Mac Miller and a generation of Jewish hip-hop

Earlier this week, the 19-year-old “white Jewish rapper” known as Mac Miller reached the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts with his debut album,  “Blue Slide Park.” According to ABC News, the album sold 144,487 copies during its first week of sale, and prompted the high-praise headline: “Mac Miller: The Next Eminem?”

Despite the hype, Showbiz411 declared Miller’s album “juvenile” (excerpting the lyric:  “f—- the police ), but added that he is a skilled, self-taught musician. At the age of 6, Miller taught himself how to play piano, guitar, drums and bass.

Miller was born Malcolm McCormick in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to a Christian father and Jewish mother, according to Wikipedia. Miller was reportedly raised Jewish, became a Bar Mitzvah and is chatty about his Jewish identity during interviews.

In 2010, he spoke to the Jewish Chronicle, Pittsburgh’s local Jewish paper about tattoos, Hanukkah and his Bar Mitzvah:

Jewish Chronicle: You’ve got a big chai (Hebrew for life) tattoo. Tell me about it.

Mac Miller: I just love life. I’m a real positive energy dude, not negative at all. I’ve grown up Jewish. I went to Emma Kaufmann Camp, I had a bar mitzva. Part of it was to remember that’s who I always will be. But I could’ve gotten a number of Jewish-related tattoos; I got the chai because life is really important. Enjoying every possible second of life.

JC: Have you taken any heat from traditional Jews about the tattoos?

MM: People have said, ‘What if you need to get a job’ or ‘You can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery,’ but to me, my life is my life. I chose to get tattoos because I love having art on my body to represent who I am.

JC: What was the best, and worst, Chanuka present you ever got?

MM: Best present ever was a keyboard. I told my parents I really wanted to make music. I was only 5 or 6. I hooked that thing up and never stopped playing it. But the worst, and every Jew can relate to this, was being all excited to open up the present, thinking it’s going to be something big, and it’s socks.

JC: What’s your most awkward memory about your bar mitzva?

MM: That’s such an awkward stage in your growth as a person. Looking at the pictures, I’m like ‘Man, look at me back then, what a weird looking dude.’ I’ve never had a fear of performing, obviously, but the preparation of people saying it’s your big day — well, you don’t really understand until you get older.”

Miller is part of a growing list of Jewish artists attracted to the hip hop genre, including the African-American rapper Drake and the Israeli group Hadag Nahash. And who could forget the famous trio from New York City who became The Beastie Boys?

The attraction to hip-hop may be instinctual for an ethnic group with proven storytelling skills. Hip-hop, more than any other genre besides Country music, encourages a narrative form of self-exposure.

Which may be why the Israeli hip hop artist, Shorty, visited Tufts University Hillel earlier this week to describe her experience as an openly gay musician living in Israel. The event, part of an “Out in Israel” series sponsored by Tufts Hillel, was designed to educate students about the civil rights accorded to the gay community in Israel, and judging by reports, Shorty maintained her tough-gal exterior even while discussing her outsider status.

The Jewish relationship to self-expression is complicated, since, for much of history Jews were safer if they hid or downplayed their identity. But for these young artists, Jewish identity is a source of pride (as Mac Miller raps in the video below, “I read the To-rah!”); its central focus is not on survival, but rather, flourishing in an age of unprecedented possibility.

Meet Mac Miller in this video produced by Shalom Life: