Rapper Nissim Black Has a spiritual message for the hip-hop world
On a dreary Pacific Northwest winter day, through an unmarked door and up a flight of stairs in a depressing stretch of strip malls just north of Seattle, I found Nissim Black crammed into a tiny recording room with his brother-in-law and musical partner, Yosef Brown. Here at London Bridge Studio, where Soundgarden recorded Louder Than Love in 1989 and in 1991 Pearl Jam recorded Ten, a repetitive electronic beat rolled out of the speakers. Both Black and Brown seemed to be in a state of meditation.
“For me, this record is completely spiritual,” Black, whose round face is typically stretched out in a smile these days, said while fiddling with sound controls on a computer. “I was in a trance almost the entire time.”
World Elevation, out this week, is Black’s third album and emblematic of the third version of his musical identity. Growing up in Seattle’s modest hip-hop scene, Damian Black started out as gangsta rapper D. Black and evolved into D. Black the messianic Jewish-Christian. At 27, Black is again reinventing himself—and his music—according to an intense spiritual journey he undertook when he converted to Orthodox Judaism from Christianity between 2010 and 2012. The conversion, which took him out of the music game for two years, also makes him one of a small but influential group of black Orthodox Jewish hip-hop artists that includes Y-Love and Shyne. But Black diverges from his fellow religious rappers in one critical way: While trying to stay in the game as a serious musician, Black has recorded a new album dedicated to setting the Jewish world ablaze with a spiritual message.
Raised a nonpracticing Sunni Muslim to Seattle hip-hop pioneers James Croone and Mia Black of the Emerald Street Boys and Emerald Street Girls, and mentored by Seattle rap legend Vitamin D, Damian Black was once described by the Seattle Times as “Seattle hip-hop’s first son, the mini-wrecking ball with a golden voice.” Stocky and baby-faced (he was tapped to play Chris Wallace in Notorious), Black converted to Christianity at the age of 14 and put out his first album, Cause & Effect, in 2006 at the age of 19. The album was a compilation of gangsta rap borne from mainstream influences and his experiences growing up in Seattle’s rough South End. Seattle rapper Fatal Lucciauno, who met Black in high school and has remained a loyal fan ever since, told SSGMusic in 2011, “Besides Tupac Shakur, I put D. Black against Hov, Biggie, anybody. I put D. Black with Sting and Bono. He’s an artist.” Music reviewer Charles Mudede of Seattle’s popular alt weekly The Stranger concurs that Black “can stand with any rapper out there that has national standing.”
After Cause & Effect, Black felt his life was going downhill, and the traditional Christian views of Jesus weren’t aligning with his spiritual studies. He and his wife, Jamie (now Adina), whom he married in 2008, began attending a messianic Jewish community just south of Seattle, near where they were living, and leading Torah-Christian Bible studies out of their apartment.
Ali’yah, released in 2009, documents Black’s transition to Jewish-inflected Christianity. More than the predictable gangsta lyrics of Cause & Effect, Ali’yah is driven by internal spiritual struggles and accusations of hypocrisy against hood life delivered in complex, socio-political rhymes with a sound that can be compared to that of Taleb Kweli or Mos Def. The track “Close to Yah,” which features Lucciauno, opens with a shofar blast and the Priestly Blessing. Black and Lucciauno proceed to rap with fiery conviction: “Yahweh, Jehova/ My search for the truth is drawing me closer/ Now as the end approaches the wicked all scatter like roaches while I stay focused on the light that illuminated Moses.” Reviewers were pleased with Black’s shift away from the pointless adulation of guns and violence into spiritual seeking.
But Messianic Judaism proved unsatisfying, too. “I read through the Tanakh twice, and I couldn’t get into Christianity anymore,” Black told me at what he called his office at a Caffé Vita coffee shop in Seattle. “For the first time, I felt the connection with Torah. I became fascinated with halakhah.” The hardest part, he said, was letting go of Jesus. “I was scared to go to hell,” he said. With the help of Jews for Judaism, Black says he eventually severed his relationship to Christ.
Black felt that music would pull his soul away from the intense spiritual journey he was about to embark on. The rapping had him, he said, “wrapped up in the hype and myself.” After Ali’yah’s release, on the verge of what could have possibly become national fame, he essentially threw a retirement concert and decided to abandon his hip-hop projects and focus on conversion. “When he left music, it hurt me. It crushed me,” said Lucciauno, reflecting on Black’s last show. “[I was like,] What are you guys saying congratulations for? This is his last fucking album. I definitely did not like it.”
Black moved to nearby Seward Park, a heavily Jewish Orthodox neighborhood that juts up against the diverse communities of Rainier Valley, where he had grown up.
While under the tutelage of Rabbi Simon Benzaquen at Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation, Black got rid of all his music, split from the label he part owned, Sportin’ Life Records, and devoted himself to the conversion process. As his studies deepened, he became particularly influenced by the spiritual teachings of Breslev rabbis Shalom Arush and Lazer Brody, and in 2011 he began trading up his ordinary wardrobe and knit kippah for a black suit and hat. By 2012 he had changed his name. The shift surprised some of his Sephardic supporters, but seemed to be welcomed, at least outwardly.