The religious rapper: A journey out of the darkness

Former gangsta rapper-turned-Orthodox Jew Nissim Black returns with a new album and a spiritual message for the hip-hop world.

Nissim Black (photo credit: Yissachar Ruas)
Nissim Black
(photo credit: Yissachar Ruas)
Damian “D” Black’s gangsta rap examined Seattle’s dark side of violence and drugs.
But Black, who was dubbed “Seattle hip-hop’s first son, the mini-wrecking ball with a golden voice” by The Seattle Times in 2009, was entangled in the underworld he sang about.
Indeed, in a music video for his song Get Loose, he rapped, “I stay ready with handguns and machetes,” wearing an oversized Al Pacino Scarface T-shirt and a diamond-cross necklace, with half-naked women dancing around him.
Shortly after, when his mother overdosed on prescription drugs and his friend was killed in a nightclub shooting where he was performing, Black began questioning his way of life – enough to abandon it. He converted to Orthodox Judaism, swapping his gangsta-rap lifestyle for a kippa, tallit and the Talmud.
Now, the 27-year-old D. Black is reborn, as Nissim Black. Along with his rabbi, Simon Benzaquen, Black is spreading his Jewish-inspired tikkun olam message through his recently released album World Elevation.
Upon his return from a sabbatical, Black performed songs from his first album for a crowd that included 50 or so American yeshiva students jumping up and down and shouting along, at Yeshivat Ashreinu in Beit Shemesh on November 17. Afterward, Black fielded questions before he davened Maariv with the yeshiva.
During the concert, Black admitted that this was not only his first performance in Israel, but it was his first time visiting the Jewish state. He toured the country until Sunday, with Benzaquen promoting his music.
But even in Jerusalem’s Old City and at the Western Wall, fans – including Israeli soldiers – have stopped Black to thank him for his inspirational lyrics.
The newly Orthodox artist is amazed that the message he is broadcasting is reaching a worldwide audience.
After his show, Black said that discovering he is affecting Jews all over the world meant more to him than at any other point in his career, even more than performing in front of crowds as large as 4,000 at well-known music festivals such as SXSW in Austin, Texas, and the Sasquatch Festival in Washington state.
Black especially hopes to move listeners away from the negative lifestyle associated with rap, by encouraging beliefs he connects to Judaism.
“I’m coming from a place where a lot of [young Jews] are being influenced by the music and the culture [of rap].
It’s a place that I left. I’m only here to say that you guys aren’t missing anything.
Everything is right here,” he says.
Black’s journey away from gangsta rap and toward Judaism began when he and his brother-in-law’s families walked into Benzaquen’s synagogue in Seattle, Sephardiv Bikur Holim.
Benzaquen recalls that Black explained to him that he was “searching for the truth” – and this pursuit led him to Judaism.
Black was born a non-practicing Sunni Muslim to prominent Seattle rap stars James Croone and Mia Black of the Emerald Street Boys and Emerald Street Girls. His grandparents also played alongside rhythm and blues/ jazz superstars Ray Charles and Quincy Jones. Black’s lineage, quite simply, was music.
However, he also came from a household brimming with drugs and violence.
He says he “saw a lot of dark.”
To cope with this upbringing, he started to explore his faith when he was 13. He converted to Christianity after attending a Christian summer camp, which temporarily sheltered him from a childhood in the inner city.
Despite becoming Christian, Black remained conflicted. This is apparent in his song “God-like.” Ironically, the song elevated Black’s reputation to that of one of Seattle’s rising hip-hop stars. God-like appeared on Jake One’s 2008 album White Van Music, which included artists with worldwide recognition such as Busta Rhymes and Young Buck. The song was also played on MTV .
But while Black conveys his dreams of succeeding in rap in the song’s lyrics, he questions his faith and the purpose of his talents. At one point he sings, “We, evolving, dissolving the same breath, searching the meaning of life, only to find death.”
In the chorus, Black expresses uncertainty about his purpose, asking, “The God-like flow, what it hit me for? The topnotch show, what it hit me for? The inside growth, what it hit me for?” Just as Black was beginning to become successful with this song, he left rap altogether. He says he stepped away from the gangsta rap particularly after his mother overdosed. Instead, he aspired to become closer to God by searching for an “ultimate truth” in Judaism, Christianity or Islam.
This questioning led Black and his family to gravitate towards Judaism, and to eventually walk into Benzaquen’s synagogue. After speaking with the musician about his past and his recent consideration of his beliefs, Benzaquen assisted Black with his conversion.
The rabbi recalls that throughout the process, Black wasn’t rapping. He was immersed in just understanding Judaism and becoming Jewish.
But eventually, after more than a year away from music, Black began producing music and performing again. But now Black, along with Benzaquen, is imbuing his music with Jewish principles to carry out tikkun olam.
On his album, World Elevation, he publicizes his transformation in the song “Chronicles.” In the song’s music video, Black juxtaposes his previous success, which he confesses left him unfulfilled, with the current spirit of his music that emanates from his Jewish values. The setting of the video is Black’s everyday routine, which includes his wearing a Breslov kippa and wrapping tefillin.
He sings, “I remember when that darkness was sweet,” while pictures of him smoking on album covers pass by in the background. He goes on, “I seen the successes were bleak. I went looking for the antidote to the emptiness I felt. That’s when I seen the Torah gloat.”
He also sings, “I left it for the light I was receiving. Now that I came back, that light I had to bring it,” acknowledging that he is carrying his newfound beliefs into his music.
Because Black’s values are pouring out of his music, his conversion wasn’t a one-way street, either. Black also converted Benzaquen – into a hip-hop artist. The rabbi admits that he detested rap before he became close to Black.
To Benzaquen, rap was comprised only of four-letter words and half-naked women.
However, Benzaquen says that when Black exposed him to his music, with its powerful themes about emuna, his interest was sparked. He started researching hip-hop’s history and its original principles.
The rabbi noticed there was a commonality between Talmudic poetry and political hip-hop, from artists like Public Enemy and Gil-Scott Heron.
Rap was another poetic “form of communication through music, through shira,” says Benzaquen. “Rap music was really the African-American yearning to express themselves” through their struggles. Benzaquen relates this to the poetry of the prophets and in the Talmud, asserting that Talmudic poetry and rap immortalize themes by motivating their publics to memorize songs and their messages.
The song “Sores” conveys this connection between hip-hop and Judaism.
It is perhaps the most dynamic song on the album, since it links the Holocaust to African-American enslavement. Benzaquen is featured on it, singing part of the chorus.
In the first stanza, Black speaks about the hardships and despair of a black slave. This depiction parallels the second stanza, where the artist describes a concentration camp prisoner’s suffering. The acts fuse in the chorus, where Black sings, “The sores won’t fade. They will always remain. I know one thing’s for sure, that we will always remain,” and Benzaquen chants a verse from Psalms.
This song communicates Black’s hope that there is more “unity” and “brotherhood” between African- Americans and Jews, since “each side has qualities that we’ll be able to get through racism and anti-Semitism.”
“There are no two people that are more connected and have more in common than the African-American and the Jew,” Benzaquen says, “because of their past experiences.”