Three years ago, Damian Black declared that he was done with music. His faith was at fault.
“I had to step away from music to surround myself with things that would allow for spiritual growth,” says the 25-year-old MC. “Anything that didn’t help me reach a spiritual understanding was shunned. Music, relationships, friends, family. I had to place myself in a place where I could receive so I could give.”
Apparently he got there. Last month the rapper formerly known as D. Black officially returned to the stage with a new name, Nissim, a buoyant (and decidedly secular) new single called “Tell Me” and plans for an EP release in February.
Black’s return is not nearly as surprising as his premature departure. The announcement of his retirement coincided with the release of his second full-length album, Ali’yah—the work of an artist on the ascent. It featured beats from venerated Seattle producers Vitamin D and Jake One. The verse was joyful. Black’s record label, Sportn’ Life, promoted the album as a mature step forward, out of the rapper’s troubled past and into a more settled family life. It appeared that Black, who had recently given up the Christian faith of his youth to practice Orthodox Judaism, was already spiritually and artistically reborn. But the rapper who wore a yarmulke as he delivered his lines was at the outset of his quest.
“Even though Ali’yah was uplifting and was a good side of where I was at the time, D. Black was connected to the old person I was,” Black says. “That album was intended to prepare myself for this new growth and letting that type of thing go. To advance and progress as a human being is one thing, but to really feel as though you’ve become a whole new person is another.”
After performing a few concerts in support of the album, Black began delving more deeply into his faith. He moved to the Orthodox Jewish enclave of Seward Park, the neighborhood where he grew up, and began quietly studying Judaism while he supported his family of four. Eventually, people in his religious community and friends at his former record label encouraged Black to get back into music.
He prayed and meditated about it. He went into the studio and plugged in a broken microphone. If it worked, he told himself, he would spit lyrics into it. He plugged it in. It worked. It was, in the smallest sense, a miracle. Nissim was born.
“Nissim is a Hebrew name which means miracle,” he says. “What I grew up with, all the things I was exposed to when I was a child in my neighborhood. And on the path I am on now, married with children, trying to do the best I can by living a spiritual life—it really is a miracle. Not a lot of people I grew up with have even thought of being on the same path that I’m on.”
Photo by Sam Chason