Orthodox Rap Star Nissim Brings Judaism to Hip Hop
Jerusalem-based, Seattle-born Orthodox rap star Nissim (formally known as D. Black) has a rap sheet about as complex and intriguing as his music. With the release of the music video for his hit single “Fly Away” off his new album “Lemala,” Nissim, having converted to Orthodox Judaism in 2011, explores his spirituality through music. In “Fly Away,” Nissim combines his hip hop past with his devout present to create a musical genre of the future: what he calls “Kosher” rap. Moment speaks with Nissim about music, religion and the way they overlap.
Since 2013, you’ve been creating music from a Jewish standpoint, emphasizing religion more in your songs. Do you find this music more spirituality fulfilling than your past work under your former stage name, D. Black?
Yes, I do. Because before, it was all dreams, and you wanted to accomplish so much, and if it didn’t happen, you were down. If you didn’t get that radio show that you wanted, or if you didn’t sell enough albums, you get caught up in making good music, but forget what you were making it for. Now, I am able to get lost a little more in the music and able to creatively shape conversations that matter to me. It was very hard for me to rap about God in the beginning, but now that I talk about him all the time, I’m not afraid to be myself.
You’ve converted from Islam to Christianity to Orthodox Judaism. What made you want to make those changes?
My upbringing was very secular. My grandfather was a Sunni Muslim, that was my first exposure to religion. If anybody asked me, I would have told them I was a Muslim. I went to mosque with my grandfather and I would pray with him five times a day, and whatever he told me, I bought. When I was a little bit older, I started to get more interested in Islam because that was the religion I knew from my youth. But shortly after that interest, I got invited to a Christian camp. It was the missionary camp’s job to make Christianity seem like the most beautiful thing in the world, and they did a great job. Judaism then came to me when I was an adult, and I was alone. My back was against the wall. I got into a life or death situation with another artist; either I kill him or he kills me. As soon as I was free of that situation, I kept talking to God. I was looking for truth. And I think what hit me most about Judaism is that you don’t have to be Jewish in order to go to heaven. Another huge thing that stuck out to me was that I kept seeing this unwavering love God had for the Jewish people, and I was in love with God. I kept seeing that this was a very important matter to him: Israel, the Jewish people. And only after a person stays in a certain place for awhile, their heart begins to yearn for being a part of something like this.
When you took time off from your career in 2011 to convert to Orthodox Judaism, did you think you were closing the door on your musical career forever?
Yes, I did. I was very content to pursue, as you said, my spirituality. Honestly, I didn’t see how I could fit the two together anyway. The break from music wasn’t even so hard for me. The hardest part about it was the relationships that I had formed along the way in my rap career that I wouldn’t be involved in anymore. But the music itself—I think I had gotten to a certain place where the burning in my heart for God needed to continue growing and learning. Growing up spiritually outweighed music by a lot.
What made you return?
There was this friend of mine, I call him Uncle Rick. He’s actually in every single music video I’ve ever made. At first, I didn’t tell people in the community who I was. I wanted to go very silently into this community. But he looked me up on the internet and started studying the music that I did before. Within the community, more people started coming out, saying that I was talented. And rabbis were telling me that if I have a gift like that, I shouldn’t sit on it. But I felt that rap was going to lead me away from my spirituality.
Yet, I slowly found myself having a yearning to make music. And I started to get a lot of calls from friends who told me that they had dreams where I was making music, and I was inspiring them. These people aren’t spiritual people or religious people at all. After this, my four-month-old son got sick with meningitis. I prayed for him for a very long time, about six hours. I hit a place of meditation. And in the midst of that meditation, I kept thinking about all that was going on with music at the time. And I told God, “Listen. If you want me to make music, if you want me to go out and do this, I will do it. But I need to see a miracle.” I said, “I left this for you, so now you want me to go back to this? Absolutely not.” But he gave me a miracle: I had a microphone that was broken and I told God, “If the microphone works, then I’ll do it.” I went and I plugged in the microphone. It worked. Next, I went to my rabbi and I told him what happened to me. I also talked to another rabbi. Normally, I would never go to two rabbis but I was so afraid of losing my spirituality to music. But music is a very spiritual thing. It is a very holy thing, and a very important thing, even within Judaism. But I was very afraid of it because of all the arrogance in rap and I didn’t know what to do. So after that, I felt safe enough to return and finished a home record on that very microphone.
Do you believe that your music transcends religious music genres into a universal message of compassion and social consciousness?
Yes. That’s one of the biggest things I get all the time. I’m “Rap Kosher.” For some people, they are very sensitive to my music. It’s not something they understand. To be honest, I didn’t understand it until the last year and a half. But now, because of my music, people are coming back stronger in their Judaism. It’s not something I could ever imagine would have come out of rap music, because of my past relationship with it.
Tell me about the inspiration for your new music video for your single “Fly Away.” Particularly, the little boy in the walking through the slums, what did you find so resonant about that image? Does the boy in any way represent you and your own conversion to Orthodox Judaism?
I think it represents all of us. This kid is closed in on every side. They chase him out, they check his pockets, they push him around. He just wants to get away. The actual song is talking about this, it’s all allegorical. We all feel like there is a place that we need to go. That there is something, an actual physical place we can go to to get away. But the real essence of it, at least with what Judaism teaches, is that there is a place within the person. There is a place that escapes from all the world, there is such a place inside of you. And if a person is able to locate it, they can get to a place inside of themselves and have true security. In that place there is no fear, no worries, no being pushed in on every side, but this actual place. And that’s what I talk about, flying away to a place within yourself.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.