It’s hard to believe Nissim Black, sitting across from me at Café Vita in Seward Park, is the same person as D. Black — the D. Black whose parents pioneered Seattle’s rap scene, who was mentored by legendary Vitamin D, who was described in the Seattle Times in 2009 as “Seattle hip-hop’s first son, the mini-wrecking ball with a golden voice.”
In just a quarter century, Nissim — né Damian — Black has already lived two lives. Nowadays he can be found around Seward Park, where he lives with his wife and two children, attending Sephardic Bikur Holim and donning a black velvet kippah.
The South Seattle native and Rainier Beach High School grad released his first album, “Cause and Effect” in 2006, at the age of 19. “That was my gangsta album,” he says, and laughs. “I don’t recommend listening to that.”
You could say music is in his blood. His parents, James Croone (Captain Crunch) and Mia Black were part of the Emerald Street Boys and Emerald Street Girls back in the ’80s, and when Seattle rap legend Vitamin D moved his studio to Nissim’s family’s basement, “the stipulation was that he had to teach me everything he knew.”
Six years later, after a detour through Christianity, Damian is now Nissim and identifies as an Orthodox Jew. And after a hiatus from the music industry, where he was CEO at Sportn’ Life Records, he’s reinventing himself as a producer at Orach Emet Music Company, which he manages with his brother-in-law.
Nissim’s 2009 album, “Ali’Yah,” locates the mid-point between his life as a rapper and an observant Jew. Case in point: The music video for “Yesterday,” which follows the artist playing chess with himself under a bridge. He opens with the lyrics, “new life, new day, new breath,” and the chorus picks up, “Forget about yesterday. Today won’t be the same.” After the old Black loses the game, new Black stands and turns, a tallis draped over his head.
“My music was different, much more powerful,” says Nissim of “Ali’Yah.” “When we did the release party for that, there were people crying.”
“Ali’Yah” also marks Nissim’s transition from vibrant Christian faith to Orthodox Judaism. During that time, his hunger for spiritual knowledge intensified.
“I read through the Tanach twice, and I couldn’t get into Christianity anymore,” he says. “For the first time I felt the connection with Torah. I became fascinated with Halachah. I don’t know why…I just felt a love for that.”
The spiritual journey also challenged his music.
“I had to separate myself from being an artist,” he says. “In my mind I couldn’t make the two fit. I wanted to serve Hashem so much.”
So he threw away all of his records in penitent fashion.
“If you’re listening to a person that’s only after fame and fortune, it’s damaging for your soul,” he says.
Now Nissim’s able to reconcile music and religion, but don’t look for any new albums any time soon.
“I don’t feel Hashem is pushing me in that direction,” he says.
Reflecting on Matisyahu’s shift away from religious observance, he says, “It’s hard to maintain your religiosity and remain out there…I’m strong, I feel very grounded. But the thought of not being close to Hashem — because I’m so wrapped up in the hype and myself — I would feel so empty.”
Though he still makes appearances on other artists’ albums and performs periodically, Nissim is content to produce music and develop artists with Orach Emet. The company is also partnering with a music-licensing agency, and with the Garvey Woodson Society to create a music education program for youth.
“I get to do what I want to now,” he says. “Baruch Hashem.”