There is an old English idiom, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” It is a metaphorical phrase which means “you shouldn’t prejudge the worth or value of something, by its outward appearance alone.” “Don’t Judge a book by its cover” may be one of the most overused idioms, but it certainly is not the one most practiced. Let’s face it, we live in a very superficial society where it is easy to look only at the surface without making a conscious effort to delve deeper. It is laborious to change this. One must maintain a draconian-like self-discpline to put numerous prejudices aside to look at a person, thing or an idea deeper.
On March 14, 2017, my colleagues Sonic, Mitch and I walked into a bar in Austin, TX. We were killing time one early evening during SXSW. We met up with friends and hung out at the bar when we heard music coming from the backyard. More specifically, we heard someone rapping and dropping some knowledge. We headed out back and saw it was a white kid. We all took out our phones to record this kid killing it. Mitch checked the SXSW app to find out who we stumbled upon. It read, “It can be argued that Kosha Dillz could be the world’s most interesting rapper. Self identified by his Jewish heritage, the freestyle improve champ has one of the best interactive freestyle shows, along with rhyming in Spanish, Hebrew, English and even Yiddish.” A white, Jewish rapper.
Rami Matan Even-Esh (בעברית: רמי מתן אבן-אש) aka Kosha Dillz was born on August 26, 1981 in Perth Amboy, NJ and raised in Edison, NJ. Since then Perth Amboy and Edison have gone through significant demographic changes. Perth Amboy once a thriving Jewish community is currently over 70% Hispanic (primarily Puerto Rican and Dominican). Edison, NJ has become the highest percentage of Indian American people of any place in the United States. According to the 2010 Census, Edison, NJ is 43% Asian and has become a “sprawling suburban Chinatown.”
When I asked Kosha Dillz if growing up in these demographic changing towns influenced his music, he replied “everything”. He went on, “I was born in Amboy, raised in Edison on the border of Fords/Woodbridge,” He continued, “It was a specific area and the people I ran with did specific things. Very much a sports kid turned bad kid area.”
According to Jewish law, when Jewish boys turn 13, they become accountable for their actions and become a bar mitzvah. After this age boys are responsible for Jewish ritual law, traditions and ethics. “We had [my Bar Mitzvah] in Kiryat Tivon in Israel”, Rami tells me. “I didn’t have many friends in school that knew anything Jewish so we did it there. I was way more happy about that.” Shortly there after Rami discovered Hip Hop, “around 14 I really got it. My first CD was Da Storm by Originoo Gunn Clappaz (O.G.C) from Duck Down Records.”
In his 1996 review of O.G.C’s Da Storm, HEADz UP!’s Terry Malko said “If you’re looking for on point lyrics, this album definitely places emphasis in that area.” Malmo went on to say, “This crew is out to tell anybody who’s willing to listen, as well as anybody who isn’t, that they’re not to be taken lightly.” In retrospect, how fitting that Da Storm was Rami’s first Hip Hop album.
Following Kosha Dillz set (one of a many) at SXSW, he went around introducing himself to everyone in the audience. After performing he took the time to meet everyone who was there and invite them to his next show. The hustle was obvious. I introduced myself and told him about Highlark. Over the next couple of days, Kosha Dillz would text, email and direct tweet updating me on everything he is doing in Austin and everything he is doing outside of Austin. When I would respond he would immediately write back. Here is a guy hustling for every last dollar, for every mention and his hard-working, determined attitude was refreshing. I assumed he must have always been like that.
Growing up Rami descried himself to me as “very shy and timid.” In a candid talk to a TEDxKazimierz crowd this past summer, Kosha Dillz described his high school days as trying to fit in, “I always wanted to fit in. I never really felt in. I never fit in in High School. I was always the two-minute best friend of everybody. I always took 2nd and 3rd place…and I always wanted to win.”
This attitude and drive led Rami toward wrestling. Wrestling is a sport where it is one man against another man. While wrestling Rami did not have to depend on anyone else but himself to win and come in 1st place. However, this drive came at a cost, “I grew up wrestling” he told the Kazimierz crowd, “I went on to win a lot of tournaments I went to NCAA division 1 wrestling at Rutgers and in between all that I also got addicted to drugs, really ruined my life, committed crimes, almost tried to kill people, people tried to kill me.”
