Shyne - The bad-boy rap star who's now a Chasid

Sex, violence and a jail term - but Shyne has found salvation in Judaism


By Nathan Jeffay, July 28, 2011
Shyne (left) on stage in Jerusalem with his friend, Orthodox reggae star Matisyahu.

Shyne (left) on stage in Jerusalem with his friend, Orthodox reggae star Matisyahu.

When Chasidic reggae singer Matisyahu played Jerusalem last month, he welcomed on stage a surprising guest - rapper Shyne, an ex-con and one-time protégé of hip-hop superstar,P Diddy.

Shyne made his name singing about violence and sexual exploits and then went to prison for nearly a decade after a night out with his mentor turned violent. He has now resurfaced as an Orthodox Jew who says he is saving himself for marriage, shunning all physical contact with women.

Like Matisyahu, he found his inspiration in Chasidism, and the two have become firm friends. "I'd say he was someone that I'd be there for anything he needs, and he has expressed the same for me," he comments. He reveals that the two are collaborating on recordings and are likely to appear on each other's albums.

Shyne, who was born in Belize, the son of the country's current prime minister Dean Barrow, grew up in New York where he moved with his mother when he was 13. He became a hip-hop sensation in 1998 after P Diddy took him under his wing. The next year, in what he now calls a "terrible mistake I made when I was young," he fired a gun in a Manhattan nightclub, while partying with P Diddy and Diddy's then girlfriend, the actress Jennifer Lopez. The incident left three people injured and landed Shyne a 10-year jail sentence. He was released in October 2009.

For the past nine months, the 32-year-old rapper has been living in Jerusalem under the name Moses Michael Levi and spending 12 hours a day studying religion with Chasidim from the Belz sect. He is planning a world tour and the release of two albums by early 2012 but promises that the lyrics will be clean, and his shows, like forthcoming videos, will be without female dancers in deference to Jewish modesty laws.

Shyne’s mentor, P Diddy

Shyne’s mentor, P Diddy

When Shyne arrives for our interview at Jerusalem's King David Hotel, everything about him screams that he is a changed man. Where his speech used to be punctuated with expletives, it is now held together with the vocabulary of the Jewish study hall - he constantly repeats phrases like baruch hashem, ("praised is God"). He is wearing Chasidic garb, including a long frock coat and socks pulled up outside his trousers. And the anger that he used to carry around has gone; he is, he says, a man in love.

He has become a devoted patriot of Belize, where he plans to live and help with social action projects after his tour. He is also an enthusiast for Israel, where he wants to spend several weeks a year in his newly-purchased house, apply for citizenship, and help the Foreign Ministry with PR. Today, his dream is to "be like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and give money to all the necessary causes".

Despite the transformation, he has not lost his cocky edge. "While some people might call it a religious epiphany and say 'he found God', I say no, I'm just smart," he insists, taking a grand pose beneath the Belizean and Israeli flags which he has bizarrely ordered his staff to place by his seat in the hotel's conference room.

He does not hesitate to compare himself to biblical heroes. "The thing that is so masterful about David Hamelech [King David] was that he went from the slums, the absolute bottom, rejection, being ostracised," he says when discussing his rise to stardom and return to music after prison. He took the name Moses because he has "so much in common" with the biblical Moses, and compares himself to Joseph, who became influential shortly after being released from prison, "just like me".

Until last year, Shyne had never visited Israel and, despite the fact that his maternal ancestors were Ethiopian Jews, making him Jewish, he had little contact with organised Judaism. Then, just before Rosh Hashanah, he had a sudden urge to cancel travel plans to France and head to Jerusalem instead. He intended a short visit, but has stayed.

He met a rabbi from the Belz sect, and very quickly grew close to him and his congregation. It is a sect that shuns secular culture and deems rap non-kosher, but it accepts Shyne because, in his words, the fact that he wants to be closer to God is "all that matters".

But while it is only now that he has connected with the Jewish community, it turns out that he has been strictly observing Jewish laws since early in his prison term - and put his trust in God even before that.

He says that he had asked for divine help in bringing the world his debut album in which he sings about "bitches walkin' topless with G-strings". In return, he promised to adopt a lifestyle alien to the world portrayed in his music - one without any sexual activity whatsoever.

In 2000, as his trial loomed and he feared that the album, Shyne, would be shelved due to negative publicity, he declared to God: "You know what? You know how much I love women, I'm going to be shomer habris [refrain from all sexual activity unless married] until this record comes out."

As he talks, there is a sense that while he has left behind the gangsta lifestyle that characterised his teenage years, spent partly with his mother and partly in care, he relates to God in the same way he related to his allies on the streets - with a you-watch-my-back-I'll-watch-yours understanding. As far as he is concerned, he became religious in prison and as a result, rather than finding he was a disgraced former star upon his release, he found the music world ready to take him back. He considers it a "miracle reward" for his spirituality that Def Jam Recordings signed him, and thinks that he needs to carry on being observant to ensure continued success. "Everything I hold 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?" he says.

How will Shyne's new identity play itself out in his music? His new raps, which he previewed during our interview, are thoughtful and emotive, many of them predictably about his feelings during his conviction and prison stint. He looks back on his debut album as reflecting a lifetime of "pain and anger", his second album, Godfather Buried Alive, as "a little more intellectual and a little more sophisticated, explaining why I'm angry", and thinks that his two forthcoming albums, Messiah and Gangland de-glamorise gangster life. But he stresses: "I don't make preachy records."

He will not make religion a dominant theme in his lyrics, but he expects some Jerusalem experiences to creep in and his Chasidic attire to become a familiar sight on stage.

"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," he says, reasoning that if her fans are OK with her unusual look, his fans will be OK with his.

Last updated: 12:26pm, July 28 2011