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Friday, July 24, 2015

Y-Love

Written by  Deborah J. Draisin
Y-Love Y-Love

An Interview with Rapper & Featured Baltimore Pride Entertainer

Y-Love (aka Yitz Jordan)’s claim to fame is being the first gay, black, Hasidic Jewish rapper in the industry. In the first grade, California-born, Baltimore-bred Yitz developed a fascination with Judaism, converting formally at the age of twenty-two. That same year, he studied at an Israeli yeshiva and began rapping at the local club. His unique blend of English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Aramaic, Arabic and Latin words made him practically an overnight sensation in Jerusalem. A year later, he and his fellow emcee (who granted him his stage name) moved to Brooklyn, where he remains to this day, although he returns home to Maryland as often as he can.

Y-Love made a splash three years ago by announcing his status as a gay man to Out magazine. His appearance at this year’s Baltimore Pride will mark his first event as an out individual. He just had a speaking engagement at the Wheeler Auditorium earlier this week, and will be performing at Reverb Social Club this coming Saturday, July 25th.

Deb: Well I’m sure everyone’s excited to have you back in Baltimore.

Y-Love: Yeah, this is going to be my first time performing at a Pride event in Baltimore since coming out.

Deb: Where did you cut your teeth in hip-hop – did you start out in Baltimore’s underground?

Y-Love: Mm-hm. I converted to Judaism in 2000. I started rhyming at yeshiva in Jerusalem, when I lived there for a year. That’s where I first started learning how to freestyle. I began performing there as Y-Love, and then doing so here in New York, in 2001.

Deb: Now, who gave you the moniker, “Y-Love,” or was that something you came up with yourself?

Y-Love: In Jerusalem, the first study partner that they gave me to learn with was an MC from Long Island – his name is Cels-1. We went to an open mic at this bar called The Orange Bear in Tribeca – right where 9/11 was. They gave us fifteen minutes to do our performance, but we rocked the mic for two hours. We had everyone standing; we were sweating like it was an aerobics studio. They asked us to be residents every Thursday night – of course we said yeah. They ran an ad in the Village Voice reading “Yitz Jordan and David Singer, 9 p.m., $5.” I said to David “This can’t go on, we need stage names. You already are Cels-1, who am I going to be?” He said “You’ll be Y-Love.”

Deb: That was it? He just came right up with it?

Y-Love: Yeah, and I was like “What? Why Y-Love? Why not, like, Y-Money?” He goes “Don’t worry about it: it fits you. If you come up something else, you can change it, but we have to tell the owners we want our names changed on the flyer.” It was just a spur of the moment thought that he had, and I had to give my meaning to it. So, Y doesn’t just stand for “Yitz,” Y is also a question, and “Love” is the answer.

Deb: Public Enemy is very outspoken and activist, and were probably the originators of using hip-hop as a vehicle for social change. Do you feel like being such a different artist in hip-hop, that activism takes more of a role in the genre now than in Chuck D’s time?

Y-Love: Well… yes. On a macro level, today we see more of the patterns of systematic police brutality and racism as it spreads throughout the justice system. Whereas, in the 90s, it was more rappers putting these dots together and trying to paint a picture for the population, now, it’s rappers actively saying “Alright we see this picture, now what do we do?” This is the era of “Black Lives Matter.” This is the era of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and all of the social media-driven activism. The same social media that we have to use to drum up promotion for our music, we have to be as vocal on those same channels. You can’t not comment on what is going on today. It’s not just a theoretical picture that you’re painting of what people are calling aggravated incidents; now we see that there is a problem, and that’s energizing the population.

So, coming from that vantage point, activism is definitely important today. On a micro level for me – and I would say for other gay hip-hop artists – LGBT artists were persona non grata in the 90s and early 2000s. Hip-hop was not the voice of our street. It was a place where homophobia was not only allowed, but celebrated – and as bad as hip-hop was, reggae was worse. I think that, for us, we’re still at that beginning stage as gay artists. We have to be up there, and out, standing up for ourselves, and not just there on the sidelines trying to act like we’re straight.

