Black Bar Mitzvah
Seattle-born Nissim started out a Black Gangster Disciple ? then became a disciple of the Torah
Nissim Black seen performing during the Chanukah festival in Pittsburgh, 2018. Photo: SOPA Images/Getty Images
A trap beat fills the air, an African chant winding its way among the drum and bass. On the street, two groups of men approach each other: one in contemporary streetwear, the other clad in African dress and ornaments. The crews bump chests, ready to throw hands, but then yet another group appears to break up the impending battle ? dressed in traditional Hasidic garb.
A stocky Black man appears on the screen. He?s wearing the furry shtreimel hat and the swaying tzitzit tassels of a Hasidic Jew; he?s also spitting absolute fire. ?He said it?s God?s plan, but I?m God?s man,? he raps, shouting out fellow Jewish rapper Drake. This is Nissim Black ? or, as he calls himself a few moments later, ?Hitler?s worst nightmare.?
The new single, ?Mothaland Bounce,? marks a turning point for the 33-year-old Seattle-born rapper and not just because its video has garnered nearly two million views in the month since its release. Since converting to Orthodox Judaism nearly a decade ago, Nissim has made music for predominantly Jewish audiences, collaborating with Jewish pop singers and recording melodic, inspirational, and comparatively saccharine records. But with ?Mothaland Bounce,? he wanted to let folks know where he came from ? and that he was bringing bars with him.
?The fact that I?m dressed in a way that reflects my religious beliefs doesn?t change anything about who I am as an African American. Not only does it not change anything, but I?m proud: Just like I?m proud of being a Yid, I?m also proud to be Black.?
?Most of the music I?ve been making over the last five years has been strictly focused on my connection to God or His connection to the Jewish people,? Nissim tells me over the phone from Beit Shemesh, Israel, where he now lives. ?But this was the first one where I let my hair down and just spit.?
As an African American ultra-Orthodox Jew, Nissim attracts attention wherever he goes. That includes the media; his story has appeared in the BBC, Vice, The Guardian, the American Jewish magazine Tablet, and the religious Zionist media network Arutz Sheva. But as soon as I saw the ?Mothaland Bounce? video, I knew I wanted to talk to him about how he navigates his dual identities ? especially with the recent uptick in anti-Semitism in the U.S., not only by White supremacists but often by African Americans. I was curious, as a person of both African and Jewish descent myself, if these two identities need be at odds.
In addition to reminding folks that he could still flow, Nissim tells me that another motivation with this song was ?to empower people like you and me, Jews of color, since our voices aren?t always heard. People don?t really know that we exist. That was something I wanted to get out there, so people could understand the diversity of Yiddishkeit, of Judaism. I feel like it?s important for the world to know that Jews aren?t just one color or come from one background.?
?In the African American community, especially, people have questions,? he continues. ?Like, ?Oh, he?s Jewish. Does that mean he?s White? Does that mean he?s a traitor?? The fact that I?m dressed in a way that reflects my religious beliefs doesn?t change anything about who I am as an African American. Not only does it not change anything, but I?m proud: Just like I?m proud of being a Yid, I?m also proud to be Black.?
Nor does it change his hip-hop roots. Born Damian Jamohl Black, Nissim was the child of James ?Captain Crunch? Croone and Mia Black, members of Emerald Street Boys and Emerald Street Girls, seminal Seattle crews of the late 1970s. After a tumultuous childhood, during which his parents sold and abused drugs and culminating in his mother?s overdose at age 37, teenage Damian joined up with the Black Gangster Disciples and began emceeing under the name D. Black. (That affiliation pops up on ?Mothaland Bounce,? when Nissim says, ?I used to run with BGD, dropped the B and put an O after the G.?) Known for his streetwise flow and lyrical swagger on songs like ?Get Loose? and ?You Need a Thug,? he gained a local following and had interest from labels. But after a near-fatal quarrel in 2008 with an acquaintance ? what he describes as a ?kill-or-be-killed situation? ? he had something of a professional and spiritual crisis. He began to pray.
Black was no stranger to religion. He?d been raised Sunni Muslim by his parents, embraced evangelical Christianity at age 14, and later flirted with Messianic Judaism (the so-called Jews for Jesus). This time, however, his prayers led him to Orthodox Judaism. Following a 30-month conversion process, under Sephardic Rabbi Simon Benzaquen, he disowned his earlier material and abandoned his nascent career. In 2011, the artist known as D. Black retired from performing and recording altogether.
When he returned to music the following year and then dropped a new mixtape in 2013, Miracle Music, he released it under his new name, Nissim ? Hebrew for ?miracles.? He soon released a self-titled debut album, but his breakthrough came in 2016 after appearing on Israeli pop singer Gad Elbaz?s song ?Hashem Melech 2.0.? Since then, Nissim has dropped two more full-length albums and tours the world, mostly for his Jewish fans, always fitted up in his black bekishe coat, woolen tzitzit, and large black hat perched atop his kippah.
In 2016, Nissim and his wife ? they?d first married in 2008 then remarried in 2013 after they?d both converted to Judaism ? took their kids to Israel to make Aliyah, taking advantage of the country?s repatriation laws to become citizens. But escaping the U.S. is no guaranteed escape from racism; two years after moving to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, Nissim?s children still hadn?t been accepted into yeshiva (Jewish school) because of the color of their skin.
While he has, by and large, gained acceptance and been well received by Jewish audiences worldwide, it?s impossible to completely brush off misperceptions and narrow-mindedness in both Jewish and Black communities. Though Jews of color have existed for millennia ? Ethiopian Jews, Sephardic Jews descended from Spain and Portugal, or even biracial Ashkenazi Jews like me who trace their lineage back to Eastern Europe ? there is a deep misunderstanding, even mistrust, between the two communities.
Judaism has gone long unrecognized and unacknowledged in hip-hop. Despite the Jewish heritage of many White emcees, from pioneers like MC Serch and the Beastie Boys to contemporaries like Action Bronson and the late Mac Miller, Judaism itself is rarely spoken about. (The few exceptions to this ? Shyne after he converted, Eazy-E signees Blood of Abraham, Orthodox singer Matisyahu ? have felt more like novelty acts). When Black rappers mention Jews, it?s often as lawyers, bankers, or other age-old stereotypes. And while you could argue that Jadakiss?s ?stack chips like Hebrews? or Jay-Z?s ?You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?? are harmless language, it still exposes tensions between the two communities. Whether Louis Farrakhan?s rhetorical clashes with Jewish organizations or the Crown Heights riot in August 1991, those tensions have lingered over the decades.
Considering the many similarities between African American and Jewish history, from displacement and diaspora to slavery and genocide, Nissim acknowledges it?s hard to understand where this distrust comes from. ?There?s really not too many other people in the world that should be able to relate over struggles and discrimination and prejudice than Jewish people and Black people, you know what I?m saying?? Nissim tells me. ?So it doesn?t even make sense.?
This tension was most recently manifested in December 2019, when an African American couple entered a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, New Jersey, and initiated a shootout that killed six people, including the assailants. Later that month, an African American man entered a Hasidic rabbi?s home in Monsey, New York, during Hanukkah celebrations and began stabbing guests, wounding five. The attackers in both cases were connected to the Black Hebrew Israelites ? the separatist group who believe themselves to be the ?true? descendants of the lost tribes of Israel and whose vocal anti-Semitism has led the Southern Poverty Law Center to label them a hate group.
As a Sephardic Orthodox Jew, Nissim is, of course, not affiliated with the Hebrew Israelites. But as both an African American man from the streets and an observant Jew now living in Israel, Nissim could be seen to be caught between the two warring factions. The cause of this divide, Nissim believes, is a matter of education. Jews and African Americans haven?t been taught each other?s histories.
?Inside the Jewish community, especially in the religious community, they are completely oblivious to African American history, beginning with the Atlantic slave trade. They have no idea,? Nissim says. ?And on the flip side, I didn?t grow up knowing anything about the Holocaust, let alone the Inquisition or anything else. We didn?t know the plight and the struggle that the Jewish people had when they came over here from Europe. I feel like these dialogues don?t happen.?
Nissim says this was another incentive in making ?Mothaland Bounce? ? to help spearhead these dialogues, to find unity in our shared struggles, and to not let our historical grievances isolate us from each other. ?Everybody?s looking at it like, ?I had it the worst because of what happened,? you know what I?m saying? Everybody?s focused on themselves. If those conversations were had, we?d learn so much about each other.?