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Nissim Black finds spiritual answers in his Judaism

  • Nissim Black
Nissim Black wears his heart on his sleeve. That heart, like everything about him, is warm and large, and that sleeve is on a black, silk chassidic caftan - far removed from the oversized T-shirts, baggy tracksuit bottoms, and bling he sported on his first foray into hip-hop, yet worn with the same air of unquestionable cool.
by SIMON APFEL | Mar 02, 2017

Over the course of a decade, Black has swapped his low-hanging gold chains for lower-hanging tzitzit with twists of blue tekhelet. His designer shades have morphed into a pair of studious thick-rimmed spectacles. His red baseball cap set iconoclastically askew has become an enormous skull-spanning black velvet kippah.

His face is still a wonderful cherubic orb, but the menacing scowl he engineered for his first album cover, has relaxed into a warm, beatific grin.

The artist formerly known as D.Black is now known as Nissim. And as we chat it becomes abundantly clear that his transformation isn’t merely surface deep.

Damian Black was born and raised a Sunni Muslim to Seattle hip-hop pioneers James Croone and Mia Black. Any early religious identity was tenuous at best. “I was whatever my grandfather told me I was,” he says.

A protégé of Seattle rap legend Vitamin D, “D.Black” put out his first album at the age of 19 and was promptly described by the Seattle Times as “Seattle hip-hop’s first son, the mini-wrecking ball with a golden voice”.

By that time, encouraged by friends in the industry, he had converted to Christianity. I’ve always been spiritual, a seeker,” says Black, “and Christianity opened up new ideas to me.”

In his early 20s he became disillusioned with traditional Christian beliefs and moved onto a more Messianic strain, coinciding with the release of his second album, “Ali’yah”, in 2009, which received extensive airplay on MTV, and which one critic described as “the hip-hop version of church - except you don’t feel like you’re being preached to”.

But Messianic Judaism proved unsatisfying, too. “I read through the Tanach twice, and I couldn’t get into Christianity anymore,” Black recalls. “I would ask questions about Christianity and be shut down. You have to accept everything in faith. I just wanted to find the truth for myself.”

This “search for authenticity” as he describes it, was how he discovered Judaism.

“I looked into the origins of Islam and Christianity, tracing them back to the roots. And after digging up both I found Judaism there. This was ancient, untampered-with wisdom, and it really resonated with me.

“For the first time, I felt a connection with Torah. I became fascinated with halacha.”

He was especially moved by Judaism’s openness. “Questions are encouraged. If there’s an issue, something that seems difficult or doesn’t appear to make sense, Jews want to explore it, wrestle with it. I wanted to be a part of that.”

Today the transformation is complete. Black and his wife Adina, having converted together through a local Sephardi synagogue, now live in Jerusalem. And after a brief hiatus, he has returned to his first love - hip-hop.

Ditching the stage name and gangsta-rap lyrics, Black’s current music is infused with Torah ideas and imagery - in particular the spiritual teachings of Breslev rabbis Shalom Arush and Lazer Brody.

These days he’s more likely to be found performing for Jewish teens than at iconic festivals like Bumbershoot and the Capitol Hill Block Party.

Black was recently brought out by Bnei Akiva to perform at the youth group’s December camp. It wasn’t quite what he expected.

“It wasn’t like ‘camp’ in the US - this was a serious camping ground, I’ve never seen anything like it… I felt like I jumped back a few thousand years to Avraham Avinu.

“I don’t know what you have to do to get kids to leave civilisation to live in tents in the middle of nowhere - but they came in their hundreds and they were amazing, really inspiring.”

He was similarly impressed with the turnout at last weekend’s Sinai Indaba in Cape Town.

“I was amazed at the crowds that turned up for what is in essence a mass Torah learning event. The people were warm and receptive, relaxed and open, hungry to learn and be inspired. Most importantly, they laughed at my jokes.”

What can Johannesburg expect? His former Seattle rap cohort Lucciauno, who once felt Black was throwing away his talent for religion, puts it this way: “The thing is, he’s incredible, man. He had to go through a transformation. I love his new stuff. It’s refreshing. It shows that he’s not stuck in one box.”

Black has a simpler take: “I’ll bring what I have in my heart.”

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