Three years ago, if you asked Nissim Black, the biggest Hasidic rapper in the world, about his experience as a Black Jew, he would’ve been hesitant to answer. Back then, his experience with race relations in the Jewish world was limited due to his celebrity, but a lot can happen in three years.
After contracting COVID-19, the Israel based rapper officially traded in his signature techno tracks, for a sound that embraces his roots in hip hop. The track “Rerun” has already garnered more than 1 million views on Youtube and is receiving attention in the secular world. It’s a major shift, but after much contemplation, Black is embracing the change and is even taking a novel approach to engaging his fanbase. In his Youtube series “Blackout,” the expat talks openly about being Black in Israel and the challenges facing the African -American community. He says the more authentic approach is driven by the desire to become the man G-d wants him to be.
“You know I felt like I was more at home,” he says. “It’s closer to my person and closer to what I know how to do.”
As a ba’al teshuva or a convert Black says the first thing many people want to do is get rid of everything from their previous life without a “proper calculation” of whether it was good or bad. It’s an appropriate response for someone returning to Hashem, but Black says after a while he felt called to integrate parts of his past.
“You have to be willing and ready to give away everything, but as time grows you will start to see there are certain elements Hashem himself wanted you to hold onto in order to fulfill your purpose,” Black says. “After talking to my rabbi I felt like I was being pushed in that direction. It was hard for me at first, for two years I struggled on the advice I received.”
He called on some of his friends in the industry like Akon, entrepreneur and billionaire, and Choice, a rap artist signed to Dj Mustard’s 10 Summers Records Label, for guidance and then hit the studio with his producer 120 Music or Yosef Brown, Black’s lifelong best friend and brother- in- law. They went to work on a sound that is an honest reflection of Black as a person, but there was the issue of relevance. Black doesn’t listen to music if he can’t listen to it around his children which rules out about 90% of hip hop. However, Black says Brown has his ear to the streets.
“My brother in law makes 90% of my music,” he says. “He listens to a lot producers and a lot of Atlanta producers. He was up on to everybody to see how the culture shifted.”
After contracting COV-19 in July Black went into the studio and recorded 18 more songs resulting in a new record titled #Godsman. The record is “mostly urban” because that’s the space he’s in right now and he doesn’t see himself recording anymore techno tracks.
“I get into a space creatively and I’m in a zone over there. I feel the way hip hop has evolved it landed in my lap and I always wanted to record more melodic music. I can have my way with the music and my shackles are off a little bit,” he says. “Once you get into a place creatively you feel like I am locked here and everybody expects that from me, but I tend to break out of that.”
From the hood to Israel
Now, the Breslav orthodox rapper rocks fur coats and big gold chains to express his inner drip. He’s no longer focused on making music that only appeals to the Jewish world, instead he wants to make music for the entire world. The most important part is authenticity which means remaining recognizable to the people who watched his journey as a secular rapper from the “hood” in Seattle to the Nissim Black we know today.
Black says growing up in Seattle he didn’t experience a lot of racism, but he didn’t see a lot of positive Black role models either. Now, he feels it’s his responsibility to use his platform to be the person he needed as a young Black man.
“I was able to make a major change in my life and accomplish things other people can’t accomplish. Even in my own neighborhood there are guys still in the hood,” Black says. “Hashem took me out and gave me a different perspective, how dare I not share it and how dare I not do my best to be positive Black role model.”
And that includes being honest about your life experiences. Black converted in Seattle where, at the time, the city wasn’t blatantly racist, so he didn’t face the same challenges to his conversion Black Jews face in places like New York City. In fact Black, never faced much racism as a Jew, something he says blindsided him.
“I didn’t go through what a lot of people went through converting in New York or growing up Jewish. You almost become oblivious,” he says. “The next aspect is your celebrity, so everybody loves you. And you’re always experiencing love and you’re like ‘Man, what is everybody talking about?’ and then boom it hits you….when I peel back a few of these layers you’d be treating me like that.”
For Black, there was no need to confront racism within the Jewish community until he moved to Israel where his children were discriminated against when trying to sign up for day school. The event was highly publicized and Black says he began to think differently about racism within the Jewish community.
“In South Africa I got to talk to people of African descent who were converting and I got to see a lot of things. Over time I watched people being treated differently because of their color,” Black says. “I had a friend, he’s Hispanic and he sent me a 16-minute message on WhatsApp message telling me about some of the things he’s been through as far as racism in the Jewish community. He went on to tell me how it’s Divine Providence that G-d has me in the position I am now.”
But for African Americans in Israel, life can be easier Black says. He describes discrimination in Israel as complex, because of how frequently it happens within Israeli society. Black says it’s hard to take it personally when people discriminate against each other for the type of kippah they wear or the length of a sheitel. Even something as seemingly small as owning a smartphone will prevent your children from attending certain day schools.
“When it does happen here it’s not like on American soil where it’s connected to 400 years of slavery. Over here it’s skin deep, and that’s all it has to do with,” he says. “You’re not a second-class citizen, people don’t look at you like you’re incapable. The color of your skin won’t stop you from getting a good job or a good position.”
Black says even though his children have experienced racism in Israel, they have experienced love, acceptance and friendship more than anything else.
“You’re more accepted because you have more room to be you over here and you’ll for sure find a place where you are accepted,” Black says
For the “Mothaland Bounce” rapper Israel is home. He moved to Jerusalem in 2016 with his wife where they are raising their six children. He appreciates the spiritual aspects of Israel describing Haaretz as a “gladdening of the heart” and “immersion of culture.”
“The land itself lives; the land is alive on it’s own. I love to go visit the graves of the righteous people and I’m very close to Samson’s grave, so I go quite often,” he says. “I enjoy the fact that when I pick up a Tanakh, I can look outside and see that or I can drive to that place. It’s a gladdening of the heart when I’m here because it’s a very special place. You can drive for miles and you’re going to see Sukkot everywhere. It’s a culture, it’s a family. You sort of feel at home everywhere you are.”
Catch Nissim Black in Black Jewish Conversations with host Patrice Worthy on Wednesday October 28th at 2pm EST. RSVP here