Having just released Divine Design, his latest album since 2000’s Heroz 4 Hire, Jeru the Damaja is back on the scene. But then again, he never really left. A 10-year hip-hop vet known for his hardcore Brooklyn style, Jeru has consistently put forth conscious, straight-forward lyrics. He’s been a vegetarian for more than a decade and answered our questions so articulately that we’re not even going to waste any more of your time with a cutesy intro. Let’s just get right to it ... after we give you this fun trivia fact: Jeru’s song “Verses of Doom” was produced by professional skateboarder Chad Muska. It can be heard on Chad’s compilation album Muska Beatz and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 video game. Right on! OK, now let’s do this:
Well my thing is—it’s not just animal rights. I think its just more issues of cruelty. I don’t wear furs or anything like that ... but I just think that sometimes as human beings, we take ... life for granted.
Right, so how long have you been a vegetarian?
For 12 years.
That’s great, and was there something that prompted you to go veg?
[H]ealth reasons. I think that’s the way man was naturally supposed to live .... I used to sell books, when I was about 18 ... on spirituality and being more in tune with the universe, and I just learned that if you eat things that are dead, you vibrate on a lower level. ... I wanted to have the highest vibrations possible, so I just started cleaning my diet up and just started eating things that didn’t consist of animals.
And did you notice a change in the way you felt?
Immediately. ... I feel lighter. ... things like meat [take] longer to digest, whereas if I eat an apple or an orange or something, it digests much quicker and my mind is free to do other things.
Was there anybody you learned about who was an inspiration to you? I know there are a lot of people who have made points about this stuff, everybody from Paul McCartney to Russell Simmons to Pamela Anderson ...
It wasn’t a person who was famous. ... [W]e were selling books, and right next to us was an old man. I mean, he had to be about 80 years old, and he was a nutritionist, but he was a holistic nutritionist, and he was talking to us about how you shouldn’t really eat animals and things of that nature ... and he pulled up his shirt and the man had the abs of a 15-year-old. He says to us, "Touch ’em. Punch me,"—whatever—and he’s like, "How old do you think I am?" And we thought he was about 50 years old, and he’s like, "I’m 86 years old." ... We looked at each other, me and my friends, and we were, like, when we’re 86, we want to be like that .... So that’s what started it. We started reading the books, doing the research, and learning about it, but it’s a hard transition because ... you’re trained to eat animals, you’re taught that if you don’t have this in your meal, then your meal is not complete. ... I never ate pork, so that wasn’t a problem, so for a minute we were on chicken, and that’s just as bad as a pig, really, you know what I mean? The chicken is the pig of the birds.
Now, how do you tell other people about this sort of thing, and do people ask you a lot of questions?
Basically, what I just do is live .... The best way to show anybody anything is through your actions. So, when we sit down to eat and they notice that I’m not eating anything that used to be alive—and when I say "alive," I shouldn’t say "alive" because fruits and vegetables are alive, but anything that had a soul, or a spirit, or anything with flesh that if you cooked me and you cooked it, you probably couldn’t tell the difference—people ask questions like, "Why don’t you eat that—is it because of religion?" ... and I tell them it’s not because of religion, it’s because I love myself, and I know that if I eat a certain way, I’ll live better, my cholesterol will be lower, my eyes will look better, my hair will look better, my nails will grow longer ...
Now are you working on a new record or what do you have coming up?
I have my new record coming out. I have my own label—it’s called Ashenafi Records. Ashenafi is an Amharic word, and that’s like one of the original languages. It’s from Ethiopia, and it means “the winner” … so, I try to base all of my actions around being a winner, and being a winner, you can’t be sluggish, you can’t have 10 pounds of undigested flesh in your stomach. You have to be light, you have to be free to think. So I feel that God or however you want to call it—the universal will—intended for us to eat fruits and vegetables, so that’s the way I try to move, and it gives me higher vibrations, and it helps me to win.
Well, this has been wonderful. It’s been really great hearing your point of view about these things.
Great, and you know one more thing that I really hate?
[W]hen they hit the seals in the head and peel their skin off.
That really grosses me out, I mean just on a barbaric level. … It’s like, how could you do something like that? And I saw this one thing, too, that was also pretty gross—how they throw the cats in hot oil and then just peel their skin off, and they’re still alive. Have you ever seen that?
Yeah, and also there’re things they do with eating dogs and cats, as well as things they do to bears over there. It seems like every country has its own unique brand of cruelty, and then the same people would look over here and see dogfighting or rodeo and think, You’re crazy—look what you do there!
Right, so it’s all a point of view, but I just had to mention that. ... I love TLC and the Discovery Channel and things like that, and they just show those guys—you just see tons of seals lying out—it really makes you want to cry ... I’m a grown man, I’m from the ghetto, the hood, whatever you want to call it, ... and I’ve seen my share of atrocities as far as to human beings, but you see that—it really makes you want to cry. You think that we are so much above that. Supposedly, we have sent people to the moon and we have astronauts in outer space, but then we hit seals over the head and peel their skins off and leave them alive, you know?
Now, growing up in the inner city, have you seen things like dogfighting and stuff like that, and how do you feel about that?
I mean, it’s cruelty because, first of all, in nature, a dog fights for a reason—to preserve himself. ... All animals fight, because they are on an animalistic level, but to bring them together to fight is more barbaric. ... And the way that they train some of these dogs, they feed them gunpowder, they hang them from trees by their mouth.... It’s, like, it’s barbaric ....
What sort of things have you seen or heard about what they’ve done to get dogs to fight?
I’ve seen it all—feeding the dogs gunpowder mixed with, like, cayenne pepper and just treating them really cruel for a long time so the dogs are vicious so that all the dog wants to do is fight. And they bring the dogs together and let them loose on each other just like the cockfights—I’ve seen a lot of those, too. ? Where I lived was like a funeral home ... what they would do is go catch quail and then crossbreed the quails with the chickens and that makes them more—I don’t know what it does, it’s supposed to make them more spunky or whatever—but they put, like, razor blades at the end of the birds’ feet. ... It’s like, to put two men together to fight is really cruel, but at least two men can say, "You know what" Either I do want to do this, or I don’t want to do this.... The animal, he has no idea what he wants to do—he’s going by his instinct.
What do you think it is in human nature that makes people want to do that, and what do you think the best way to get over that sort of impulse is?
People love violence—you know what I mean? But, then again, look—we’re living like savages, right? Hit animals over the head and eat them, so that’s part of it. I never saw a vegetarian serial killer. ... Me and my friends, we’re always like, "You don’t know any vegetarian serial killers"—you know what I mean?—"... who killed a thousand cabbages and cut them up and ate their body parts," you know?
What would you say to people to get them to not follow those violent impulses?
I think they can’t get over that until they start loving themselves. ... If you love yourself, you’re not going to want to harm anybody—you understand what I’m saying? It’s like Jesus said, he was like, "You’re supposed to love your brother like you love yourself," and I think that’s a message that was really overlooked, even in religion ... the main goal of ... any religion is self-realization. Once you realize yourself, know yourself, and love yourself, then you can treat your brother that way, you see. But, what the world is based on now is that religion is just like a set of rules—do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that—and with rules, we know that for certain people, the more you make rules, the harder they’re going to try to break those rules. They’re going to find more conniving ways to get around those rules, just not to get caught. I love that song, "What the world needs now is love, sweet love," you know, because it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. ... I just believe in peace. To me, that’s key—peace is key.