Nissim Baruch Black: The rapper who gave up bling for Jewish redemption

Once he rapped about gangs, guns and drugs. But since swapping his gold jewellery for a black hat, the message of Nissim Baruch Black’s music has been one of hope and redemption.

Black, who grew up in a tough neighbourhood in Seattle and was selling drugs by the age of 12, now lives in the most uncompromising ultra-orthodox Jewish area of Jerusalem as a devout family man who reads the Torah, keeps kosher and strictly observes the sabbath.

Surprisingly, he is still a rapper. He is working on an album, Gibbar (meaning strong in Hebrew) and performed in New York’s Times Square on Saturday as part of a world tour that ends in London next year. His stage outfit is identical to his everyday wear: black hat and coat, white shirt and tzitzit(ritual fringes), with peyot (sidecurls) hanging beneath his hat. In his former persona, D-Black, he was flanked by scantily dressed women as he rapped; now, in an hour-long meeting, he did not once make eye contact with me (“Please don’t be offended,” urged his producer).

Black’s road to ultra-orthodox Judaism took him through Islam and Christianity. A pivotal moment was a confrontation with another rapper, when Black realised he was in a “kill or be killed situation”. He shut himself away and prayed for three days; soon after, he started attending a local synagogue.

He grew up in a family of drug takers and dealers. “It was very loving, but the streets were in my house. I’d come home from school and there’d be garbage bags full of drugs on the table, and men with guns. There were some very startling moments.”

At the age of nine, Black – now 31 – starting smoking pot, “and by the time I was 12 I was dealing it. I was the product of my environment.”

His father left the family home when his son was two, and he was raised by his mother and stepfather, plus his maternal grandfather. The latter was a devout Muslim, “but he never stopped his criminal activity. He’d take me to the mosque to pray. Praying was very comforting to me. If anyone had asked me at the time, I would have said I was a Muslim.”

Soon, his grandfather returned to prison and Black turned to drugs. “All the way through junior high school, there wasn’t a day I didn’t smoke. But since everyone else in the house was high, no one noticed.”

The youngster was also rapping and made his first professional recording at 13. The same year, he had a bad experience with marijuana. “I woke up in a park, hallucinating, and I never used drugs again. I’ve been clean since I was 13 years old.”

The following year he converted to Christianity after attending a summer camp. For the first time in Black’s life, “I had healthy relationships, not just dysfunctional ones. It felt like the home I never had.I never got to be a normal kid til I got to this place.”

His music career also progressed. A record company expressed an interest in signing him. “50 Cent was huge in hip hop at the time. He moved the rap world back to gangsta rap. [The record company] asked me to toughen up my message; they wanted an edgier sound, cursing and so on. I wasn’t comfortable with that, it countered my Christian values. But then they faxed over a half-million dollar proposal, so I started to curse pretty quick after that.

“I ended back in those circles where people did a little bit more than just rap about it. There was violence, drugs. These guys were serious about it.”

After his mother died from an overdose, aged 37, Black launched his own independent label. “It started to make a buzz. It spread very fast.” It was at this point that the violent stand-off occurred with a rival. Seeking a more spiritual path, he turned to his local synagogue.

“The more I searched, the more I found I was lacking authenticity. At the root of Christianity and Islam, I found Judaism. I had a fiery, burning passion to join the Jewish people.”

The conversion process took 30 months – “they’re not looking for new customers” – but throughout Black felt a “spiritual pulling towards Israel”. Two years ago, Black, his wife and children made the 6,700-mile journey to start their new lives, and now live in Mea She’arim, a part of Jerusalem reminiscent of 18th-century eastern European Jewish life.

It meant big changes. “I live a very haredi [ultra-orthodox] life.” The family has no television or internet, they keep a kosher house, dress modestly, and observe the strict rules of the sabbath, including no driving, no phones and no turning electricity on or off. During our interview, Black has a new smartphone on the table in front of him, but it has no browser and no apps. He mutters a blessing before sipping his coffee.

Although the family’s religious beliefs and practices are in harmony with their neighbours, in one very visible way they stand out. Nearly all Mea She’arim’s inhabitants are Ashkenazi Jews originating from eastern Europe. The rapper, his wife and four children (with another due any day) are black.

“We’re not exactly the same colour, and I was very nervous about that. But things are changing [in the Haredi community]. My kids have been accepted at school, although they are the only ones of colour. Very occasionally, another kid will shout kushi [the Hebrew N-word] at them.

“But I can’t begin to tell you how surprising and gratifying it is to see these Ashkenazi guys listening to my music. People even ask me to sing at barmitzvahs.”

Black declined to comment on Donald Trump’s presidency, saying he tried to “avoid political questions – and in any case I haven’t watched TV for eight years, so I’m not connected with what’s happening. And I don’t get into dumping on the president, whoever it is”.

Similarly he was reluctant to be drawn on the Israeli-Palestine conflict, saying only that he connected to “these guys” because of his Islamic-influenced upbringing, and that Jerusalem “is a lot safer than the neighbourhood of Seattle I grew up in”.

“It’s very hard for me to subscribe to the idea that Jewish people could be oppressors, though I don’t want to dismiss the experience of people who feel oppressed.”

He regretted the call by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for musicians and other artists to refuse to perform in Israel. “We need to reach out to people. I hate it when politics gets in the way.”

These days, Black’s lyrics reflect his short but packed life story. “I was able to have a life of redemption, I was able to overcome. We all have times when we feel we’re stuck, we’re pulled down by our environment, we get left with feeling ‘we can’t’. But if you don’t give up, ‘you can’. You’re too good to fail. That’s the message I want to reveal.”

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