Rami’s drug addiction and extracurricular activities dealing drugs forced him off the wrestling team. He instead landed himself with multiple felonies, jail time, parole and probation. The last straw came in 2004. Rami’s final arrest was part of a sting operation where he ended up selling to an undercover informant. On this subject, Rami told the TED crowd, “I always wanted to fit in. Even when I went to jail, I was sentenced to 9 months, I wanted to be sentenced for more so I can go to prison, even on that level I wanted to fit in. Even on that level. I wanted to be more of a rapper. I wanted to put out.”
As someone who grew up in the shadows of New York City, and started out performing in downtown clubs, I asked Rami if 9/11 shaped his music. He told me, “at that time I was highly under the use of drugs and on bail from 7 felonies. Although I was close, I was not really connected to anything at the time. I do recall the day but that year alone I wrote one rhyme and it was entirely about drugs. It was one of the lowest times of my life. I watched the tv over and over that day.”
Rami entered rehab in 2005 and has been sober ever since.
Following our first introduction to Kosha Dillz this past March, my colleagues and I were struck with how good he was. I would be lying if I said that is all we were struck by. We talked at length about his stage name, Kosha Dillz. Much like Matisyahu before him, Kosha Dillz wears his Jewish heritage proudly. He wears a star of David baseball cap.
It is impossible to ignore the current rise of anti-semitism in United States. At various times during the 2016 Presidential Election one candidate came under scrutiny for various anti-Semitic statements and the use of anti-Semitic symbols and imagery. This past summer the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) conducted an audit that showed “anti-Semitic assaults rise dramatically across the country 2015.” According to 2015 FBI data, 52% of religiously-motivated hate crimes in the U.S. are anti-Jewish. This included college campuses where they reported a doubling in anti-Semitic related incidents.
Rami discussed with me that he faced some adversity being a white Jewish kid trying to make it in Hip Hop, “back then you faced adversity and you still do, but Eminem already came out and lots of white rappers were crushing the underground rap scene.” Being Jewish, was more of a challenge. He told me, “the Jewish thing was shot down so I change my name to KD Flow for my own sake”. It was not until after his incarceration, rehab and living in half-way houses, that he began to release music under the name Kosha Dillz.
One of Rami’s earliest supporters was Hip Hop and New York icon RZA of Wu Tang Clan. During his TEDx talk, Kosha Dillz talked about RZA inviting him as his guest to perform at the BET Awards. Kosha Dillz shared a story, “I am walking down the red carpet and they are like ‘he’s a lawyer or something, he’s jewish’, no i’m a rapper I swear.”
I asked Rami if he feels added pressure to dispel stereotypes or preconceived notions about the Jewish people. He respond, “No. I feel that I have to represent for what I have a connection to. My name has a Jewish reference but to me it also means I’m a hustler and it’s also a reference to getting clean off drugs.”
The same week the Anti-Defimation League released their report of the rise of anti-Semitism, Kosha Dillz released “Dodging Bullets” featuring his friend Matisyahu. The song recounts the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments artists like Kosha Dillz and Matisyahu often face. In 2014 Kosha Dillz was among other Jewish personalities whose websites were allegedly hacked by ISIS. Rami told me that he has gotten used to “people drawing horns on my head”. Additionally, if you spend sometime on Kosha Dillz various social media channels, it is not rare to see comments like “Zionazi” or “Kike,”
Rami is not one of those guys who will just talk about the problem. He has a solution when it comes to rise of anti-semitism, “I think it’s about being willing to engage people who have a slight hope of changing. Some days you just have to realize everyone has intentions of doing whatever they do. Some is for attention. Some are uneducated. All are misinformed. Not everyone is open to it and that is ok. Each situation gets a different response”. This mature and thoughtful answer, I suspect, would not have come from the Rami in High School or College who was desperate to fit in.
