Life & Culture

my identity

Musician Noah Shufutinsky is proudly Black, Jewish and Zionist - and he uses rap to examine his identity


Are there any specific topics we’ll cover tomorrow?” Noah Shufutinksy texts the evening before our interview.

“Your music, antisemitism and Zionism. Y’know, light stuff, ” I reply.

For Shufutinsky, the three go hand in hand. Better known by his stage name, Westside Gravy, he’s made a name for himself in the music scene by rapping about his Black, Jewish and Zionist identities. In one of his most feted songs, Diaspora, he actually raps in Hebrew — on the streets of Jerusalem.

Although the song has had tens of thousands of hits on YouTube and won praise from the likes of former New York ambassador Dani Dayan and reggae star Matisyahu it has also, unsurprisingly, had its detractors. But the hip-hop artist, who’s majoring in Judaic Studies at George Washington University, remains undeterred. “I put it down to antisemitism and people’s refusal to acknowledge that Israel is inseparable from Jewish history and culture. Everyone has the right to safety, freedom and power over themselves. That’s what Zionism and Black liberation mean to me and why, in my mind, the two cannot be separated: their aims are the same.”

His parents share Shufutinksy’s views which are partly expressed through the whole family’s love of music. “There was always a record playing at my house. From hip-hop and rap to jazz and klezmer. One of my earliest memories is of Mom singing James Brown’s Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud and encouraging me to repeat the words. So it felt very natural to use music as my mode of communication.”

Why specifically through rap, though?

“For me, rap is like poetry with a beat. I want the listener to enjoy the melody, but not get so lost in it that they stop listening to the words; rapping offers the perfect balance. And the rich Black history associated with rap is an awesome bonus.”

A bit like a young Jewish Gil Scott-Heron, then? “Ha, thanks for the comparison,” he laughs, “I feel really blessed that my music has touched a nerve with all my different communities.”

Until the Wiley controversy in July 2020 when the rapper was dropped by his management for antisemitic posts Shufutinsky says there had never been any tensions between his “different communities.”

“I saw a few musicians I’ve worked with in the past liking and supporting Wiley’s comments, and I dropped them. There’s gotta be a line somewhere and I thought, wow, you’re are really popping out of the woodwork now aren’t you?”

Although he’s not experienced antisemitism from the Black community before, he’s certainly experienced lots of ignorance about being Black and Jewish.

“Unless I’m in Israel, everyone always assumes that I have one non-Jewish Black parent and one white Jewish one, that my Blackness and Jewishness aren’t linked.” He thinks the problem comes from Ashkenormativity, the assumption that central and Eastern European Jewish culture is the norm, or even the only Jewish culture that exists.

“When I tell non-Jews that no actually both my parents are Jewish, just one’s Black Sephardi and the other’s Ashkenazi their eyes narrow. If I then go on to say that we are a diaspora people who come from all over the world and that most of us aren’t even white-passing, it’s like I’ve said the moon is made of cheese.”

Doesn’t he think then that it’s a bit of a tall order to expect the average American, or Brit, to learn about global Jewish history, though?

“I want the message that there are Jews of all colours and creeds to go mainstream. Beyond that, people don’t have a duty to learn about Judaism, no. Unless they want to start giving hot takes on Israel. Then, I don’t think it’s unfair to say ‘go-away, educate yourself, and then come back and talk to me’.”

Meanwhile, he’s unforgiving of Jews who are anti or ambivalent about Zionism. “How can you be against a movement which exists literally just to protect your life?

“This time last year I just was as tough on Black people who complained about BLM because they didn't want to look militant or radical. Now I understand why some might want to distance themselves from a movement that has got embroiled in antisemitism. However the founding sentiment, the safeguarding of Black lives, is not controversial and people shouldn't act like it is.” 

I’m trying to say,” he laughs lightly, “is that the struggles are the same.”


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