Nissim Black has been a gangsta rapper, a gang member, and a faith seeker. But it is his current incarnation that is here to stay: an African American Hasidic Jew who brings sharp beats and hooked-filled rhymes to the masses.
The first single of 2020, “Mothaland Bounce” is a confluence of everything he’s ever done, and everywhere he’s ever been. The vibe is old school, but the song is thoroughly 2020, pairing big beats with an African hook and a catchy chorus that has already garnered 3.9 million views on YouTube. The motherland is Africa, the video, directed by Leon Robinson, a nod to the infamous Eddie Murphy film, “Coming to America,” was shot in Harlem, and features a convergence of Hasids, street kids, and Africans on the streets battling, and ultimately dancing together.
“The African slaves represent my ancestry and where I come from, the street dancers represent the street life, and then the Hasidic group represents who I became,” Black says.
“Win,” his latest single, has an even more ambitious video to go with its bouncy, expansive sound. Black describes the video as a “300” meets “Lord of the Rings,” epic, replete with a battlefield featuring NBA star, Amar’e Stoudemire. “‘Win’ is a song about the threat of our victorious nature to the things that stand in our way,” Black says. “Many obstacles may face us on all sides, the quickest way to the other side isn’t going around them, but rather to push through them. ‘Win’ is a theme song for winners.”
Black knows about pushing through barriers to succeed and survive. In his nine-plus lives, Black has pushed through from the Central District neighborhood in Seattle, where he started out as D. Black. Then, he was an aspiring young rapper whose way with words and imposing physicality brought him comparisons to Biggie Smalls—he was even considered for a role in Hollywood to play the late, legendary rapper.
Though he had left the gangsta ways behind and was a devout Christian, he says, “I was very confused,” he says. “I was still internally spiritual, but I was very confused because one of the things that they wanted to hear from me was gangsta rap. So I sort of start to play the role, but then slowly but surely it started to become more of a reality.”
After another religious conversion—from Christian to Jewish—Black found what he was looking for all along: A spirituality that was in sync with his inner self, a world away from a troubled childhood, where he was smoking weed by 9 and in gangs by 12.
“I had a lot of questions so I felt after being able to investigate on my own without anybody else around, no rabbis, no pastors, no teachers, I was able to find what fit me, I was praying and trying to figure out some other solution because, really, I was faced with the truth,” he says. “Are you really that tough? Are you that guy? You can make these rap records but is that who you really are? “
His first hit pre-conversion was a single called “God Like,” produced by Jake One, who went on to produce Jay Z, Dr. Dre, Drake, and was played by DJ Premier. He thought his first record during his journey towards Judaism, “Ali’Yah,” would be his last, but he forged ahead.
After his conversion he moved his family of four kids and his wife, his high school sweetheart, as far from Seattle as imaginable, to Jerusalem, in Israel. Though he’s had prominent success in the Jewish musical world, headlining concerts worldwide and selling tens of thousands of records, charting on iTunes, becoming a celebrity in that realm, he’d noticed that the kids coming to his concerts were connected to modern music, and he felt a calling bringing him back to his roots.
“My rabbi told me, “Listen, you got to take this message to the world,” he said.
And so he did. He has reset his sound to better reflect his past and his present. Black’s music has always leaned heavily on melody, but he had to wait for hip hop to catch up. With the advent of artists like Drake to Fonte of Little Brother who incorporate melody and singing into rap, Black’s sound fits right on the airwaves. In his latest collection of songs, you can hear him put his own stamp on that style—they feature melodic singing mixed with silky smooth beats and his nimble verbal sparring.
After a long discovery process, both musically and personally, Black has finally found his true identity.
“I always say that all of those journeys and being in a gang, being on the football team was a part of me trying to say I belong to something greater than myself, I don’t know where, but I belong somewhere,” he says. “It’s almost like trying to find that home.”