-year-old Belize native now resides in Jerusalem as Moses Michael Levi and spends 12 hours a day studying religion with Hasidim. While he made a name for himself rapping about scantily clad women in the song “Bad Boyz” and for his professional relationship to Sean Combs (Combs and then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez were at the club the night of the shooting), today his adherence to Jewish modesty laws means he doesn’t even shake women’s hands.
Shyne is planning a world tour to coincide with the release of two albums, “Messiah” and “Gangland,” on April 5. He spoke with the Forward about his views on Judaism, rap music and helping Israel.
You have been strictly observant for seven years, but your move toward Orthodox practice was triggered earlier - before you went to prison when you were worried that your first album, “Shyne,” might get shelved. Tell us about that.
I made a deal. I said, I’m going to do whatever I need to do to make sure this album comes out… So you know what, you know how much I love women, I’m going to be shomer bris [refrain from all sexual activity that transgresses Orthodox law] until this record comes out. The record didn’t come out until the year later but that was part of the deal.
How do you view Judaism today?
Where I’m holding today is pragmatic. Everything I’ve done on a basic level of Judaism got me so far - wouldn’t it make sense to do even more because I want more?
You’re wearing Hasidic garb now, and you indicated that you may appear on stage dressed like this. Do you feel that the music scene will still embrace you?
There’s a girl by the name of Lady Gaga and she’s the number one pop artist in the world and she wears outfits that are stitched together with meat… So if millions of people don’t have a problem with someone wearing meat as an outfit, how could you imagine they would have a problem with a guy like me who stands for everything that any true man stands for, who has walked through a fire, who is honorable and whose life is based on integrity?
You currently serve as a goodwill ambassador for Belize. How would you like to help Israel?
I’m not so conceited as to think that I have any kind of solution or I’m the lifesaver. I’m just a person who has a voice and has an audience, and however I can use that as a tool to bring to light the great things about this country, I will.
You have grown very close to the Belz Hasidic sect. How do your religious mentors relate to your music?
There’s no irreconcilable difference between rap music and the Belz. I’m a young Jew who wants to be close to Hashem, that’s all that matters… As long as I want to learn and there’s nothing blasphemous about my music, at this point that’s all they are concerned about.