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The Rap on Jewish Rap

Israeli singer Gad Elbaz brought on rapper Nissim Black, who steals the show in ‘Hashem Melech.’ But does the accompanying music video do a fair job of portraying race?

February 01, 2016

Israeli artist Gad Elbaz has released a new version of his hit song “Hashem Melech.” The single—whose melody is based on the catchy Algerian singer-songwriter Khaled’s 2012 single “C’est La Vie”—has shown remarkable staying power since its original release in 2013. This time around, Eblaz has brought on a particularly interesting addition who’s near and dear to my heart, Orthodox African-American rapper Nissim Black.

For those of you not in the know, the Seattle-born Nissim Black first emerged as a hip-hop artist under the name D-Black, his moniker before he converted to Orthodox Judaism in 2013, coincidentally, the same year “Hashem Melech” was originally released. (He was married in an Orthodox double-wedding ceremony a little less than two weeks after officially joining the Tribe.) Since then, Black has since been using his considerable skills in a personal quest to infuse the hip-hop world with messages of spiritual positivity.

I want to love it the music video, I really do. I recognize that it’s a good step in the direction of the kind Jewish inclusivity I would like to see more of. But I just can’t turn off my Jew of Color MicroAggression Lenses™. It’s like having to take a Lactaid before walking into Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin-Robins full of 31 flavors of potential insensitivity. So fair warning: I watched the video with these googles firmly strapped on, and came out about 60/40 satisfied/irritated.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that the video opens with a scene in a barber shop—a non-offensive marker of Nissim’s blackness—but one of the only other shots of an unambiguous black person is of a homeless guy to whom Nissim gives tzedakah. Maybe it’s just me, but the lack of other black people in the video, or rather, the fact that Nissim is basically one of the only black guys shown, screams: Nissim is different and better than regular black people because he’s been saved by the power of Judaism. It makes me wonder what Fiddler on the Roof would look like if it were directed by Tyler Perry. (I wouldn’t watch it of course, because: Tyler Perry.)

Also, it seems that the camera is actively trying to shove Nissim out of frame every time he’s pictured with Gad Elbaz. Not to mention: the cinematographer really has no idea how to film dark skin on the top of a building at night, apparently. (See, I forewarned you: I’m wearing my Jew of Color MicroAggression Lenses™, so be it.)

But look: For the most part, I enjoyed the song, and I am pretty stoked overall at the large shot in the arm for the visibility of Jews of color to “mainstream” Judaism. Here’s hoping that this is just the beginning of a much larger new reality.

This article is part of a collaboration between Tablet and JN Magazine, a website “here to change the monochromatic monolithic perception of Judaism.”

MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.