Bible Raps: All Tatted Up

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March 7, 2010
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Matt Bar

The claims have merit; rap greases a teenager’s pores with slimy booty and bling-bling and it is an outlet for guys’ suppressed machismo — a shooting range for their testosterone. But curiosity, intellect, and abstraction are also part of the rap experience. While teaching Hebrew school, I use Bible raps — which create modern midrash that serve as edifying bridges to the text — in my lesson plans. What started as something in my classroom has turned into “the Bible Raps Teacher’s Toolkit,” which is used by students and educators in more than 100 classrooms. In fact, there are eight year-round “Bible Raps Classes.”

Clever kids with attention deficit disorder have forever hastily crammed acronyms and other semantic time capsules with information to be unearthed minutes later and emptied into the bottom of an exam’s first page. Rap can serve this purpose: a crude container for the essential information and an agreed upon acronym between teacher and student to unceremoniously empty and discard come test time. But what else can be attached to the skeleton of an educational tool? What if this skeleton comes out of the closet, tatted up, wearing sagging jeans and a confoundingly tied blue bandana beneath a baseball cap with lowered brim?

Let us unpack hip hop’s baggage. Rap, in a classroom setting, uses the charm of nursery rhymes. The bridge that nursery rhymes laid out between generations is expanded in rap. More words flow without causing semantic traffic jams. Nursery rhyme roads become hip hop highways. Rap bends, embellishes, and exaggerates stories. And that fits with Torah stories, in which concubines, giants who talk smack, murders, sibling rivalry, lightning, and locusts are commonplace.

We create Bible raps as a way for students to engage the text. A rap verse demands attention. Every rap a rapper raps is his or her declaration of what rap is and who the rapper is within the culture of hip hop. Therefore, in rap, the lyrics count; they’re asserted, forcefully as one’s own. This creates a more vital relationship with the text. When students rap their own Bible rap, they have to mean it. (see dozens of their videos at biblerapsnation.com)

Imagine you’ve just written a rap explaining to Jacob/Israel, how you struggle (“Yisrael”) with your Judaism. You put the ear-muff headphones on and instantaneously all noise is a beat. Your body thinks before your brain, and your head begins bobbing to what has now become a “funky-ass” beat. You are the only one in the room hearing the beat; outside the earphones, people watch as you begin to harangue the silence. Success is measured by how convincingly you assert your identity in the words that you rap. Keep it real. It’s not easy, and the bumps of the beat feel just as rocky as the bumps of self-consciousness. Each word you use to focus on Yisrael flexes the stomach muscles. It’s an exercise of will, of agency, of self-assertion, of being shot like an arrow toward a vision of your Judaism.

In this process we take an adolescent’s attitude and, rather than condemn it in order to keep class in order, we grow it into a song, a story. This allows unchained, roaming, bounding footmarks to be stamped indelibly into the beat, to run free in the classroom, and then be tracked and heard forever. Each time students return to the rap outside of the class, whether it be their own Bible rap or one of ours, all the lessons that are associated with that song return, as if they were whistling while studying their Hebrew school notes.

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Matt Bar, the Bible rapper, has been featured on MTV’s “The Real World” and NBC’s “Hip Hop Nation: Notes from the Underground.” He has opened for the Grammy-winning group Outkast as well as for Hasidic Jewish reggae musician Matisyahu. The Bible Raps Project is an outgrowth of the success and excitement he discovered when he introduced Bible raps into his classroom. Matt was a fellow at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies (2009) and the Presentense Institute in Jerusalem (2007). A Bible Rap is found on shma.com as well as on Bibleraps.com and biblerapsnation.com (kids only).

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