A decade before Nissim and Shyne debuted on the Orthodox African-American hip-hop scene, “kosher” rap had its voice in three major players: Yitz “Y-Love” Jordan, Reuben “Prodezra” Formey, and Raphael “Hebro” Fulcher.
Y-Love, arguably the most well-known and prolific of the three, has recently focused his efforts on speaking out on issues surrounding the Jewish LGBTQ community since coming out as gay in 2012. Hebro (pronounced hee-bro) and Prodezra, on the other hand, have continued to make music, releasing minor projects and performing at scattered concerts since 2010. This year, both are working on new records and have released fresh singles, signaling, perhaps, a move into the foreground.
Both rappers’ lyrics offer sobering commentary from the unique perspective of dual “otherness.” They observe the world as people who are both black and Jewish—trifold, even, when you consider their Orthodoxy. Their music combines the conscious lyrics of classic hip-hop (Nas, Mos Def) with post-2010 synthetic sounds, put to mid-90’s style rhythms, which makes for an anachronistic yet uniquely pleasing aesthetic. What’s old is new again. Prodezra earned himself a spot on The Forward’s 2016 edition of “Soundtrack of Our Spirit” with his single “Flip,” while Hebro released his first music video, “Gam Ki Elech.”
If your ear is as tuned anything like mine, you’ll be salivating thinking about the release of their new albums and wondering what else these two veteran artists have waiting up their sleeves. I recently caught up with the both Prodezra and Hebro.
So, instead of asking, “Who you be?” or “Nu, voos macht a yid?” I suppose I’ll just put it in plain English: Tell me about who you are, and a bit about your Jewish backround?
Prodezra: I’m the Chabad Jewish Rapper representing that Southern Bump. I’m from Savannah, Georgia—the “C-Port” as we call it. But I’ve lived in Atlanta for a good number of years. I’m a Southern boy all the way. My parents began studying Judaism in the ’70s in Minnesota with Rabbi Manis Friedman, and years later we all converted as a family, shortly before my bar mitzvah 22 years ago.
Hebro: My full name is Raphael Ohr Chaim Fulcher, and I’m 29 years old. I’m the youngest of six, born and raised Orthodox in Crown Heights to a family of soulful singers. I consider myself Sephardi, but I have a deep love and appreciation for Chabad philosophy. My parents underwent the Orthodox conversion process through Chabad by the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi J.J. Hecht, 43 years ago. I grew up in and around Rocky Mountain and Charlotte, North Carolina and St. Louis, Missouri. Growing up I went to Orthodox Yeshiva from 2nd grade through High School, then I studied abroad in Israel.
What would you say you—and your musical message—are “about”?
Prodezra: Helping people to realize that the greatest freedom you can achieve in life is a real faith that God is with you at every moment, and that every situation is meant to make you stronger, wiser, fearless, and just a little bit closer to the Creator. All of this I communicate through my music. But you have to witness yourself through personal prayer and letting go. This music is made for that. And it ain’t corny. My passion is when I can fit lyrics and music together and create something that is really going to make someone think and generate a sincere emotion. It may influence them for just that moment or hopefully it can change their whole perspective for the better in the long term. I’m passionate about making music like that. But the music has got to be able to make you want to bob your head to the track and soak up the message also. If I can’t do that, then what’s the point? It’s got to hit hard both sonically and spiritually. I ain’t trying to preach, but the message is potent and liberating. Wait ’til you hear what I’ve got coming shortly…B”H.
Hebro: I’d say my goal is reclaiming Hip Hop/Pop/R&B as a powerfully conscious tool to promote awareness, peace, love, and unity across all borders. I’m on a mission to redefine conventional “Jewish Music” by singing songs with themes based in scripture but with a new sound. To redefine the conventional image/definition of “Orthodox Judaism.” It’s not just European and more than the black and white uniform, you know?
How did you get “big”? Rather, do you even consider yourself “big”?
Prodezra: Big is relative. But my music and message has spread to far off places over the years…places I never would have imagined and I’m hearing stories of peoples’ experiences with my music. I’ve had my music played as the theme for Israel Radio, sold in Costa Rica, Australia, etc. You never understand how far your effort goes when you’re just grinding and trying to do something meaningful. I’ve still got a long way to go before I can consider myself “big.” My attitude is certainly not haughty even though I definitely feel that G-d has given me something valuable to share. It’s up to Him how “big” I get. I just have to do my job. But I’ve come a long way from just making beats on a primitive keyboard.
Hebro: I’m not “big” yet in my opinion, but I hope to be. I discovered my love for writing creating music during my time in Israel. From there I developed a reputation as a freestyle rapper/singer performing at parties, events, weddings, battle of the bands competitions, you name it, in Israel and, when I got back to the states, Queens College. So let’s see where this leads.
What would you say has brought you to this point?
Prodezra: Living my own life and making the mistakes and bad decisions that I have has brought me to a clear vision of what I need to do to be of value to other people’s lives. I used to be far from actively seeing a connection to the Creator. If I can make those kind of heavy changes, then I know my listeners can too. My own journey and experiences have been and will continue to be an illuminating force that won’t give up trying to empower others through the gift of music.
Hebro: I feel that its part of my responsibility—my shlichut—as an observant Jew to use my talents to uplift and inspire the hearts of people from all walks of life through music.
MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.