Reuben Formey, a convert living near Atlanta, spreads spirituality through hip-hop music.
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Snoop Dog’s classic rap song “Gin and Juice,” defined by lyrics like “My mind on my money and my money on my mind,” doesn’t exactly aim for a spiritual or religious message. But Reuben Formey’s version, “Money on Your Mind,” is an expression of giving to those in need.
“Realizing we all have an obligation to give—that money belongs to God and he can take it from you if you don’t use it properly,” explained Formey, a black and Jewish hip-hop artist living in the Atlanta area, in an interview with JointMedia News Service. “He can take it out of your pocket at any time.”
Formey, 30, never planned to be a performer, but sending a spiritual message through his music has become his mission his passion. The humble, soft-spoken artist and father of three says a prayer before he begins creating any of his lyrics or music—which he has started performing around the country.
“Everything musically comes from a source I’ve learned in Torah,” Formey said. “Yet I deliver it in a way that you don’t have to be Jewish to get the positive message from it.”
Formey’s father began studying Judaism while in college in the 1970s with Rabbi Manis Friedman, and other rabbis. Born in Minnesota, Formey had his conversion in 1993 when he was 12. While he was officially a Jew, the sanctity of it didn’t stick.
“It was the typical story,” he said. “You have your bar mitzvah and then turn your back on religion.”
While studying in public high school and Georgia Tech University, Formey said he “was doing a lot of stuff that was not healthy for me,” things that were the antithesis of what he now sings about.
“I started waking up, realizing maybe I’m going down the wrong path,” he said.
At that point, Formey picked up some Jewish books, including the Tanakh (Hebrew bible), and started to internalize the words. He enrolled in a yeshiva in Morristown, NJ, and then in Jerusalem for a year and a half.
He got married in Israel to Liora. They spent time living in Savannah, Ga., near his family. The couple now has three young daughters, and he’s fiercely devoted to his family, doting on his little girls.
When he began experimenting with music early in high school, Formey said they were “unkosher lyrics” that mimicked the life he was living. Now his work is far different. Take, for instance, his song “Mayanot,” which means “wellspring” in Hebrew. Formey created the song title through an acronym—Master all your attributes, nothing outlasts teshuva (repentance). Formey said one of the favorite lyrics he has produced comes from the song “Rejewvinated”: “You can’t take my spirit, even when things go sour, sentence me to death, I’ll say Shema in my last hour.”
Formey writes all his own lyrics, produces the music and performs Jewish- and mystical-themed hip hop and rap shows—not the kind most people are familiar with. His first album, Until When, includes a mix of raps and half beats, displaying his talents as a producer. Formey’s next main album, called Connection Revealed, includes all his own rap and lyrics, and appeals to a wide audience. The album was about “saying everything that I thought needed to be said,” according to Formey.
Many people have a misconception that all hip hop and rap music is toxic due its association with partying, money, negative social issues, violence and sexual themes, Formey said. While hip hop originally became popular because it tapped into people’s feelings about the social and political climate—a way to vent—Formey said the genre changed for the worse, and he is among the artists trying to reform it.
“I want to change people’s minds,” Formey said. “I want people to see that rap doesn’t have to be garbage, it can uplift you. It’s uplifted me. It’s a movement to make this genre something that can be meaningful. It’s not about saving rap, it’s about saving people, using rap like any other tool.” The intersection of race and religion is also part of Formey’s mission; he noted how blacks and Jews have had similar histories.
“Faith in the face of struggle and a oppression has been a part of the history of blacks and Jews,” he said. “I’ve had positive and negative experiences as both—I try to fuse those experiences together into a universal message. It all comes out in the music.”
Rabbi Yossi Refson of Chabad of Charleston (South Carolina) invited Formey to be the main show at last year’s public menorah lighting—a joint venture with the College of Charleston and City of Charleston—which is held at the main town square and attracts over 1,000 people.
“I was looking online for something unique,” Refson said. “This was ideal. An interesting message with a great messenger.”
Refson said the show was “excellent, entertaining to both young and old.”
“People who wouldn’t necessarily listen to a message from a teacher or rabbi could listen to [Formey’s] lyrics and be inspired by it,” he said.
When Jeremy Greenberg was a college student at the Univesity of Wisconsin-Madison, his roommate Zac Miller—a ba’al teshuva now studying in Jerusalem—found Formey on MySpace. The two students created a fundraiser to help the victims of last year’s devastating fire in Haifa, Israel. Along with Formey, they brought in other religious Jewish artists, including Y-Love, who is also a black convert.
“[Formey’s] music was very powerful; it talked about all the good things in life and what you can grow from,” said Greenberg, who now lives and works in Chicago. “His music connects people to important issues… and he’s not afraid to talk about Judaism, which is great.”
Formey said that Matisyahu, now famous for his reggae-style inspirational music, was a role model in the fact that he could be an observant Jew making positive music. Formey recalls seeing him on the Jimmy Kimmel Show talking about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the Brooklyn-based Chabad movement.
“He’s showing it can be done,” Formey said of Matisyahu.
Formey recently started doing more live shows in addition to creating music, but admitted humbly that he “never imagined myself to be a performer.”
Rabbi Chaim Lipskier, of the Chabad at the University of Central Florida (UCF), said he brought Formey out to speak during a Shabbat dinner and then to perform at a Purim party, which drew about 300 people.
“Students really related to him,” Lipskier said.
Ari Pow, a UCF student, was drawn to both the music and Formey’s personality. “It was incredible hanging out with him and getting to know him as a person,” Pow said. “He was very inspirational and down to earth. After seeing him, I started listening to his CD every day. It’s giving me more drive in everything I do.”
Formey also does outreach at Yeshiva Atlanta, connecting with the teens there in addition to performing his music.
“Reuven is a very talented artist with a passion for what he does,” said Rabbi Moshe Rose, who teaches at Yeshiva Atlanta. “He really believes that music is a way into the soul. A way for him to express his love for Hashem, and the music comes out amazingly beautiful.”