Mr. Chpakov said his time as SpongeBOZZ was formative. He came to enjoy the anonymity of a cartoon character costume, and still insists on covering his face in videos and photographs.
But the costume was also stifling. Mr. Chpakov started thinking about the next act, one that would allow him to scrap the sponge suit. Surveying the German rap scene, he started thinking about a part of his identity he had not engaged with since his childhood.
“Kids have lots of Muslim, Christian, German, Turkish, American, Lebanese or Kurdish role models,” he wrote in his autobiography. “But so far there hasn’t been a Jew people could identify with in the German rap scene. I thought it was time to make an intentional statement.”
In some ways, it was a daring move. German gangsta rap is dominated by Arab and Turkish artists, and reports of anti-Semitism have been on the rise among both immigrant groups and young Germans generations removed from the lessons of World War II. Some of the country’s most popular rappers have put out videos featuring Jewish stereotypes and lyrics drawing on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Yet incorporating his Jewish identity into his new persona seemed to intrigue fans, rather than repel them. “When I put out the book and the videos, it was like I had been resurrected,” he says. “Finally, I have an identity of my own and can do something with it.”
Jakob Baier, a political scientist who studies anti-Semitism in German rap music, says Sun Diego’s embrace of Judaism overturns stereotypes still common in German society. “He’s turned the anti-Jewish resentments around — ‘I’m Jewish, but I’m not weak. I wear a star of David not as a stigma, but as a symbol of self-empowerment,’” Mr. Baier said.
Music critics have taken a dimmer view, panning the songs as clichéd, misogynistic and offensive. The German magazine Der Spiegel accused him of “ethno-marketing,” calling the over-the-top Jewish imagery in Sun Diego’s videos a tasteless attempt to capitalize on his background. (Jewish leaders, however, have not made a fuss.)
Mr. Chpakov finds the criticism frustrating, mirroring taunts he heard at school as a child. “No one in Germany lets you forget: ‘Jew, Jew, Jew,’” he said, jabbing at the smoke-filled air over the hookah for effect. “For the Muslim rappers it’s the same: ‘Muslim, Muslim, Muslim.’ No wonder we all embrace our identities in our music. For me it’s my experience as a child,