Interview: Matt Bar’s Bible Raps

By | Tagged: culture, texts

Matt Bar sees dead people.

He doesn’t hold seances or visit graveyards — not literal graveyards, anyway. Instead, he takes revisits key moments in Jewish history from the Torah and Tanakh, and breathes new life into them. He does this mainly by becoming them. In “The Silence,” he is Isaac, bound up by his father, being brought up to Mount Moriah to be sacrificed. “It’s Going Down” finds Bar as Rahav, the holy prostitute, spitting rhymes about the strange Children of Israel who’ve just stumbled into town…and he even makes a play at being the holiest one of all, God, in “Know My Name.”

Bar’s Bible Raps project is designed to marry Torah with a present-day pop sensibility. (The chorus of the song “My Brother’s Keeper,” which testifies, “I’m all about my brothers, I’m all about my people,” is a good representation of this.) For the past year, Bar has been touring almost nonstop in support of the project, mostly to Hebrew schools and summer camps, and speaking to crowds that are sometimes as unaccustomed to hip-hop as they are to the Bible — mixed secular and religious crowds of young children, teenagers, and parents. “It seems like it’s not Jewish…it’s really, really
good,” a ten-year-old girl says on Bar’s promo video…and, though she probably doesn’t intend it as a critique of Jewish education, its validity stands.

With this month’s release of the Bible Raps album on CD and iTunes, Matt Bar prepares to take his music and his message to a wider audience, even as he prepares to set out on tour again. The project also includes a seriously mind-blowing teacher’s guide, where Bar and his collaborators create Talmud-style annotations to the lyrics, explaining them while linking to related verses, stories, and offering insights into both the Bible and the song.

On Bible Raps, you take a bunch of Biblical personalities and write songs in their voices. Some of the events — like Isaac, on the way to be sacrificed — are somewhat obvious choices. It’s less so when you rhyme in the voice of Rahav, the kindly prostitute who helps Joshua and the spies when the Children of Israel arrive in Canaan, or when you’re talking about Haman…