Jewish News editor Andrew Lapin also contributed to this article
What’s in ‘A Written Testimony’?
This March, rapper Jay Electronica released his debut studio album, A Written Testimony. The album, which features Jay-Z on eight of the 10 tracks, received wide praise in the music world. But it’s also been criticized for lyrics and content that hint at possible anti-Semitism.
JN Editor Andrew Lapin discussed these issues with Detroit-based music writer Reisa Shanaman, a graduate of Frankel Jewish Academy and Michigan State University who writes about modern music for VICE, XLR8R and other outlets.
Andrew: Reisa, thanks for joining me. Let’s begin with the basics. Who is Jay Electronica, and what is the buzz and controversy surrounding A Written Testimony?
Reisa: Thank you for inviting me to tackle this subject with you. Jay Electronica is a hip-hop artist originally from New Orleans, where he grew up in the Magnolia Projects. He independently put out his first release, Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), on MySpace in 2007, and signed on to Jay-Z’s label, Roc Nation, in 2010. He only just released his first studio album, A Written Testimony, in March. There’s also a local connection: Detroit rapper Denaun Porter is a longtime collaborator of Electronica’s.
The raps on A Written Testimony are clever, the rhyme schemes complex and the beats compelling. Through witty wordplay Electronica acknowledges some of his mortal flaws, while frequently likening himself to a sonic prophet delivering messages of revelation and upward mobility to his people. He refers to his autobiography as “Quranic,” while Jay-Z says he’s “here to deliver you like Moses.” The pair skillfully volley about the material and spiritual wealth they possess, and the struggles they went through to amass it. Islamic themes and Arabic phrases run throughout; The Biblical analogies began before the album even came out, with Electronica announcing it had been “recorded over 40 days and 40 nights,” exactly 40 days before releasing it.
Electronica is also a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI), and the album includes samples of speeches delivered by the movement’s notorious anti-Semitic leader Louis Farrakhan. That and some alarming lyrics carry connotations of anti-Semitism.
Andrew: Let’s talk about those lyrics. On the song “Ghost of Souja Slim,” Electronica raps, “And I bet you a Rothschild I get a bang for my dollar / The Synagogue of Satan want me to hang by my collar.” Why might he be referencing the Rothschilds, a family that has historically been the target of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and what is the phrase “Synagogue of Satan?”
Reisa: Let’s start with the first line, which, like most good rap lyrics, I sense has multiple layers. I don’t doubt the Rothschild name is alluding to the conspiracies marking the family as a symbol of absolute affluence and power, given the context within the song and themes of wealth throughout the album.
However, it helps to know that Electronica had an extramarital affair with the heiress Kate Rothschild, his former manager, and is rumored to be responsible for the breakup of her marriage. There’s definitely a double entendre here, and a cheeky one at that.
“Synagogue of Satan” is the lyric that really sent some reeling, and understandably so. The phrase originates in the New Testament. Revelation 2:9 reads, “I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.” While our inclination is probably to associate the word “synagogue” here with Judaism, the Greek word from which it stems is more akin to “assembly” and, at the time it was written, referred to Jew and Gentile alike.
Farrakhan has frequently used the phrase “synagogue of Satan.” His intentions are more obvious, considering his well-documented anti-Semitism. In Electronica’s usage, it’s worth keeping in mind the phrase’s Biblical roots and broader definition: those who try to destroy a community and its values from the inside. Like Jay-Z says in the song, “No civilization has conquered from the outside until they destroy themselves from within.”
Andrew: When Electronica uses the line, it’s difficult to tell who he’s addressing: the Jewish community, the Rothschilds specifically, or if he’s simply using the phrase in its most generic form: referring to enemies who worship bad things. It’s common in rap to employ lines with slippery meanings, and Electronica is surely aware of these connotations. Could he be deliberately courting anti-Semitism?
And then there’s Farrakhan, whom Electronica clearly admires. He samples the minister on this song and in album opener “The Overwhelming Event.” Farrakhan says, “The Black people of America are the real Children of Israel.” What do you make of that? Farrakhan and the NOI have a close lineage with hip-hop, right?
Reisa: I doubt he’s trying to prompt accusations of anti-Semitism, as another line in the same song is, “The thing he need like a hole in his head is publicity.” However, it’s hard to know his true intentions.
Hip-hop’s ties to Farrakhan, NOI and the group’s offshoot The Five Percent Nation go back to some of the genre’s originators, Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa. The links include everyone from the Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg to Jay-Z.
Following the murders of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. in 1996 and 1997, Farrakhan facilitated truces between other hip-hop artists. In some cases, like with Common and Ice Cube, he was successful. In 2001, Farrakhan gave the keynote address at the Hip-Hop Summit in New York. According to Billboard at the time, his speech “called on hip-hop artists to take responsibility for their roles in society and become teachers of today’s youth,” and “encouraged artists to stay away from negative urban images.”
I think it’s important to understand NOI’s role in the larger context of black culture. Fruit of Islam, NOI’s paramilitary arm, have been known to guard black residents of dangerous, crime-laden neighborhoods. One resident of D.C.’s “Wicked District” of the ’60s told The Atlantic in 2018, “I will never forget how they calmed the fears of so many mothers and children, just by their mere presence.”
For many in the black community, NOI was a protective presence, reducing crime and keeping families safe. It’s an entirely different frame of reference from ours.
The speech Electronica samples from was intended to inspire black people in America to rise up, work together and reclaim the kingdom which had been taken from them through years of slavery, infighting and oppression. It was overwhelmingly about black empowerment, and Electronica uses it in the same context here. It is a common theme on the album, and of hip-hop in general.
Andrew: I don’t think Electronica’s album, and his monumental talent, can be written off because of his ties to the NOI. But I’m troubled by the provocations. I don’t know how you celebrate someone like Farrakhan without hinting that you, too, might share his most reprehensible views.
When Peter Rosenberg, a Jewish DJ who co-hosts the hip-hop radio show Ebro in the Morning, criticized Electronica for the lyrics, the artist lashed out. “We are willing to hold a discussion in a PUBLIC FORUM on The Synagogue of Satan and its meaning with any Scholars of Theology you would like to bring,” Electronica tweeted at Rosenberg, adding a profane acronym before later deleting the message. That seems like anger from either being misinterpreted … or called out.
(Still, I’d personally welcome a public discussion on the topic in the right setting.)
What are your final thoughts on A Written Testimony? How should Jews respond to it?
Reisa: I find Electronica’s overall message to be pro-black, and he often employs pro-
Islamic sentiments to that end; there’s nothing innately anti-Semitic about either. But the red flags being raised are valid, and hateful sentiments should absolutely be condemned.
It’s important to recognize just how disparate many of our experiences as American Jews are to Electronica’s and the majority of the black American community he is addressing. Rather than being incensed by the lyrics and samples in question on his album, I think it is an opportunity to learn from one another, and to better understand the other’s cultural sensitivities. He’s an immensely talented artist, and I do hope he will take Rosenberg up on his offer to come on his show, so that a thoughtful dialogue which better sheds light on both perspectives can ensue.
For now, as someone whose ancestors were no strangers to oppression, and whose people are the subject of stereotypes, scapegoating and prejudice to this day, I find there is much more on the album to relate to than there is to take issue with.