In an August 29th interview with Tablet’s Madison Margolin, Rami said, “People will freak out if you say ‘Israel.’ They think that means you hate Palestine or you support war crimes. I understand that people don’t like certain things about Israel, and that’s OK, but we don’t have to be completely isolated on it”. As Margolin points out in Kosha Dillz’s “So Many People” Rami raps about the Holocaust, “It never happened to you, so show some gratitude…When people hate you for no reason at all, you might feel the same way…Educate yourself about hate man, I ain’t here to sell y’all.”
I asked Rami to give me a recent example of anti-Semitism he has faced on tour. He said “some guy in Denver saying ‘Kosha Dillz — is Jewish? I don’t want to come now.” When pressed “Why because he is Jewish?” the guy simply said “Yes.” When further pressed “But you hate everyone right?” the guy simply said “Yes” Rami reflecting on that story said, “I guess I feel a little bit better.”
Back in March when I asked Kosha Dillz what he was currently working on, he whipped out his phone, asked for my phone number and sent me ‘Jews With Bats!!’. ‘Jews With Bats!!’ was Kosha Dillz shoutout to the Israel World Baseball Classic team. The team was defying the odds with a 4-1 record in March’s World Baseball Classic competition. Members of the team started sharing the video on social media. The video went viral and instantly became the unofficial anthem for the team.
Rami told me that Jon Moskowitz from Universal Attractions deserves credit for ‘Jews With Bats!!’. “He was calling me while I was in Israel to make the song. Funny thing is no one in Israel knew about the baseball team”. Going into the 2017 World Baseball Classic, the Israel national baseball team ranked 41st in the world. They left the tournament ranking 19th. My hunch: more people in Israel (and beyond) now know about the team and Kosha Dillz deserves some credit that they do.
Rami notes that growing up he really was not part of the Jewish community. It wasn’t until later on in his life while getting involved at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe’s Bragging Rights that he met Matisyahu – the first Orthodox Jew he ever met — through his friend Jonah David, Matis’s drummer. In a way, Rami became part of the Jewish community soley due to his name. He found a place, a community where he felt he fit in.
Although Rami told me he does not think it’s his job to dispel various Jewish stereotypes, his actions say something else. Most of Kosha Dillz’s fans are not Jewish. However, he makes sure they all know he is Jewish. His lyrics and the way he handles himself suggest that he wishes to bridge the gap between various communities. His goal: more cultural understanding. He may not want to say he feels pressure to do so, but it appears he wants to bring people together, shed the stereotypes and educate.
When I headed to the backyard of that bar during SXSW I thought I was going to hear some fly freestyle rhymes from a black guy. I was wrong. He was a fly white Jewish kid. I left that bar with colleagues and we passed judgements based on what we saw. Kosha Dillz was talented but perhaps he was a bit gimmicky. I quickly learned it wasn’t a gimmick. I thought, oh here is a wealthy white Jewish kid who’s parents were funding his hobby. I was wrong. So wrong.
Part of the Rami/Kosha Dillz story is not unique. If you do not know anyone who has suffered from addiction then just google “Opioid epidemic.” According to HHS, since 1999, the rate of overdoes deaths involving opioids nearly quadrupled. What makes Rami’s story unique is here is a kid who fell flat on his face more times than he can count (or remember), never felt like he fit in or belonged and when he did hit rock bottom, he got back up. That is a choice that only he could make.
He got back up and found a community in which he felt he fit in. He found ways where he can come in 1st place. You just have to meet him once to realize this is a guy who works hard for everything. He is a hustler, who in his own self-deprecating way looks at his life like he is the underdog. And it is ALWAYS more fun and more rewarding to cheer for the underdog.
During his spare time, Kosha Dillz teaches classes, delivers inspirational speeches and hits the streets to connect and educate. Rami’s story has a lot to do with how many times he got knocked down, but what makes him tick and what makes him so admirable is how he got himself back up and what he is doing to stay up.
So what advice would you give your younger self? Rami replied, “All that weed and drink and pill you smoke and pop won’t make you rhyme better — won’t make you feel better.”