Hitler's Worst Nightmare
Seattle-born Chassidic hip-hop artist Nissim Black talks about getting comfortable with his identity, creating space for Jews of color, and bringing the shtreimel to the masses.
I’d just like to take credit for being one of the first, if not THE first person to write about Nissim Black. It was 2013 and Nissim was embracing his new life as a Jewish hip-hop artist. He was wide-eyed at the miracles God seemed to be performing for him; signs came through during his darkest moments pushing him to go on with his faith and his music.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure how Nissim was going to turn out at that point. Would his music and aspirations suffer and be restrained by the demands of his faith? Would he crash and burn out of Orthodox Judaism like Matisyahu? Would he ultimately be accepted by the Jewish community outside of Seattle?
Then he and his family — his wife, children, and his brother-in-law/best friend (who is married to his wife’s sister) and his family packed up and made aliyah. How was that going to go? Israel is not exactly Seattle, and Nissim had come a long way. Born in Rainier Valley to musician parents, exposed to gangs and crime, brought up in Islam and then Christianity before finding Messianic Judaism and then Sephardic Judaism, Nissim ultimately ended up a Breslover Hasid. And he’s not even 40.
Israel has proven to be a good fit for Nissim and his music, leading to collaborations with some of the religious Jewish world’s top performers. I really don’t follow these guys, and Nissim fluttered to the periphery of my cultural vision.
But holy. By the end of 2019 Nissim was the subject of a Vice documentary and was putting out a slew of new tracks that strike me as some of his most authentic. Mothaland Bounce, directed and co-starring actor Leon Robinson, is on fire. (While women don’t appear in his videos, a fact I would normally have a huge problem with, let’s just say the male production team probably wasn’t thinking about the effect a bunch of male dancers might have on lady viewers, ahem.) Amar’e Stoudemire appears in his video for Win. Seattleites who run in Nissim’s Seward Park social circle will recognize some familiar faces and names, too.
Has Nissim finally found his home? Surely, he still has a journey ahead of him. But you know you’ve more or less arrived when you get to launch your own whiskey.
Hitler’s Worst Nightmare
The Cholent: I’m loving your new stuff, and I get the sense that you’re coming into your own. I know artists evolve, but I also feel like you’re owning yourself in a new way. Is that true?
Nissim: Absolutely. It started before Mothaland Bounce, but Mothaland Bounce was the spear of all the new content that was coming out. Mothaland Bounce sort of gave me comfortability with just being 1,000 percent me and not worrying or having to hide. My music has always represented where I’m at, at the time. I think from the moment I made my Aliyah album in 2009, all the music I released after that was about where I was at the time.
Every time you get around somebody who’s Black, [they’re like], are you still Black? In the Jewish world, they want to know how devoted you are to Yiddishkeit, and what got you excited, and if you’re the real deal.
The biggest thing that happened I was having trouble getting my kids into school in Yerushalayim. After the story surfaced, I started getting so many emails and calls from people saying the same thing, just hearing horrible stories. I remember going to Rav Chaim Kanievsky. He said, Your skin color is your virtue, not your hisaron. It’s not your lacking. I started to realize that there’s a whole population of people, it’s a small population, but it’s bigger than people realize, and we’ve all been going through struggles. Even though I’m Nissim Black, my celebrity didn’t stop me from going through it. I felt it was appropriate to kick in the doors with a sound like Mothaland Bounce and spearhead a whole new movement in my music.
I love the throwback to Coming to America in Mothaland Bounce. How did this come about?
At the time I was working with an American label, ShineBox, to release Mothaland Bounce. The director is Leon Robinson. He played the Arsenio part. All my favorite movies, he’s been in. He’s played in a lot of films. To have the opportunity to work with someone like that was amazing. I had to bite the bullet a little. I did come up with the idea for “Coming to America.” Originally, I wanted to shoot it in Africa. That was my idea. But the budget didn’t permit for all that.
In the studio we were having a think tank. As soon as it came off my lips, everyone jumped. That’s what we gotta do. So we started putting our ideas together. It turned out to be a masterpiece.
So was it just a fun idea or is there more backstory? I mean, from the beginning to the very end, when you say “I’m Hitler’s worst nightmare,” was there some philosophy going on or were you in full-on creative mode?
