Nissim’s journey from guns and gangs to Judaism and Jerusalem
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Nissim’s journey from guns and gangs to Judaism and Jerusalem

Rapper Nissim Black grew up around drugs and violence, but found renewed hope when  he converted to Judaism. He tells Simon Rothstein how music and religion changed his life

Damian changed his name to Nissim after converting 
Damian changed his name to Nissim after converting 

If you look in Nissim Black’s school year book, it’s very unlikely to say ‘Orthodox Jew’ in the ‘most likely to become’ column.

But that’s exactly the path the critically acclaimed musician eventually took – leaving behind the guns, gangs and gangster rap of his youth in Seattle, Washington, to convert to Judaism and live in Israel.

Now making a very different type of music, the 31-year-old performed in the UK for the first time this week and is promoting his new album, Lemala.

The record has already spawned a global hit single, Fly Away, which has received more than a million plays on YouTube.

Nissim’s path to success has been anything but easy. He started taking and dealing drugs while still a child, lost his mother at a young age and was almost killed in a feud with a rival rapper.

Nissim told Jewish News: “I was exposed to a lot of drug abuse and violence from a very early age.My parents were rappers, both my mother and my father. They split up when I was two and my mother remarried. I grew up in the house with my stepfather, who I call dad. He loved me like I was his own.

“But even still my home environment was one of drug trafficking. I began smoking marijuana when I was nine-years-old. I started dealing when I was 12. I saw family members go to prison.

“I was always into music as a kid. I recorded my first professional song when I was 13 and released my first album at 19. It was titled The Cause & Effect and was an explicit record, very street.”

Around the same time as the album came out, Nissim experienced personal tragedy. His mother died of an overdose, aged just 37.

“The pain I went through trumps all,” he says. “I wouldn’t have wished it on my worst enemy. I think for years after I never really dealt with it properly, I was running from the pain.

“My wife, whom I been dating since I was 17 years old, was my biggest help. She dropped out of college to be there for my family and I. She was there through it all.”

Nissim on stage

Nissim then had his own altercation with another hip-hop artist that led to a disturbing sequence of events. A close friend would attempt murder in defence of Nissim, with the rival group under the false impression the rapper had sent his pal to pull the trigger.

“…As I made my way into the truth of Torah, It was hard to maintain both my rap career and my spirituality..”

It was a situation that left Nissim in what he describes as a “kill or be killed” position – but one that would put him firmly on a path to find spiritual enlightenment.

As a young child, Nissim was familiar with Islam, having lived for a while with his Muslim grandfather, but aged 14 he decided to convert to Christianity, with the help of the Gospel Mission Youth Center. He credits the missionary group – along with his love of music and American football – with saving him from “heading down a very dark path”.

What then made him turn to Judaism as an adult? Nissim says: “While in that ‘kill or be killed’ situation, I started calling out to God and searching for truth. Then, when all things were settled with the rival group, I set out on a search for God, for real.

Nissim on stage

“Instead of running to ask other people, I started praying, crying out. I had all the holy books of all religions and would spend a minimum of eight hours every day dedicated to trying to find the truth.

“And every day I saw something pointing me towards Judaism.”

Nissim’s conversion process, sponsored by Seattle’s Rabbi Simon Benzaquen, came just as his music was taking off, leaving the star with a difficult decision to make.

He said: “As I made my way into the truth of Torah, It was hard to maintain both my rap career and my spirituality.

“So I finished what I thought was my last album, Ali’Yah, in 2009. My single landed full rotation on MTV and I became well-known nationwide. At the height of that, I decided to quit and concentrate all my efforts on Judaism.”

Five years ago, the musician, born Damian Jamohl Black, completed his Orthodox conversion alongside his wife Adina, his sister and brother-in-law.

He took the name Nissim, which means “miracles” in Hebrew.

In 2016, the family left the Unites States to live in Jerusalem. He and Adina have five children.

How does he feel looking back at his old gangster rap lyrics and videos? “I cringe,” Nissim admits. “But only in retrospect can I see what has taken place in my life over the years, and it gives me great encouragement in my journey towards the future.”

υ Lemala is available now on iTunes. Visit nissimofficial.com for more details

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