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Rap bad boy goes kosher

By Izzy Lemberg and Kevin Flower, CNN
  • The rapper known as Shyne changed his legal name to Moses Levi
  • He was jailed in the United States after a nightclub shooting
  • He'll release an album this month, and is planning a world tour

Jerusalem (CNN) -- It's late afternoon in Jerusalem and Moses Levi is making one of his frequent visits to the Western Wall.

"They say this is where the presence of God is," Levi says as he ambles across the plaza of Judaism's holiest site, a mere stone's throw away from Islam's sacred al-Aqsa Mosque.

"That's why you have Muslims here, Christians here, and obviously you have the Israelites here. When everybody disagrees about everything, they agree about one thing: that this is where they need to come to pray."

Like many of the worshippers there, he is dressed in traditional garb -- a silver-striped silk robe, black knee-length pants, a white knit skullcap, and specially knotted fringes dangling from the sides of his legs.

In many ways, Levi is indistinguishable from the thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews who call Jerusalem home. The only hint of something unusual is the Kurt Cobain T-shirt he wears under the robe, the black Ray-Ban sunglasses, and the signs of recognition on the faces of tourists passing by.

Levi is, in fact, far from your standard ultra-orthodox adherent to the Jewish faith.

He was born in Belize as Jamaal Barrow, the out-of-wedlock son whose father is now the country's prime minister. At the age of seven, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, with his mother, and grew up in a hardscrabble urban setting.

It was on the streets of Flatbush that Levi took up rhyming, eventually becoming the hard-core gangster rapper known as "Shyne." The up-and-coming hip-hop artist's career came to an abrupt halt after a 1999 New York City nightclub shooting incident also involving rap impresario Sean "Diddy" Combs and his then-girlfriend, actress and singer Jennifer Lopez.

Three people were injured in the shooting. In the high-profile trial that followed, Barrow was convicted of reckless endangerment, possession of a firearm and assault. He served nine years in prison, but insists to this day that he acted in self-defense.

"Going to prison was an unfortunate situation and very tragic, but I was just defending myself," he says. "It wasn't the result of some guy trying to be, you know, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and live out some kind of movie and romanticize a street life."

During his time in prison, Levi dedicated himself to the exploration of Judaism, a process he said he had begun as a teenager, listening to his grandmother tell biblical stories about Moses and King David.

While he was still behind bars, he changed his legal name to Levi and began his more formal religious education.

But this was not, says Levi, a stereotypical jailhouse conversion.

"Going to prison just freed my schedule to continue to do what I was already doing," Levi explains. "Unfortunately some people think that going to prison is when the light switch went off in my head and I had an epiphany, but that wasn't the case at all."

After being released from prison in 2009, Levi fulfilled a promise to himself to visit Israel. He arrived in September of that year, underwent a formal conversion and began to study Judaism with rabbis associated with the more stringent ultra-orthodox sects of the faith. He says he wanted to learn more about the religion and the meaning behind its many rituals.

"I have never gone out and done something just to do it," Levi says.

"I have to understand the dynamics of being kosher, why the food you eat is so important, why observing Shabbat is so important -- I had to understand these things and believe these things to be that."

Even while developing his relationship with God in Jerusalem, Levi has been busy working on his musical comeback. Since his release from prison, he has sealed a six-figure recording contract with Def Jam Records and is planning a world tour.

His conversion and study of Judaism also renewed media interest in him. Levi's been the subject of many recent newspaper profiles, which conveniently coincide with the release of his album later this month.

The music, he says, is informed by his Jewish faith, but listeners should not be expecting religious rhymes.

"I am not rapping about Kadish or Shabbat shalom -- that's not the music I make," Levi says, referring the Jewish prayer for the dead and the Hebrew Sabbath greeting.

While he's ditching the vulgar language of earlier recordings, his music still has not lost its edge, he says.

"It's really just a change in direction -- the anger is still there, you dig? The outrage is sill there at the profanity and obscenity of poverty."

His lyrical focus now, he says, is much more political than it was in the past.

"I am still angry that people are suffering in Palestine, the people who aren't terrorists. I am angry (Israeli soldier) Gilad Shalit is captive right now the way I was in captivity -- but it's just a different way to channel that anger." Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas in 2006 and is still being held.

Levi -- who's still known in the music biz by his rapper moniker, Shyne -- hopes the music will inspire a new generation of listeners to fight injustice. He's also hopeful that his new Kosher image will help spread his message in and outside of the Holy Land. It will likely even reach the United States, even if Levi won't.

Upon his release from prison, he was deported by the U.S. government because he was a convicted felon and was not a U.S. citizen.

He calls the decision "draconian" and is fighting to have it reversed. But Levi remains optimistic and says he is not in exile.

"I don't think in terms of exile, I think in terms of it's a temporary setback and I will be in New York, I will be in the United States very soon."