It’s a strange time to be Jewish in Europe right now. Right-wing leaders like Viktor Orban, Marine La Pen, and Geert Wilders are using strikingly recognizable language to describe Muslim refugees, while left-wing political parties across the continent almost uniformly condemn Israel with varying degrees of vitriol. Some Eastern European countries continue to downplay their roles in the Holocaust; other counties, like Ukraine, have made admirable efforts to do the opposite. Meanwhile, Jews have been the victims of targeted attacks in France, Denmark, and England; synagogues and Jewish schools have begun to resemble military fortresses. At the same time, Jews are flocking to cities like Berlin, once an unthinkable place of refuge. And the amount of attacks against Jews seems to be dropping. The fever may be breaking, but the dominant feeling is unease.
These sentiments and facts were on my mind when I went to see a performance by Lil Dicky, one of the best Jewish rappers alive, in Brussels last week. I was particularly wondering how I’d feel, and how the crowd would take it, when he would arrive onstage dressed in a skeleton onesie, and call himself a kike—a common punchline for the rapper whose skills are as sharp as his self-degrading comedic schtick. It would be for the fans. For the laughs. And I didn’t know how I would feel.
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Bored and dissatisfied with a promising career in advertising, Philadelphia-area Jew Dave Burd, an avid rap fan, started to record some songs on his Macbook Pro (which wound up getting a shout-out on a later album). Finally, he decided that they were good enough to put online, and within 24 hours of uploading the music video for “Ex-Boyfriend” on YouTube, he’d racked up over a million views. The crude, hilarious video featuring a chance run-in with a girlfriend’s ex, showcased his prodigious flow and lyrical ability, and his comedic sensibilities continues to be the base of his persona. The punchlines, as would become his calling card, often used his Jewish identity as a target.
A mixtape and a Kickstarter-financed album followed, and lo and behold, the newly christened Lil Dicky had a No. 1 album on the rap charts. Now, with new representation in Scooter Braun (and co-signs from the likes of Kevin Durant, Snoop Dogg, and Sarah Silverman), Dicky’s finishing up his third tour, “Dick or Treat” (it’s Halloween-themed) and on your TV for everything from Carl’s Jr. to Trojan.
An hour prior to Dicky’s show at the Ancienne Belgique in downtown Brussels, the last stop of his maiden European voyage, I counted more guys dressed in cheapo pharaoh costumes (two) than female humans (one), though the latter is wearing a Snow White get-up that Disney might object to. Even though Halloween had occurred a few days prior, everyone was still in a festive mood, Dicky included.
For our interview, Lil Dicky and I found ourselves in a bit of a time-crunch because of what his manager described to me as a Belgian waffle-related emergency. But by the time we sat down in the smoky green room overlooking the Boulevard Anspach, the Cheltenham, PA native reflected on the success he’s had since the release of Professional Rapper in 2015, his first mainstream success. “I’m feeling progress…in terms of like, the perception, yeah,” he said. “I feel like I’m perceived in a higher light than ever. But still, a long ways to go.” Until? Dicky started miming people saying things about him, like “’He’s, like, an iconic rap artist and an iconic comedian.” He ruminated for a second. “And an iconic father, and husband.”
As for European crowds, Dicky said he’s been amazed by the turnout. “It’s always baffling to me, like, how do these people know who I am?,” he wondered. “Crowds in the United States, they know I’m back three times a year… You go to New York, L.A., you know, it’s not gonna be the same as you go to, like, Amsterdam.”
When I asked Dicky what it felt like to be so publicly Jewish in Europe in the current climate, he jumped right in. “I didn’t even know [European anti-Semitism] was a thing. My parents, a few other older people, were like, ‘Uch, people are anti-Semitic out there.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, really? I haven’t experienced an ounce of that.’ But I’m also totally oblivious.”
Later, we chatted about Philadelphia sports (on Carson Wentz and Joel Embiid: “I see them both being, like, first-ballot Hall of Famers”), but then it’s time to get into costume.
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The question of brazenly public Judaism is pertinent in a way it hasn’t been a while, with everyone from Twitter eggs to former mayors of London ready to pounce on anyone who declares themselves a Member of the Tribe. Just as we seemed to have returned to a world where open anti-Semitism was more acceptable, do we need to return a world where Judaism becomes something you shouldn’t advertise? And especially in Dicky’s case, where he’s happy to joke about haggling with waiters and his bar mitzvah money, the question begs to be asked: can we afford that sort of levity right now?
The Halloween-themed show was a perfect encapsulation of Dicky. There were almost as many brief snippets of stand-up and skits as there were songs, and by the time he was pouring salsa into an appreciative fan’s mouth and flinging charcuterie into the crowd to raucous cheers, it was clear that this was a different kind of rap show.
Skits included trick-or-treat drop-bys from Tupac, Biggie, Harambe, Michael Jackson, and, as I was warned, Hitler (booed to oblivion). Fighting through some microphone issues, Dicky had the crowd sing the Belgian national anthem, fed front-row fans bunches of grapes, and (passably!) sang almost all of “I Believe I Can Fly.” He asked the crowd to imagine that he drove a Bugatti, and that they all drove Bugattis, too (perhaps the most succinct summary of rap’s mainstream appeal as there’s ever been). For his last song before the encore, “Lemme Freak,” our friend Snow White was invited up on to the stage to receive a lap dance and a bouquet.
If Dicky had any doubts about calling attention to his Judaism in Europe over and over again, they certainly didn’t show. A lot of quick jokes seem to slip by undetected, and as for anything approaching anti-Semitism, when Dicky asked the audience what they know about him, a girl in the front row yelled—nicely!—“Jew!” which did seem to throw him for a second. And when he performed “All K,” featuring gem-like lyrics such as, “What you know about a balla / born and raised on the Kaballah,” Dicky got some of his biggest cheers of the show. And that’s a good thing.