Interview: Nissim Black, Chassid and Internationally-Renowned Musician
Who are your role models in the world of Jewish music?
David Hamelech! Among contemporary musicians, Mordechai ben David and Mordechai Shapiro – a stellar musician and composer. I try to get inspiration from different places.
How do you see the role of rap music in Judaism?
When a person finds himself involved in Torah and tefillah, he is less connected to rap music as an item, but he is using it as a tool to get close to Hashem.
Rap is inside of me from birth – both my parents were hip hop artists. It’s something natural to me, part of my culture, part of my life. I am not here to make a revolution – I don’t think Hashem wants that. I ask Hashem what it is that He wants me to do, and I feel very strongly that Jewish rap is the unique thing that Hashem wants me to do, to inspire people.
Rap is a foreign genre to klal Yisrael. Lately, secular rap has become much more degrading and aggressive. Something like that can never be kashered. My task is to go down to the lowest, darkest genre and elevate the nitzutzot, the sparks of holiness within it, and bring them to the world.
Also, people who are coming closer to Hashem stop listening to non-Jewish music, but they come to listen to my music, and that gives me a platform to tell my story and to inspire people to connect to Hashem.
After your conversion, you left the music world for several years. What was it like coming back, with Jewish-themed rap?
I was very scared. It’s hard to maintain religiosity while involved in the world of music. Especially in rap, which is such a prideful and arrogant thing, while I am trying to grow in temimut, purity, shiflut. But my rebbi said to me, “When Hashem gives you something to do, you need to run to do it. Afterwards, you’ll make a cheshbon.” So I ran, and I recorded Hashem Melech. This was the first time when I freely and openly spoke about Hashem in my music, and was able to express Judaism in rap.
Who is your rebbi?
My rebbi who truly raised me in Judaism is Rabbi Shmuel Brody, Rav of Congregation Ashreichem Yisrael in Seattle, Washington. He learns from different types of chassidut and is a chassid mammish.
I originally began attending the Sephardic Bikur Holim in Seattle. It’s a beautiful community. Its current Rabbi Emeritus, Rabbi Simon Benzaquen, converted me. He is also a wonderful chazzan, and we even recorded a song together.
A few years after our conversion, my family and I attended a Rosh Hashanah service, where Rabbi Shmuel Brody was the chazzan. He was so different from everybody else, and I was moved by his piety, his conduct, his devotion. I naturally gravitated towards him. When he started his own kehillah in Seattle, we joined it, while continuing to be involved in the Sephardic community.
Today, do you identify as a Breslover chassid?
Yes, I am a Breslover chassid, a student of Rav Shalom Arush. I daven in the main Breslov shul in Meah Shearim, and I learn every morning in Rav Arush’s yeshiva, Chut Shel Chessed. Rabbi Arush is my rav, and I am close with Rabbi Lazer Brody.
What prompted your move to Israel?
The Jewish people, Hashem, and Israel are all one thing. The moment I got into Judaism, moving to Israel was never not on my radar. I prayed every day to go there. At first, my wife was not interested. She had never been there before we moved. I’d performed in Yerushalayim in 2013, and I’d met Rav Arush. I wanted to move so much that I even filled out all the Nefesh B’Nefesh paperwork. Then my wife decided to go, and we moved our whole family. At first, we lived in Rechavia, but then decided that we didn’t want to be in an American neighborhood, so we moved to Meah Shearim.
Do you feel settled in your current neighborhood and in your community?
Yes. My whole family loved the move. The children adjusted very well.
Do you get any negative reactions to your music from your community?
No, I had no backlash from my community. Sometimes I walk into offices and stores in Meah Shearim and see Yerushalmi Jews in striped coats listening to my music. My lyrics have been translated into both Hebrew and Yiddish. I get nothing but love from the Chassidic community.
Have you experienced any racism in the Jewish community?
Once in a while, some kids scream “kushi” at my family. I tell my kids that Rashi says that “kushi” means beautiful. But that doesn’t happen often. Most of my kids’ friends are not their color. I haven’t experienced any real racism since I’ve entered the Jewish community. People are very supportive.
What are your biggest disappointments with the Jewish community?
Before my conversion, the first Jews I knew were the ones inside the Tanach. My biggest letdown once I met today’s Jews was how many people are not excited about Shabbat, or other mitzvot. Not every Jew appreciates having been born Jewish. Overall, though, klal Yisrael did not disappoint me.
In Israel, it is disappointing to see the fighting between the chareidim and the chilonim. I wish there was more love reflected towards the chilonim, rather than screaming and protesting. I am against protests and animosity. I wish we’d daven for our brothers and sisters who haven’t yet seen the beauty of Judaism, rather than scream and throw things at them.
What do you do when you’re not composing or performing?
I spend a lot of time in hitbodedut, personal prayer, and learning Torah. I also travel a lot. I have a full life – I’m always busy. I always say that my hobby is going to see live tzaddikim. There are many amazing tzaddikim in Yerushalayim.
Also, each Friday night, we host 15 to 20 yeshiva bachurim. During the meal, we do a lot of singing, which inspires everyone.
What is your advice to other creative Jewish souls who are doing something unique and unconventional, that is perhaps not encouraged by the Jewish community?
First, they need to give themselves over to Hashem and determine what He wants them to do. These people have the biggest neshamot and can bring about the biggest change in the world.
Next, skip the middleman. Go directly to Hashem and express the yearning in your soul. Once you connect to Hashem, you don’t have to do anything. Hashem will do it for you, open the way for you.