Deb: What would you say the tolerance level for LGBTQ folks now? Because I know that when Frank Ocean came out, it was a big deal.

Y-Love: Right. When Frank Ocean came out, a lot of the backlash that I saw was the impetus for me to come out in 2012. Once I saw that, I realized that I had to get my voice out there as well. Because he was an R&B artist, people were saying “That’s cool, but it’ll never happen in hip-hop.” I had people telling me personally “You don’t want to be a gay rapper.”

Deb: It had to be terrifying, this decision. How did you summon that up?

Y-Love: Well, I had converted to Judaism and was Hasidic until 2009. That was how I initially came into rhyming, because not only was I rhyming in English, but I was also throwing in Hebrew, and mixing it up with some Aramaic, Yiddish and Latin. I was using all of these holy languages, and I was coming from a place of faith, so I was coming in with this devoutly religious fanbase. I was hanging out with MMA artists. I thought there were going to be actual crowds with pitchforks. I came out on May 15. We initially arranged the PR for me to come out in Out magazine on April 15. My first day of work at my new job in L.A. was April 19. I left that weekend. When I moved that story, and got everything pitched, I was already literally on my way, on the plane. I was expecting…

Deb: To have nothing to come to, yeah.

Y-Love: And that’s exactly what didn’t happen.

Deb: So the support has been overwhelming on the fan side – what about on the personal side?

Y-Love: That’s actually ironic: I was expecting there to be a lot more hatred than there actually was. It’s to the point where now, if I want to see homophobia on Facebook, I have to tag people in my statuses, like specific religious people who I know are still homophobic.

Deb: You have to go looking for it.

Y-Love: Right, I have to go looking in order to find it now. Even a couple of my old rabbis this past year, just wanting to know how I was doing, made sure that I knew that they were still trying to get in touch with me. The people who I thought I would have offended the most have been coming out and being supportive – or at least not shunning me.

Deb: You started out your career uniquely – what was the initial reaction to the Jewish rapping approach once you left Israel? Were people really into that, or were they confused?

Y-Love: Well, in Israel, I was at the Justin Bieber level. In the Orthodox world, I am the rapper that your rabbi would let you listen to. A rabbi might get mad if he was to see an Eminem cd, but you can listen to Y-Love, because I was kosher! Within the non-Jewish hip-hop community, because I was rhyming in so many different languages, people could not understand what I was saying, so they would mostly critique the beats that I was rhyming over.

Once, I had a group of very gangsta-looking people come to one of my shows in Manhattan, and I thought they were coming there to clown me. As soon as I started rhyming in Aramaic, they started going crazy and screaming.

Deb: They loved it.

Y-Love: Yeah, that was what they had come to see. One guy said to the other “See, I told you he could rhyme in Aramaic!” That was the appeal. I never know who my fans are going to be.

Deb: Which is maybe part of the fun?

Y-Love: I’m out here to change the world, and that means a lot of different people. Getting back to what you had asked me before: why I respect Chuck D so much is because so many people have pigeonholed MCs. Like, “All I want to hear from you is your new mixtape, don’t give me social commentary.” Chuck D has a powerful voice, not only on Facebook, but onstage, and that’s what I try to do too.

Deb: So you think that there is a faction of the genre that is all about the beats and not about the message?

Y-Love: Oh definitely, definitely. If you ask a hundred hip-hop fans, most people don’t really like what’s on the radio, but it’s on there. The people who have no idea who Q-Tip is or where hip-hop came from, or that there is such a thing as hip-hop with a message, those are the ones who just want to hear the next big single.

Deb: How do you think this happened? Because hip-hop definitely has its origins in social commentary. Do you blame pop?

