Out of prison, into Orthodoxy: Rapper Shyne singing a new tune in Israel

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jerusalem  |  The rapper Shyne is singing a new tune: After serving eight years in prison for a nightclub shooting, the former protege of Sean “P. Diddy” Combs has converted to Orthodox Judaism, come to Jerusalem, and is devoting his days to the study of Torah while plotting a musical comeback.

Shyne’s arrival in the Holy Land caps an unorthodox journey that began in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where he grew up and was shot at the age of 15. He then joined the high-flying hip-hop universe and ended up in a maximum-security state prison before he was eventually deported to Belize — where his father happens to be prime minister.

“Being in Israel is just the exclamation point,” he said last week. “This is the ultimate place to be who you are.”

During a two-hour conversation on a hotel balcony overlooking the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, Shyne said his connection to Judaism goes back to his childhood — when he was still known as Jamaal Michael Barrow.

His mother claims Ethiopian Jewish ancestry, but the man who now calls himself Moshe Levi Ben-David says his roots go even deeper and that even as a boy in the streets, he was oddly drawn to Judaism and identified with its biblical heroes.

“I grew up in a war, constantly battling, and the only person I could relate to was King David. Of course I love Michael Jordan, I love Mike Tyson, I love the typical people that people love, Muhammad Ali. But I had more of a connection with King David,” he said.

Shyne stands in front of a wall of posters in Jerusalem’s Orthodox Mea Sharim neighborhood. photo/ap/tara todras-whitehill

Shyne, 32, has swapped his hip-hop attire of oversized basketball jerseys and diamond studded teeth for the traditional black suit and white knee-high stockings favored by the Belz Chassidic sect. He wears a black skullcap over his shaven head, but in a reminder of his former life, he still wears black Ray Ban sunglasses.

Where he once rapped about loose women, fancy cars and hollow-point bullets, he now fires off staccato sentences about Jewish law, peppered with Yiddish, in the same raspy voice once compared to that of the Notorious B.I.G.

“Wherever I go it is going to be the same shtick. This is who I am, you dig,” he said.

In his teens, he was discovered by Combs — then known as Puff Daddy — who signed him to his Bad Boy record label. Shyne embraced the lifestyle of women, booze and partying but said he was already turning away from that when “the incident” happened.

In late 1999, Shyne was at a Manhattan club along with Combs and his then-girlfriend, actress Jennifer Lopez, when he was involved in a high-profile shooting that left three people injured.

Combs was cleared of gun possession charges, but Shyne was sentenced to 10 years for assault, gun possession and reckless endangerment. Shyne says he acted in self-defense after someone else pulled a gun.

It was in prison where he said he became a ba’al teshuvah, the Hebrew term for a newly observant Jew. He changed his name, prayed regularly, kept kosher and observed the Sabbath.

“He [God] gives kindness and He gives judgment. I’ve done some terrible things in my life, I’ve not always been the best person I can be and I gotta pay for those mistakes,” he said.

Released a year ago, he was deported to his native Belize, where he is appealing the decision so that he can return to the U.S. and go on tour. He also reconnected with his estranged father, Prime Minister Dean Barrow.

He arrived in Israel several months ago for Rosh Hashanah, and has since undergone a formal conversion process and a symbolic circumcision.

Amid his religious studies he is preparing a musical comeback. His two new albums, “Gangland” and “Messiah,” are scheduled to be released in March by Def Jam records. He said he wants to marry an “Israelite” and build a religious seminary in Jerusalem for Ethiopian children.

“I still drop the F-bomb,” he said, “but overall I am not the same person [I used to be].”