Pop music with a sacred mission

Chassidic musicians blend secular with religious, creating fusion genres in their wake.

Written By Nicholas Pavlich
Originally was a published feature article in The Jewish Independent Newspaper,  November 12, 2010

If you have ever been to a Chabad-Lubavitch shul, or any Chassidic synagogue for that matter, you are likely familiar with traditional Chassidic music, based on the niggun, tunes that are sung, primarily around the Kiddush table or at a farbrengen (gathering). You might not know that these wordless melodies were at one time considered popular music, or at least borrowed elements from the popular music of the time.

Today, tradition is again being reinvented within that religious community and a new brand of Chassidic music is borrowing from mainstream music. Hip hop is the unlikely “art nouveau” in today’s Chassidic world. What makes this style of music unique, in its new religiously made-over form, is that, while the sound stays true to the grittiness and authenticity of its urban roots, the lyrics are infused with elements of Torah, Talmud and other themes found in Judaism. The artists involved have been known to describe this new rap sub-genre as “contemporary music made in the service of God.”

One explanation for this revolution within orthodoxy has to do with the fact that many of the more well-known artists are ba’al teshuvah (returnees to Judaism), that is to say, they first unleashed their creativity in the secular world, but have since begun to live religious lifestyles, importing their musical influences, like rap, into prayer, study and for pleasure. Their life change is often directly reflected in their lyrics.

Shneur HaSofer, better known as “DeScribe,” is one such popular artist to have emerged in this religious Jewish hip-hop scene. Born in Australia into a Chassidic family, DeScribe left home at the age of 14. He later joined the Israeli Defence Forces and served as a combat sharpshooter. Following his discharge from the IDF, he worked in the party scene in Israel organizing a concert tour of many well-known hip-hop artists. Hard times struck and he fell into a deep pit of depression. As he tells it, turning back to religion was his last resort. With a renewed sense of purpose and fortitude, DeScribe re-entered the world as a creative, 21st-century religious musician.

DeScribe spoke passionately about his genre in an interview with the Independent.

“Hip hop is like the body and the lyrics are like the soul. The body is palatable to the world outside of the Jewish world. I use the body of hip hop as a vehicle to bring the soul to the world reaching into the furthest places on the earth. It is a shlichus (mission).”

He explained that his mission is much more than music. Music is the vehicle by which he hopes to make Judaism relevant to kids in the information age. With alarming speed, he said, Jewish kids are departing from traditional ways and entering a world of large social and technological change. According to DeScribe, all aspects of Judaism need to adapt to keep those kids involved, and Jews should be scrutinizing what is the “style” and what is the real “substance” of being Jewish.

“We must adapt to urban music and whatever the world is listening to. And the back end of shlichus is that we have kids who might have been listening to something worse and are now listening to something that is mainstream, cool in the eyes of the world and, at the same time, makes them proud of who they are because it is their music.”

And what does he call this music? “I would not necessarily call it Chassidic music. I would call it hip hop with a message. You are bringing a godly message of Chasidut and tzadikim, and you infuse it into music that reaches the depths of the ’hood and other places. Chassidic music is designed, from beginning to end, to come from a very holy place in the soul and to bring the listener around.”

DeScribe is well aware, however, of the power of 200 years of practice that has made niggunim the high-status form of music on, what he calls, the “kabbalistic scale.” Hip hop’s physical appeal to young people can be transmuted in service of their spiritual needs, however.

“My hip-hop music is bringing godliness into the depths of the physical, sometimes the lowest point of the world on a physical scale,” explained DeScribe.

Judah Cohen, professor of ethnomusicology at Indiana University, agreed with DeScribe that this musical revolution has the momentum to plant firm roots in the Chassidic world.

“Traditional music is a function of the present day, whatever the present day is,” he said by telephone. “People will look back and say this is what we represent, who we are and this is what we understand Judaism to be…. When one talks about traditional music, they are really creating something in the present that reflects what they see as traditional,” he added.

So where is the nerve centre of this musical revolution? While the epicenter may be Brooklyn, N.Y., the movement is gaining strength throughout the United States. Reuvan Formey, more commonly known to his fans as “Prodezra Beats – L’Shem Shamayim,” is a hip-hop artist from Savannah, Ga. He emphasizes the message that the music is the accompaniment – the lyrics and their religious message matter – but the music is simply a vehicle, an inviting gateway into the spiritual.

“When I am making tracks, I am always conscious of what kind of positive vibe I can bring with my music,” he told the Independent. However, the analogy should not be overplayed, he continued. The sound is not just an appendage to the message, he said, it forms an integral part of the messaging.

“Even before I get to the lyrics, I always keep in mind what kind of message I can bring. Sometimes it’s part of a Chassidic niggun mixed in, but it’s really based upon how I can bring a positive vibe to this and make people feel the goodness that I feel when I make music. This is what motivates me when I sit down to make a song.”

The new musical forms invading some branches of Chassidism and the Orthodox world are the same forms that have seized the young in the rest of the world. These genres can appeal to a broad spectrum of youth trying to find their moral compasses in a secular and cynical world in which relativism is the philosophical order of the day. Perhaps hip hop can serve as one of the vehicles in which the ancient values of the Jewish people are broadcast to younger generations. Maybe this musical genre, that many people associate with violence and egotism, may, ironically, be just as effective at instilling the positive lifestyle values of Torah, Talmud and service of God.

This effect might also explain why DeScribe emphasized that the music must stay true, but be adapted to a person’s core values.

“The content must be kept strictly spiritual,” he said. “Whether it’s outright in your face or concealed by urban culture, it has to be a spiritual message from beginning to end. Halachah is the body and spirit is the soul.”

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