Rapper Nissim Black Has a Spiritual Message for the Hip-Hop World
The Seattle musician formerly known as D. Black returns with a new album after his latest conversion, to Orthodox Judaism
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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