NEW YORK — If any up and coming artist represents the zeitgeist of young Jewish Brooklyn circa 2017, it’s Zeke Finn.
At first glance, Finn is just another unassuming 27-year-old, complete with thick-rimmed round glasses, untrimmed beard, and a dirty blond mane corralled into a messy man bun. He’s often found chatting in the corner of a post-Shabbat Crown Heights house party full of beer-sipping Phish-heads and Chabad hipsters.
But when you look a little closer, he’s something of a millennial Jesus, staring you straight in the eye with something to say.
An “alternative hip-hop” artist with electronic leanings, Finn sings about where he comes from, what he’s feeling, and what otherworldly things inspire him — even unicorns or other mythical creatures. A self-made, self-produced hustler who’s carved out a name for himself within New York’s music scene, he’s talented yet utterly relatable.
As a member of a generation making it up as they go, Finn is no stranger to the exhilarating uncertainty of dropping out of America’s anemic job market to road trip cross-country making music, finding God, and couchsurfing from Santa Cruz to Jerusalem.
Having gotten his start rapping in his high school English class, Finn now plays venues like Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom and Highline Ballroom. He caught the attention of Jewish reggae rapper Matisyahu, who collaborated on Finn’s single “Plight.” Finn’s songs range in topic from love to spirituality, Jewish heritage to his hippie childhood in upstate New York. He credits his father, a post-Beat poet and artist, as one of his greatest inspirations.
Finn describes the home his father built for the family as a “five-story wooden tower in the middle of the woods.” Until Finn’s mother got pregnant, their house in Ithaca had no electricity; his parents had been using kerosene lamps and candles. To this day, Finn manages his father’s art, helping to promote it through social media and place it in exhibits.
‘When you see his art, you know he’s a man of the woods and nature and the land and the earth’
“When you see his art, you know he’s a man of the woods and nature and the land and the earth,” says Finn. “I grew up with a lot of folk music. I’d go to sleep at night and Dad played mandolin and read me ‘Lord of the Rings,’ and my mother cooked really healthy organic food.”
The summer Finn was born, fields of blackberries started sprouting up. “They were going to name me Blackberry Finn, but they thought it would be too close to Huckleberry Finn,” he says. His parents settled on Ezekiel.
The name Finn itself was an Ellis Island invention his grandfather took on to assimilate better into American society. The family’s surname had previously been Kushkovich. Finn’s grandparents settled in Brooklyn, not far from where he himself lives today in Crown Heights.
Finn says he began to take an interest in his Jewish heritage in high school, when he was been inspired by a history teacher who taught the students about various ancient peoples like the Byzantines, Greeks, and Romans. He even learned Yiddish from his grandmother. It was the beginning of his musical inspiration.
“When I was 16 years old, I came to class with a rhyme I wrote on a napkin,” Finn recalls. “My English teacher was like, ‘Hey, that’s a dope rhyme, I have an Afro reggae hip-hop band, and you should rap that with my band.’ I was like, ‘I’m not a rapper, I just wrote this little thing.'”
‘My English teacher was like, hey, that’s a dope rhyme, I have an Afro reggae hip-hop band’
His teacher’s band played songs about Christianity and Rastafarianism, inspiring Finn to delve deeper into his own Judaism. He eventually moved to Israel for two years, studied in a yeshiva, and played music there before completing an undergraduate degree in business.
“My music has shifted a lot,” he says. “It started with Jewish identity, the Jewish people and our historical struggle, but also continuity.”
But although he’s collaborated with Matisyahu and is neighbors with the popular Hasidic band Zusha, Finn defines himself as an artist who’s Jewish, rather than as a specifically Jewish artist.
“There’s still a spiritual message in some of it, but it’s not always particularly Jewish,” he says of his music. “One thing I also always wrote about was love. The heart makes songs pretty easily when it’s broken. So a lot of what I end up writing about lately is either heartbreak or homesickness, lamenting the concrete jungle and wanting to be home in the woods in Ithaca with my blackberries.”
He says music can be a deeply spiritual, even holy experience.
‘My dad would trade blackberries for handmade rocking chairs’
“For me, music is one of the highest forms of expression,” he says. “It can heal wounds, it can move people, create peace. It’s a lofty thing that can transcend your existence. I hope that my music can inspire change in people’s lives and inspire them to live to their fullest potential.”
That goes for Finn staying inspired, too, living out his potential. The music industry is tough, especially for an artist like Finn, doing it all on his own (though sometimes he invites his little sister to come perform alongside him).
“My dad would trade blackberries for handmade rocking chairs. He taught me not to do anything because you feel like society tells you to do it,” says Finn. “People work their jobs, they spend more time working than with their family. For me, I only have this one life in this world, why not do things I love and occupy my time with that? If the universe wants to keep me alive doing it, then it will.”