january / february 2007:
With a passion for independent culture and a growing interest in his Judaism, the publisher of America's leading alternative music magazine is singing a new tune.
Text by E. B. Solomont | Photo by Sam Norval
Raymond Roker was holding court at an uber-trendy New York night club recently when it seemed like everyone wanted a piece of him. Friends, colleagues in the music business, me. Ostensibly, Roker — who publishes the progressive urban cultural magazine, URB — was in town for a music conference. In reality, he was doing what he does best: juggling.
To hear Roker tell it, he is a man of varying roles: editor, artist, designer, East Coaster, West Coaster, son, black man, and Jew. The latter may be the least obvious, and it certainly raises eyebrows when he tells acquaintances the nature of my visit to the Soho House in Manhattan’s Meatpacking district. Those who stop by his table are a chic group, and Roker himself is dressed completely in black, with black plastic glasses and a small hoop earring. “I always have to tell somebody I’m Jewish,” he says. At 38, and at the top of his game professionally, Roker is still identifying himself. But then he removes one of the many “hats” I’ve made him wear. “It’s not about religion,” he says. “It’s about, this is my life story.”
Roker’s biography starts in 1968 in Nassau, although it really begins in New Orleans after he and his mother left his father when Raymond was three years old. In the 1970s, New Orleans was “the South,” he says. From an early age, he was cognizant of race and the notable fact that he is black and his mother is white. Not only white (and of Portuguese descent), but also Jewish.
Turns out, New Orleans was more conducive to Roker’s early affinity for Jewish communal life than it was to a biracial boy. He and his mother belonged to a synagogue, and at age 8, Raymond asked to go to Hebrew school. “I think I got bitten by curiosity, just being in that temple.” With both a Christmas tree and Chanukah presents, his childhood was “very... American,” he says.
By the same token, Roker recalls Mardi Gras parades where racial disparity seemed like the headlining act. “It was hard, my mom being white,” he says. Not so much that she was and he wasn’t, but “it was how we looked together,” he says. “No one had seen a black kid with a white mom. In retrospect, Roker acknowledges the undue pressure felt by his single mother that likely added to the tension. “I realize it’s hard for a single mom. Whether they know it or you know it, they’re your dad, too,” he says.
It’s no surprise that by the time Raymond and his mother moved to Los Angeles some years later, Roker was hyper-sensitive to racism. For a myriad of reasons, they did not join another synagogue in California. Several of Roker’s friends in high school were Jewish, but none wore it on their sleeve. “I don’t look Jewish, I didn’t feel Jewish. I didn’t have a bar mitzvah, and people don’t look at me as Jewish,” Roker says. “I got tired of explaining who I was and why.”
But Roker was discovering a new kind of religion: music. He listened to hip-hop, learned to spin and scratch records. In the late 1980s while visiting cousins on the East Coast, Roker came to New York, a city he says he crushed on before falling into a full-blown love affair with after September 11. “In a sense, I discovered club music, and house music, and the New York club scene and it spoke to me,” ultimately prompting the launch of his magazine. “It was the real deal,” Roker notes. “And I was like, this is how it’s done.”
With that in mind, Roker and a partner launched URB in May 1990 when Raymond was only 22. Previously, Roker did design work for music retailers. (Other “occupations” included graffiti artist and art store clerk.) At URB, it’s hard to figure out exactly where Roker ends and the magazine begins. The heavy issue Roker hands to me features an article on Palestinian rappers in New York City, and an article titled “Shalom, Salaam, Word Up,” about the language of hip-hop in the Middle East.
Roker says the magazine’s editors try to push the needle. “Music is the soundtrack of people’s lives,” he says. “If you listen to what people say about music, that will tell you a lot about their worldview.”
His own worldview is decidedly pragmatic, he says. “Politics is in my veins,” he also says. As is social justice and morality. (“I still cry for what happened in Katrina,” he says. Similarly, violence in Los Angeles pains him. “I’m angry at L.A. for not working that out,” he says.) At this point, he acknowledges that those views are decidedly Jewish in nature, and it comes out that his childhood interest in Judaism has resurfaced. “I’m experiencing my culture again,” he says.
In 2004, Roker was invited to join Reboot, a network of Jews whose salons foster discussion of Jewish identity. “I wear my background, my heritage with pride, but I don’t go to temple,” he says. “I still consider myself fairly estranged.”
And yet, while Roker must introduce himself, explain himself, and identify himself, he is answering to himself, too. His religion, much like his life story, is a work in progress. He says, “You start to be who you are in spite of what people think you should be.”
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