Spotlight: Rap, Judaism and social justice

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Some people believe college-aged students are apathetic about politics – more interested in their phones and social media than they are in social justice. That’s not true for Jonathan Shapiro, the son of Julie and Jared Shapiro of Vestal. Shapiro, who recently began college at the University of Rochester, sees his interest in social justice as part of his Jewish heritage. It also represents how he views the world.
His concern about tikkun olam (repairing the world) began early. “My interest in social justice was engraved in me from a young age,” he said in an e-mail interview. “Being raised in a Jewish community [meant that] social justice was always a priority in those around me. Almost everyone I looked up to from my childhood had great awareness for social issues and it was just natural for me to take that path, as well.”
His interest in rap music began around the time of his bar mitzvah. “In late seventh grade, actually around the time of my bar mitzvah, I began creating rap music,” Shapiro said. “After I broke my back, I was out from soccer and my brother introduced me to the genre and I instantly fell in love. Also, writing raps and poetry was a very therapeutic activity for me in any time of stress.” 
One example of social justice and rap can be found in his rap “Driving.” Shapiro noted that “[‘Driving’] is a story told from the perspective of a mother whose son, Derick, was tragically lost due to a drinking and driving incident. On one hand, the message is to spread awareness against drinking and driving, but it also ends on a positive note with the mother feeling empowered and ready to make a change. At the end the mother says, ‘I ain’t taking life for granted. I ain’t living to exist. I know I’m here to make a difference show the world what Derick wished.’ This song’s message is to express that life has tragedy, but it’s what you do to stop the next tragedy that matters.”
Other songs hit closer to home. “One of my personal favorite songs off of my debut project ‘Nightmares Are Still Dreams’ is ‘Mistakes,’” he said. “This song is about battling depression and longing for purpose. This song is very personal, but hopefully lots of others can relate.”
Shapiro writes both rap and poetry, and his decision about which format to use is based on whether or not the idea has a beat. “If I need to get something off my chest or have a good idea and don’t have a beat I will write a poem instead of a rap,” he said. During his senior year at Vestal High School, his poem “I am Words” won first place in the Tri-Cities Women’s Club Youth and Short Story Contest. That work also deals with social justice: “‘I am Words’ is a poem about the power of words,” he said. “It describes how words make up someone’s character and can even change the world.”
He would love to be able to continue making music, but is realistic about what that would mean. “I really do wish to pursue music as a career,” he said. “However, it is a hard career to be successful in. Currently I am...  studying international relations while making music in my dorm room. My next step is to maybe take a digital marketing class and learn how to spread my product while I keep creating music.”
Shapiro’s music is available at under the tag Jshaprap. He chose that platform “because it is free and very accessible to anyone looking to listen to music,” he said. “In addition, it is very popular among teens.”
Editor’s note: While some of Shapiro’s music is appropriate for all ages, other songs contain profanity.