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Emerge Impact + Music Festival Showcases Gay Orthodox Hip Hop Artist

By Lynn Wexler

The Y stands for Yitz. LOVE is his mission - a directive stemming from a profoundly unusual life story. Blending into the fabric of convention was never an option for this black gay Hasidic rapper, inexplicably drawn, from a young age, to the Jewish faith.

Born Yitz Jordan in 1978, his journey to Judaism began in Baltimore, Maryland as a brown-skinned seven-year-old kid - the only child of a Christian Ethiopian father and a Puerto Rican mother.

“I saw a TV commercial that wished everyone a ‘Happy Passover from your friends at Channel 2’ and displayed a six-pointed star. I was fascinated and started drawing the Star of David on everything at my mother’s house,” he says.

His attraction did not stop with stars. He pursued books on Judaism at the library. His parents did not encourage his new-found passion (though his grandmother expressed how she always wanted to be Jewish) but they did not discourage it, either.

“My mother gave me my first menorah when I was nine and agreed, at my request, to stop celebrating Christmas. She used this of course to her advantage. She would issue warnings like ‘Jewish boys clean their room’, and it worked!” he laughs.

Soon after, he experienced his first Passover Seder when “a Jewish woman my mother worked with invited us to a Seder when she learned of my interest in Judaism. I read my first Haggadah and was taken by the rituals and meanings.” Then, not long after, while walking home from school through the nearby campus of Johns Hopkins University, he joined in on a rally, sponsored by a Jewish organization, opposing anti-Semitism. “They noticed my curiosity and I left with an invite to my first Shabbat dinner!”

By 14, unafraid of piercing stares, he began wearing a kippah and observing Shabbat.

“I developed a love for the spiritual teachings,” he said. “In my later teens, I would lie to my mother about late nights out, telling her I was hitting the club scene when I was “in fact” attending Talmudic discussions.”

In 2000, he moved to Brooklyn, immersed himself in an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect, and converted to Judaism. He attended Yeshiva (religious institute of learning) there and in Jerusalem, where his hip-hop career got its start. He and a partner learned that it was easier to master the ancient texts chanting to hip-hop tunes.

He began performing his own brand of hip-hop at open mics in New York City as Y-Love, combining English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, and Aramaic in lyrics that addressed social, political, and religious issues - all the while maintaining a straight - even conservative - image.

The Jewish media took notice of “the world’s first black Jewish MC.” When his first album, This is Babylon, debuted, publications and TV shows around the world featured the Hasidic rapper.

“I also knew I was gay. The world did not know because I hid it, and it was eating me up inside all the time,” he shares. He endured a brief arranged marriage, succumbing to the pressures of his Rabbis, though Orthodoxy wasn’t the only source of pressure he felt.

“Another big hurdle, it turns out, was not from the Jewish side of my life - where I did come to experience some rejection. It was from the predominantly black world of hip-hop, where heterosexuality rules,” he claims.

After his mother’s death in 2004, his struggle intensified, and he became a “…paranoid, panic-stricken wreck. I spent years in a basement in Flatbush, drinking heavily to try to escape.”

When one of the Hasidim from his sect ‘outed him’ for attending a Gay Pride Parade, he knew that finding happiness in the community he loved, and that had sustained him for years, was no longer possible.

Unable to continue living with the tension and secrecy, he went public with his sexual identity in 2012. It was easier than living with the pain and shame of pretending.

“I was the first rapper to come out as gay,” he says, “But I still identified as an Orthodox Jew and I recall feeling relieved after receiving a surprising amount of support from precisely the Orthodox fans I feared I would lose.”

Today, Y-Love embraces his sexual identity, continues his strong connection to Judaism, and is puzzled by those who are born Jewish and yet decide that Judaism is no longer relevant in their lives. “It’s like being issued an exclusive Cart Blanche Platinum Card from birth, with no expiration date, that you just decide to discard,” he says.

His beliefs, he says, are as Orthodox as ever, though he knows he will never be considered ‘observant’ in the eyes of much of the Orthodox community, those who cannot reconcile the reality of homosexuality with religious belief.

“Rabbis have long held the wisdom to dissect the complex Talmudic passages; but confronted with the question of what a gay Orthodox Jew is supposed to do - they only know that ‘it’s forbidden’,” he adds.

“I do mitzvot, celebrate holidays, light candles…but while I’m not as observant as I once was, I still believe in G-d and Torat Moshe (the Bible of Moses) as much as I ever did,” he says.

Y-Love will spread his message of tolerance, love, and global unity at the upcoming 3-day EMERGE Music and Impact Conference happening at a series of venues on the Strip from April 6th to 8th.

Founded by Life is Beautiful founder and creator Rehan Choudhry, EMERGE will feature rising artists performing and speaking at over ten 3-hour long showcases held over the three days. Y-Love will headline at one of those showcases, which each explore themes like protest and resistance, personal identity, the advancement of technology and biology, and mental health issues. Opening night will be an interactive performance spectacle called the Fairytale Ball.

“I wanted to create an inclusive and uplifting festival environment open to all ages - families and seniors included,” says Choudhry, “where, no matter when or how you show up, you’re stumbling across something new and finding reasons to re-examine your own perspectives.”

Y-Love sees EMERGE as another opportunity to share, through hip-hop, his message uniquely informed by a rich and intense spiritual journey and years of pain from hiding his true self.

“G-d minted all of humanity,” he asserts. “Why should our rights have to wait until others evolve?”

In one of his first music video releases following his official ‘coming out,’it was suggested that he add a female to the club scene they were filming.

“I thought, after all it took for me to arrive at where I am today, I didn’t want to even LOOK like I was straight in the video! So, in the scene, you see me walk out of the club by myself...story of my life.”

For tickets to the EMERGE Conference, Y-Love’s Showcase, and other participating talent, showcases, and venues, visit www.Emergelv.com/lineup.

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