Y-Love, Back in the day – I don’t really think this is the case anymore, but maybe we’re still reeling from the effects of it – when you had literally two hip-hop stations in your city, if x-song was not played on one of those stations, it would not be heard by the community. When that was the reality, it was the fault of certain media companies. Today, I would just hope that artists who are out there with a message are getting that message out there over social media in the same way that the Egyptian revolution started, and the same way that every other revolutionary message is getting out there. I would hope that people are putting out their thoughts on marriage equality, on guns in the community, on police brutality as hard on Instagram as they are their freestyling. Ideally, people from all different groups and all parts of the world should be able to come together and work on the issues, and I see that eventually being able to happen, once our media and our talking heads let it happen. And we’ve already seen the beginning of the dialogue. As far as the SCOTUS ruling, that can’t be the end of the road when it comes to LGBTQ equality.

Deb: You know, I find it really interesting that people take the matter of other people’s sexuality so personally. Like, the number one objection toward an LGBTQ person is that their existence is somehow an assault upon them.

Y-Love: In Judaism, there’s the concept of Klal Yisroel, The Collective Jewish Nation. Basically, as a micro-nation and then, on a macro level, all of humanity, one person actions can either bring all of humanity up or down. Now, add that to the fact that, if you think of homosexuality as the mortal sin that caused the flood and destruction of all humanity, well, then you’re going to look at gay people as doing something to you personally. So, I’m like this on a theological level: if God is a god of kindness, are we then going to say that God is going to look for one precedent to send as many people to hell as possible? Is this how God looks at the Torah? God created the world, is this what he looks for – ways to condemn people? During the times of the Talmud, it says that there used to be defense attorneys who could run alongside of the accused, all the way to the point of their execution, to try and make defenses. That’s what I would have done.

Deb: Rap’s supposed to be controversial. It’s not supposed to be user-friendly.

Y-Love: As an artist, if you want to push edges, that’s what you want. I got pissed for years that nobody ever banned me by name.

Deb: You were trying to get banned.

Y-Love: I was freestyling in front of rabbis’ kids like “Please somebody ban me!” No one has ever banned Y-Love by name – I mean now it’s kind of a moot point, but at the time, my first mixtape I banned myself. I put out the notice that it should be banned.

Deb: Alright, well why don’t you throw a little freestyle in for Baltimore OUTLoud? Maybe we can get you banned this time. I have some contacts in Israel (both laugh.)

Y-Love: If there’s anything I’ve got pride for, it’s Baltimore. Baltimore OUTLoud, I remember back in the days of The Gay Paper (can I say that?)

Deb: Sure.

Y-Love: You know, reading it as kid, on the low from my mom. I guess I’ve always been privileged to have been born and raised in a big city, rather than a place like Arkansas where I thought that I was the only gay person. I wasn’t in a place where I thought that gay people were supposed to be relegated to some Leper Colony outside of the city. I was always raised seeing and knowing that there was a vibrant gay community, at least, in my vicinity. I don’t know if I would have been able to stand up through homophobia, and being in the closet, in the ultra Orthodox world to come out as an artist and have all of this behind me if I wouldn’t have had that, you know? Even from my early childhood.

Deb: Yeah, you sure didn’t make it easy on yourself, did you? You had to pull out every possible minority you could find (both laugh.)

Deb: So, can you bust out a little little freestyle for Baltimore OUTLoud?

Y-Love:

B-more OUTLoud, we stand

For our one life, from 1978

To 016, that’s right

From one star, for here we are

We’re going far

The goal is both eyes

Eyes that see the prize

We’re going to rise

There’s no surprise

You see the lines

You see the lies

It’s redesigned

It’s redefined

Y-Love

We’re keeping it real

We’re keeping the pride.

Deb: Thank you, Y-Love, it’s been a pleasure.

Y-Love: Alright, thank you! t

Read up, listen up, watch a vid, or give Y-Love a shout:

Thisisylove.com, Facebook.com/ylovemusic, Twitter.com/ylove

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