LOS ANGELES— In Israel, the sight of an African American man dressed in full Hasidic regalia tends to attract second glances even from people who don’t recognize this person as an internationally-known Orthodox Jewish rapper. Above all else, however, Nissim Black craves authenticity. He is who he is and can live with the attention.
“I get a lot of stares. Mostly good,” Black said. “They could be staring at you because you look different, or they could be staring at you because they like your music, and they don’t necessarily know how to come over and tell you so.”
Black spoke from Israel via Zoom before performing at the American Jewish University’s B’Yachad Together series. During the “From Gangs 2 God” discussion with AJU’s Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, Black reflected on a unique personal journey that took him across faiths and the world. He capped off the event with a performance of his 2020 hit “Mothaland Bounce,” which garnered more than 4 million views on YouTube.
In “Mothaland Bounce,” Black labels himself “Black and Yiddish … Hitler’s worst nightmare.” Hirsch brands him “the voice of a generation.”
“Talk about surviving and turning your life around,” Hirsch said. “All the stakes were against him. There should be no reason he should become this pillar not just of faith and hope but innovation and creation and music. It’s an extraordinary story.”
Born Damian Jamohl Black, the Seattle native is the son of two rappers and the grandson of other musicians. He was raised Muslim, and converted to Christianity in high school before turning to Judaism.
His upbringing included high school football, gang activity, and evangelical camps. Black is open about his achievements and missteps. His parents both had drug problems, and Black himself has been in what he characterizes as a “kill or be killed” situation with another rap artist.
From a young age, as others in his neighborhood dreamed of NFL or NBA super stardom, Black wanted something different. His decision in high school to turn toward faith was surprising to some and predictable to others. Black recalls a conversation with a cousin who said she recognized even then Black was special, before he realized it himself.
“I don’t know where she was coming from. I knew me back then and I thought I was a knucklehead … just like everybody else,” Black said. “I hooked up with my high school friends after some time, and they admitted they knew I was so on fire, so spiritually-focused that they would get jealous. They wanted me to belong even if they didn’t feel that I did.”
Asked about influences both musical and spiritual, Black admits to being equally moved by the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. and King David (The song “A Million Years” is inspired by a psalm of King David) as he is by the work of Eminem and fellow Jewish black recording artist Drake. Black released two albums as D. Black (“The Cause and Effect” in 2006 and “Ali’yah” in 2009) before stepping away from hip hop to focus on his spiritual journey.
“I couldn’t figure out a way to make the two worlds work,” Black said. “It was very hard for me because my relationship to hip hop, at one point, was associated with absolutely nothing that I was learning in Judaism. I started working a regular job. Of course, because I’m the creative soul that I am, I was never fulfilled. But my main focus was connecting and coming closer to God.”
Black changed his name knowing that both he and his wife would be converting and wanting the new name that he would be known by to be on his marriage contract. He settled on “Nissim” (meaning “miracles”) partly by happenstance and partly because of what he considers providence.
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After considering, Yehoshua, Black consulted several rabbis. One day, while praying over the name conundrum in temple, he reached behind the bench to grab a prayer book that said “Nissim” on it. He later realized that he was born on the seventh day of Kislev, the month of miracles in the Jewish calendar.
As Nissim Black, the artist appears to have discovered how to bridge the two worlds. Songs like “Mothaland Bounce” and the new single “RERUN” are part announcement and part self-reflection without anger or expletives.
The videos are distinctly playful, employing elements of both traditional hip hop and Orthodox Judaism. As Hirsch put it, the artist is “unafraid to bring together what most people think shouldn’t be blended.”
Have there been challenges to being Hasidic Jew and a rap star?
“I was told by everybody else, that nobody was going to embrace it,” Black said. “Maybe I should try something different. Maybe I should start singing Jewish medleys. But that’s not what God wanted from me. It’s not what he gave me. Everybody told me nobody’s going to accept you over here. I’m surprised to find it hasn’t been true.”
Hirsch, who also served as AJU’s chief innovation officer, believes the world will benefit from Black’s artistry.
“He breaks barriers everywhere he goes,” Hirsch said. “The music itself is breaking records and breaking barriers … but also, it’s him. By being authentic and by being real, he sets a new standard for what it means to be impactful in the world.”
(Edited by Matt Rasnic and Blake French)
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