Noah Shufutinsky a.k.a. Westside Gravy performing at Jewish National Fund-USA’s Spectacular Sunday on Sept. 12, 2021. (Photo/Bindelglass Photography)
Noah Shufutinsky a.k.a. Westside Gravy performing at Jewish National Fund-USA’s Spectacular Sunday on Sept. 12, 2021. (Photo/Bindelglass Photography)

Westside Gravy: SoCal-raised rapper looks to take his career to next level in Israel

The rapper Westside Gravy has several tattoos on his right arm that pay tribute to his geographical and cultural roots.

On his upper arm, he has an outline of California decorated with elements of the state flag, including the grizzly bear. An image of the African continent appears on his inner arm in the Pan-African colors of red, black and green. And his latest ink, which he got last May, stretches across his forearm. It is a famous line from Psalm 137, written in Hebrew letters, that translates to “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.”

The rapper shows off his tattoos. (Instagram)
The rapper showing off his tattoos of California and a verse from Psalm 137 in Hebrew. (Photo/Instagram)

Raised mostly in San Diego by a Russian American Jewish father and African American Jewish mother, Westside Gravy (né Noah Shufutinsky) takes pride in belonging to the Jewish and African diasporas. He celebrates this fact both on his body and in his music. “In my heart I hold Jerusalem and Africa,” he says in “Diaspora,” his biggest hit to date.

Soon, though, the 21-year-old artist plans to move to Israel, where he said he feels more comfortable as a Black Jew and where he hopes to take his career as an independent rapper and producer to the next level.

“I think it’s going to be amazing for my personal growth, just because of how much I enjoy being there, and definitely for my professional growth as well,” he told J. in a recent phone interview. “It’s a unique market that I can really connect with musically.”

A 2021 graduate of George Washington University, Westside Gravy spent last summer in the Israeli coastal city of Hadera recording music, eating Russian shashlik (meat skewers) and hanging out at the beach. In his new music video, “Locations,” he pays tribute to that working-class city, which is situated between the more glamorous Tel Aviv and Haifa. “It’s fun in Tel Aviv, but I love the periphery,” he raps in Hebrew. (“The periphery” is how Israelis refer to parts of the country outside of the major metropolitan areas.)

He loves Hadera so much, in fact, that he plans to settle there upon making aliyah. Among its appeals, he said, are its affordability and its diverse population, which includes large numbers of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.

“There’s plenty of Black Jews there,” he said. “I’m able to walk around with my family and not get crazy looks. It’s like a weight off of my shoulders.”

It is a level of comfort he said he did not always experience in Jewish spaces in the United States. According to a recent study by the Bay Area–based Jews of Color Initiative, 80 percent of Jews of color have experienced racism in Jewish settings.

“Israel is a diverse country, and it’s been that way for its entire existence,” he said. “I’m just another thread in the fabric.”

Westside Gravy did not set out to be “the next great Jewish rapper,” as the Forward dubbed him in 2019. When he first started releasing music online several years ago, he used the moniker Young Gravy, and his artistic identity was not particularly Jewish. He rapped about everything from his love for his hometown of San Diego (in both English and Spanish) to the struggles of U.S. veterans (his father, Anton, served in the Navy, and his older brother, Dmitri, is currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces). As Westside Gravy — the name reflects his California pride and his fondness for West Coast rappers such as 2Pac, King Lil G and Vallejo’s own E-40 — he would begin to incorporate more Hebrew into his rhymes while tackling topics such as antisemitic stereotypes.

But he is best known for “Diaspora,” an anti-BDS song that samples “Hava Nagila.” He wrote and produced the song as a 19-year-old college sophomore who found himself in the middle of campus debates about Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. The video, which he shot while visiting Israel on a fellowship, was enthusiastically shared on social media by Israel supporters and Zionist organizations. He became a sought-after act at pro-Israel events, and he performed “Diaspora” at the 2020 AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington.

Last month, he made an appearance at the Jewish National Fund-USA’s Spectacular Sunday fundraiser in New York. “As a biracial Jew, Noah has a foothold in two minority communities and speaks so clearly about Jewish pride [and] the problem with today’s worldviews of intersectionality,” said JNF-USA chief marketing officer Jodi Bodner. “He gives voice to young Jews looking for meaning.”

Although he is no longer a college student, he remains actively involved in public diplomacy on behalf of Israel as a member of New Zionist Congress, a coalition of young activists. Asked if he worries that his activism overshadows other aspects of his art, he replied, “People are going to try to put me in a box. For me, I like to let my work speak for itself. I’m just trying to continue to put out content that reflects my entire humanity.”

He succeeds in showing a more playful side of his personality in the music video for “Too Hot,” which he filmed in Hadera over the summer. Wearing his trademark black San Diego Padres hat, Star of David necklace and gold earrings, he trades bars with Israeli rapper Ben Lulu in English and Hebrew while poking fun at American and Israeli stereotypes.

In a WhatsApp message, Ben Lulu wrote about Westside Gravy: “Everyone who knows Noah knows that he’s the nicest person in the world, open to ideas and incredibly talented. What makes his music special is its variety. He can do old school, drill, English, Hebrew, Spanish, Russian, and sometimes everything together.”

He added, “In every song he delivers a sharp message or social critique, and I think that’s what causes people to love his music.”

Westside Gravy said he is finishing up his aliyah paperwork and will be on a plane back to Israel soon. Meanwhile, he continues to grind. “California to the Middle East,” he raps in “Locations.” “I’m blowing up.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.