There’s an interesting conversation happening over on one of my favorite websites, the inimitable RapGenius. (Haven’t heard of it? Don’t worry, the New York Times is on it.) Basically, it’s this: Why are rappers obsessed with Jews? Jay-Z and Rick Ross have both chimed in on the idea of “black bar mitzvahs.” Kanye West doesn’t worry about being sued, because his lawyers are Jewish. Nas rejected the scapegoating of Jews: “You blame your own shortcomings on sex and race / The mafia, homosexuals and all the Jews / It’s hogwash point of views, stereotypical / Anti-Semitic like the foul words Gibson spewed / And it’s pathetic.” And Drake, who grew up attending Jewish day school in Toronto, re-created his bar mitzvah in the video for his song “HYFR.”
So, why the interest? Some of it may be aspirational; rappers, after all, are famously boastful about material wealth. The general prosperity of American Jews may be a source of respect and admiration for young rappers eager to earn their own fortune.
Maybe, as some suggest on the RapGenius forum, there’s a sense of kinship between two groups with a history of struggle. In a rather succinct summation of nearly six millenia of Jewish history (with bonus points given for a Kanye reference), one commenter notes, “Possibly because the Jewish people are one of the most hated races of all time. OF ALL TIME. Seriously, go back in time, and there’s almost consistently someone oppressing or hating the Jews during most time periods.” It’s a rare kind of camaraderie.
There is, though, an undercurrent of something vaguely ugly. In “What More Can I Say,” Beyonce’s husband raps that he is “the Martha Stewart that’s far from Jewish.” RapGenius tells us that “Hov is simply saying that he is far from ‘Jewish’—by which he means ‘naturally gifted with money’—as opposed to everyone’s favorite female-CEO-turned-Wall-Street-thug. Jay-Z has a habit of using ‘Jewish’ to mean ‘good or conservative with money.'” It’s a short leap from “good or conservative with money” to money-grubbing Shylockery. And Kanye’s Jewish attorneys on retainer? Maybe it’s merely an homage to Yale Law’s finest, or maybe it’s a jab at Maurice Levy-esque courtroom sliminess.
The deepest connection between rap and Jews points to the some of the most essential, and shared, qualities of each culture: texts that are composed in a dense, hard-to-understand language filled with references to previous figures and events. That there is a heavily annotated website dedicated to understanding rap lyrics–not to mention Jay-Z’s book, Decoded, which provides insights to his songs, plus a sociology course at Georgetown devoted to “the urban theodicy of Jay-Z“–suggests the analytical possibilities of the form, not unlike the commentaries written on Judaism’s holy books. Jay-Z might not be as far from Jewish as he thinks.