Baltimore Jewish Times / May 15, 2009
By Larry Luxner
Jews who attended recent Israeli Independence Day festivities at Washington's Sixth & I Historic Synagogue expecting to hear patriotic Hebrew songs about the beauty of Israel were in for a real shocker.
Instead of sitting through "Jerusalem of Gold," they ended up dancing to the raw lyrics of rapper Joel Covington — a streetwise black man from Baltimore who for five years battled the Israeli Ministry of Interior's efforts to deport him.
Covington, a.k.a. "Rebel Sun," is the frontman for Israel's up-and-coming hiphop band, Coolooloosh.
For the 31-year-old Covington, who eats kosher, observes Shabbat and calls himself a "Zionist to the core," there was a certain amount of irony in his recent tour, which also includes performances in New York, Philadelphia and New Haven, Conn.
"The Israeli government went to so much trouble to try and kick me out of the country," he said, explaining how his efforts to obtain Israeli citizenship captured national attention. "And now they're using me as a goodwill ambassador."
If Covington is bitter about the experience, he certainly didn't show it during a leisurely interview on the porch of the Purnell Avenue rowhouse in Woodlawn, where he grew up.
The rapper spoke to us two days before his D.C. concert, which attracted over 150 people and was co-sponsored by the Embassy of Israel and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
During our conversation, the one-time University of Maryland political science major talked about his music and how he ended up in Israel.
"All my religious influences came from my grandfather, who raised me Jewish," he explained. "Judaism didn't come for me in earnest until I was about 18, when I started getting back into Torah. I really wanted to see Israel for myself and I didn't want my opinion to be based on media bias or my own religious ideology."
Covington says his grandfather, who traced his roots to Jamaica, "wasn't deep into religion, he was just a guy who taught me about being fair and treating people properly."
After graduating from Woodlawn High School, the young man went to Coppin State University, where he majored in political science and minored in education. His godfather, Nathaniel McFadden — a member of the Maryland state legislature — got him involved in community projects.
Another mentor was Skip Sanders, deputy state superintendent of schools, who established a community program; Covington worked with that program, which involved juvenile delinquents, for four years.
But Covington's heart was definitely not in his studies.
"After two years of college, I realized I didn't want to do this anymore," he said. "Political science almost destroyed me."
He said the revelation came one day while walking around downtown Baltimore.
"I was wondering how the hell anybody could expect anything positive in this city, when right around the corner from Baltimore police headquarters were pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers," he recalled. "That's when I decided I had enough with the hypocrisy."
Covington said his interest in Judaism was fueled by his independent research into the origins of slavery. A 19th-century group called the Torah Keepers, which pieced together elements of Torah Judaism and New Testament teachings, piqued his interest.
"Their goal wasn't theology, but to maintain black history lost during slavery," he said. "After I started researching their works, I was amazed at the richness of the black Jewish community throughout the years. It's very much a misnomer that black people are Christian. Rather, Christianity was forced upon us during slavery."
Covington moved to Israel in the summer of 1999. For half a year he lived in Tel Aviv. He also spent a few months in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia, a few more months in Issawiya — an Arab village in East Jerusalem — and three years in the religious enclave of Ramat Bet-Shemesh, before returning to Tel Aviv, where he now resides in the bohemian district of Neve Tzedek.
"After living in Israel for only three months, I knew I wanted to stay," he said. "I was asked to convert, and at first, I thought it would be much easier to go ahead and do it, but then I decided that would be like saying I was not born a Jew, and I was not gonna let anybody take that away from me. Avraham was almost 100 years old when he circumcised himself. Is anybody gonna say he wasn't a Jew?"
Covington added, a bit defiantly: "I'm not concerned with what man thinks about me. I'm a product of God. So the only one who can define me is God."
He married a black American woman named Shoshana; they had two daughters before divorcing.
"As with any country, there's always a tendency for xenophobia," he said. "But my experiences here in America have equipped me to deal with it. I try to keep my music very simple. My goal is to aim toward the lowest common denominator, the basic things that unify everybody regardless of their religion."
Covington had sung and rapped locally around Baltimore since the age of 14. So it was only natural that in 2004, he would join Coolooloosh, a five-man Israeli band formed the year before. The group combines elements of traditional Jewish music — including klezmer and Middle Eastern melodies — with jazz, R&B, hip-hop and urban rap.
The Jerusalem Post has called Coolooloosh "a bastion of originality in a culture of copycats." The band — whose members are mostly secular, leftist Jews — has played at jazz festivals, kibbutzim and college campuses across Israel. It's also performed at prestigious venues from Croatia's well-known Spancirfest to the Kennedy Center.
"Israel's ambassador to Sweden really helped us out. Our first international gig was in Stockholm," said Covington. The band has since played in Great Britain, France, Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
But last week's concert at Washington's Sixth & I was the first time Coolooloosh had ever played in a synagogue.
"Hip-hop has been stigmatized as of late. But before it was rap music, we were poets. Then came the whole rap image," said Covington. Hip-hop, he suggested, is relatively innocent "compared to Hamlet, Othello and Romeo and Juliet, which is full of adultery, fornication, theft and murder."
The band's latest CD is titled Elements of Sound, with tracks ranging from "Mind and Soul" to "People of the Street." Lyrics are almost entirely in English, with a smattering of Hebrew thrown in at the tail end of several songs.
"We develop our songs together, but I enjoy my freedom as an artist to make what I want to make," he said. "In Israel, we have a very strong underground following. But slowly and surely, we've been creeping into the mainstream. Ever since moving to Tel Aviv, I've made that my mission."