The motherland always referred to Africa. They say it was the birthplace of humanity where they found the first human bones. Motherland is just any place you come from that’s the mother land. So everybody has some type of motherland, which gives birth to languages, cultures. With me being Black and Jewish, I’m my own little cholent of cultures.
With me being Black and Jewish, I’m my own little cholent of cultures.
So the idea was to be me in all situations. You have the three different groups. You have the African group. We were brought here as slaves from Africa. Then, at least what you see or what’s taught, you see us on the streets. That’s what happened to me. From that, you are always warring with that past, of who you were. There are so many movements of African Americans trying to figure out who we were before we got here. There’s this major quest to find the origin. So that becomes a wrestle and a battle and a hint toward what happens in America on the daily. The way I made peace with who I am is, I went deeper. Where did my neshama come from? I was a Yid. I believe I was always a Yid. Even before I was brought into conception, I believe my neshama was always Jewish. So that comes to bring peace between the two sides. It’s very allegorical and it comes together.
So let’s talk about who you’re listening to these days. I think the sounds flow into a lot of what we’re hearing from hip-hop these days. For a while I thought you were going in a much more Israeli or Jewish direction. This feels much more American.
I have this intuition. It’s not from one particular place. To be honest, it’s very hard to listen to a lot of music these days because it doesn’t match my lifestyle at all. I’m so against most of what these guys talk about. I can’t tell you what’s on Top 40, but I think one of the best things that happened was I was introduced to NF. He’s Christian I think, but he doesn’t curse. That introduced me to Lecrae and Derek Minor. There is positive rap for guys who are not cursing or talking about filthy things, that still sounds current and contemporary. That was something that I can say, I took some help from determining where we are culturally and where hip-hop is.
In your latest track, “Hava,” you say, “Black, Jewish, and proud.” It seemed like you always wanted to rise above these identity barriers. Now it sounds like you’re embracing your identity. Over the past year or two, have the things going on in America or the things affecting you contributed to that?
Rav Kook talks about this. Sometimes we start to see how God is trying to push down ideas in the world. Sometimes we turn a blind eye. As soon as something new happens — it’s assur [forbidden], shtuyiot [nonsense], and if you don’t have a sensitive enough intuition or spiritual cognizance, you’re pushing away things that Hashem is trying to say. Something is going on in the world right now. For me, it’s a little complicated. Things have obviously been a bit overplayed. I come from the hood, and I don’t believe there’s anywhere near as much racism going on over there as is being made out to be. That wasn’t the narrative of my life growing up. I had issues and we did have systemic racism, but those weren’t the day-to-day things that were keeping me back.
That has nothing to do with being very proud and happy about your heritage and who you are at the same time. I’m not one to say color matters. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to Hashem. But there is an underlying thing even within Yiddishkeit. At one point, if someone asked, “have you dealt with racism,” I would have said, “No, I never dealt with it before inside the Jewish world.” In the last few years, I’ve had my experiences. The impact is very heavy, because at the end of the day you have to go educate your kids about why the kids don’t touch their hands at the park, or why they’re not allowed to go to the school, or why they’re being called Kushi when they walk down the street. But that’s very small compared the amount of love that you get. There is something about negativity that hits us a little bit harder than the love that we’re showered with.
There is something about negativity that hits us a little bit harder than the love that we’re showered with.
I felt the need to emphasize it not so much for myself, but for other people of color who are also experiencing things. People are experiencing way worse things than I’ve ever experienced. My kids have experienced things I’ve never experienced before. I start to look at the world and, no matter how much I may disagree with some things that are going on, there is a reason why God is allowing this to keep coming to the forefront. I’ve been asked by many different people in the Jewish community, “what can we do?” The message is, you have to worry about the Jews of color, period. Look at what Black Jews are going through in Orthodox Judaism, ask them what they’re feeling. Some of these things are very difficult. For instance, I read books to my kids. There’ll be stories about Yetziat Mitzrayim [the Exodus], and everybody there has blue eyes, long peyes. Coming out of Egypt! They look like they came out of Mea She’arim. They’re dressed like they came out of Mea She’arim. The reason why they do it is because they want the kids to be able to identify. So it’s just as important to for us to create books with other Jews. It needs to be with other colors. Those things are very important, and that’s why I felt like there was a need to push that agenda.
