NEW YORK – From the heart of the Big Apple, one of the world’s most multicultural cities, comes the rap rhapsody “HaShem Melech 2.0.”
The anthem-like song, with almost 450,000 views on YouTube to date, marks the first time Israeli-born writer and composer Gad Elbaz collaborated with Nissim Baruch Black of Seattle, Washington. But it’s not the words, or even the melody, that sets it apart in Black’s eyes. It’s the way it spoke to the 30-year-old’s own artistic and spiritual journey from Christianity to Islam to Orthodox Judaism.
“The song speaks about salvation from heaven, and I mediated on that for a long time. At the end of the day the song and its meaning is beyond any of us. Okay, the song is catchy, but it also lifts people out of dark places,” