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.
And then in September 2012, Black—now known as Nissim—announced his return to the mic. What had changed? “Oh Wow,” he wrote in an email. “Complete miracles.” As his conversion neared completion, his music still in retirement, Black’s 6-month-old son contracted meningitis and remained in critical condition for over a week. Black was on the rocks financially, too. Meanwhile, he said, he had been getting strange phone calls from friends and rabbis as far away as New York and Israel, asking him to return to music. Some said they’d had dreams about him. “I prayed to Hashem,” he told me. “I said, ‘Enough is enough.’ I went to my shtender and I talked to Hashem in my own words for five hours. I asked Hashem, ‘If this is something You want me to do, You need to prove it.’ ”
Black chose a broken microphone as a sign. He prayed. He plugged it in. “And it worked!” he said. “And I just sat there and I started cracking up.” Black sat down and recorded his first song in three years. The baby recovered.
World Elevation, an “alternative rap” album, soon followed, with what he called a “broader” sound than his previous musical efforts in order to inspire Jewish listeners. The new album has glimpses of D. Black’s hip-hop genius—especially in the slavery-Holocaust dialogue of “Sores”—but early mixtape singles leading up to the album launch, “Unbelievable” and “Ricochet,” veer into the inspirational category and risk losing traction, especially among Black’s loyal fans from his past life. “Unbelievable” starts with a PSA-style lyric: “Have I ever told you how unbelievable you are? It’s a miracle. A complete miracle.” But The Stranger’s Mudede is optimistically holding out. “He says he came back because God asked him to reconnect with his creative side,” he said. “That’s a big thing for him to say. People are waiting to see how to judge that. Art is a cruel thing. If he feels his music is going to bring him closer to his faith and maybe make the world a better place, I’m all for it.” And even Lucciauno, who felt Black was throwing away his talent for religion, is enthusiastic. “I do miss D. Black,” he said. “The thing is, he’s incredible, man. He had to go through a transformation. I love his new stuff. It’s refreshing. It shows the fact that he’s not stuck in one box.”
If Black’s goal is to set the Jewish world aflame, he may already count among his successes a hefty amount of ink on sites like Breslov.co.il and Aish.com, which are geared toward the newly religious and spiritually seeking and have been eagerly following World Elevation’s progress. Most recently, the Jerusalem Post picked up a story from JNS.org about Black’s unique relationship with his 65-year-old rabbi, Benzaquen, who, a year into retirement, appeared on stage at the Northwest’s Sasquatch music festival with Black for “Sores.” While Black has returned to the stage at other regional iconic festivals like Bumbershoot and the Capitol Hill Block Party, he more regularly performs for local Jewish teens he hopes to inspire toward a committed Jewish life. And his relationship to Breslev Rabbi Lazer Brody suggests that more than music may be at play: Speaking to me from Israel, the Maryland-born baal teshuvah Hasid extolled Black’s contributions to kiruv as a harbinger of the messianic era. “There’s a lost spark of holiness in Seattle,” he said. “Nissim is picking it up and bringing it back.”
The challenge Black faces now is resurrecting his reputation as a talented artist while focusing on his Jewish mission. “Chronicles,” the third single and first video from the mixtape, depicts the transformation of D. Black into Nissim, following him through a day in the life of ritual observance. To prove that he’s back, and he’s for real, Black chants: “I will admit I’m not who I used to be. It’s not a weakness I’m as strong as I can be. … I went looking for the anecdote to the emptiness I felt, that’s when I seen the Torah glow.” He appears wound in tefillin and framed by Torah crowns: “Call me Nissim or you can call me Nis. Call me whatever but D. Black isn’t he. I moved on. I’m way gone. He died. Trust, I was there to see.”
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