In the comments on YouTube to “Best Friend,” someone says, “Finally, it will be cool to be Jewish!” Jewish culture, I gotta say, is notoriously uncool. Do you agree, and is your goal to make it cool, and do you think your influence is working in that direction?
Yes and no. There are things that are cool based on how people define things. I did not sign up for Judaism because I can never do anything on Saturday anymore. It wasn’t about what I couldn’t do, its about what I can do. When I first watched a documentary about Shabbos, I was crying like a baby. It was a 20-minute documentary. That’s been my whole relationship with Yiddishkeit: Look at what you can do, not what you can’t do. That’s my role. It comes very naturally to me. I think that’s what makes people think it’s uncool. They’re looking at all the things you cannot do. They’re not looking at how many beautiful things we have. What I’m doing, I’m on the front lines. I’m seeing people come back to Judaism nonstop. I’m seeing people who are not Jewish reach out all the time. If people knew how many emails I got from people who are not Jewish, just wanting to convert, looking for direction. Fatman Scoop, I was just talking to him. He sent me a WhatsApp. He said, “Listen man, you make the shtreimel look fly.” He said, “I want the shtreimel. You think they’ll let me wear one?” So you never know.
I was going to ask you about that. So much of rap culture has been adapting royalty and making people who grew up in poverty look really rich. That’s the same background as Chassidut, right?
Absolutely. That was the whole connection to the shtreimel. It was a joke. It started with making fun of Jews, and putting fox tails on them and all that. And it was us saying, Oh, that’s funny? Now we’re going to wear it on Shabbos. Now we’re going to wear it on holidays. There is that same kind of story for sure in Judaism and in Chassidish for sure. And ultimately, if it wasn’t for [Hasids], we probably would have been wiped out during the Haskalah [enlightenment]. Then you go to a tisch today, and you see these rebbes in all their allure. As much as people might not like to hear, it’s very reflected in rap culture.
My thing was like, I can’t hip-hop like everyone else. I’m not walking out of my house with gold chains and gold teeth in my mouth and with my pants up on my tuches, so what can I do? I’m gonna swag out with what I already have. The thing is, once you are comfortable in your own skin, other people are gonna want to emulate you. You’re not gonna emulate others.
I’m gonna swag out with what I already have. The thing is, once you are comfortable in your own skin, other people are gonna want to emulate you.
And you’re swagging out now with your own brand new line of whiskey. Is that what you’re holding in the “Hava” video?
Yes! Originally we were supposed to be working on a Moscato. But it was a crazy thing. I always wanted to do products. Everybody sells merch, right? It’s not going to be as popular without concerts going on, but even merch is a little distant for me. This is how I dress. Merch for me, to put on a Nissim Black sweater that Nissim Black doesn’t wear? I’m not a big drinker, but I’m into grownup-like things. I like a good coffee. I like cologne. I’m a gentleman’s gentleman. I felt like whiskey would be a little more at home. It was just a thought. It went from a dream to a reality. We had “Hava” on deck, so we were like, “let’s call it Hava.” Just rejoice. Purim’s around the corner, so I think it’s very appropriate to do the whiskey now.
I noticed that you were responding to all of the comments on YouTube after one of your videos. Why did you do that?
One day, I was like, I need to talk to the people. You can’t get too above yourself or above the people. Especially during the pandemic, it really hit me. You’re not on the road saying hi and shaking hands. I think the biggest inspiration I got was from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He would write back to everybody. If he could do that, who am I not to respond to people’s comments, you know?
Good point. I don’t know how the Rebbe got any sleep. Alright, one last question. What do you miss the most about Seattle?
Apart from my family and friends, the biggest thing was, you know, I miss the salmon at SBH. I miss the borekas. The people who aren’t around anymore, Jack Babani, Rabbi Maimon. Rabbi Brody moved. I used to do a lot of hitbodedus [meditation] by the lake. I remember all those nights pleading with Hashem, to have Him help me use my gift and bring Him glory, you know? I look back, look at all that crying I was doing. Hashem has brought it all to fruition. I have beautiful memories of Seattle.
Shoutouts and Announcements!
Celebrating Rivy Kletenik, Kerri Stern and the entire staff of Seattle Hebrew Academy for keeping our kids safe and learning. —Randi Abrams-Caras