When 26-year-old Damien Black was growing up in Seattle’s Seward Park, he didn’t pay much attention to the synagogues and large population of orthodox Jews in the neighborhood. He hung out down the hill on Rainier.
“I started selling drugs when I was, like, in the sixth grade. Friends and family, you know, older people that I called my uncles, I would go get from them. It was really, really dysfunctional.”
But he always loved music. His mom and dad were in Seattle’s very first hip hop groups, the Emerald Street Girls and the Emerald Street Boys, and it was music that kept him above the fray.
“My love and desire for music, that was the one thing that really kept me focused. So I recorded my first professional record when I was 13 years old.”
Damien Black became D Black, and over the next several years he became more and more successful.
D Black performed at festivals like Bumbershoot, his music played on MTV and he had record labels like Virgin knocking on his door. But during this time he began to get interested in religion. Born Christian, he explored Messianic Judaism for a couple years, and then eventually became very interested in orthodox Judaism.
“Me and my wife, we were pregnant at the time, and I just had a lot of things on my mind. One of the things that I did during that time is I prayed a lot. I ran into the best rabbi you could possibly find. That’s Rabbi Google. Go to google.com. I mean if you got any questions, they give you an answer.”
Soon after he decided to leave music.
“I became so in love with the idea of connecting to a higher power that it was just beyond me. For whatever reason I couldn’t make the hip hop world…I couldn’t make them all fit together.”
His last album, Ali ‘yah, came out in 2009, and he told his manager it would be his last.
“I don’t want any proceeds. I don’t want any money from anything, I don’t care what it does. Only thing I wanted to be able to do was to not perform on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath). So I didn’t touch anything, I didn’t take anything. You ask me today, I still don’t know [how much money it made]. I’d just rather not torture myself to find out because the record actually ended up being my most successful. We made it to MTV, we charted really high on the CMJ, College Music Journal. I think we were beating out Jay Z and Mos Def.”
But he couldn’t stay away from music forever. D Black is now called Nissim, the Hebrew world for Miracle. He wears a yarmulke, he eats kosher, he reads from the torah. Nissim officially converted to Judaism this year and now he has a new album coming out.
Nissim is a congregant at Seward Park’s Sephardic Bikur Holim and has become very close with Rabbi Simon Benzaquen. So close that the Rabbi sings on the new self-titled album and has performed with him at Sasquatch and the Crocodile.
“I have been won over with rap music,” Rabbi Benzaquen says. “The rabbis, some call me, ‘The rabbi with the rap music.’ I appreciate that and it is Nissim who really taught me to appreciate that.”
It’s hard not to smile seeing the rabbi, near retirement, in his yarmulke, excitedly bragging up Nissim’s music.
“Today rap music has been hijacked,” Rabbi Benzaquen says, passionately. “I always say that rap music has had a bad rap. Because what happened is that, originally rap music was the outpouring of the African American daily experience. They wanted to communicate and transmit to other people what they were going through. They used the most wonderful method of communication which is poetry. You find it in the bible, you find it in the prophet.”
In the yet-to-be-released song “Sores,” Nissim tells two stories, one about an African American slave and another about a Jew being held at a Nazi concentration camp.
“There are no two people that are more connected than the African American and the Jew. Really we are related. We should have been friends, we should have really learned from each other from our experience and history,” says Rabbi.
The music isn’t religious, but it’s positive and curse free. And the rabbi couldn’t be more proud.
“I listen to it constantly. I have it in my car. My wife says, ‘You are with Nissim? You are supposed to be with me most of the time.’ I said, ‘Thank God he’s only in the car, you know. I’m in the bedroom with you. But in the car I can be with Nissim.”
You can see Nissim and Rabbi Benzaquen perform at Seattle’s Capitol Hill Block Party on Sunday, July 28.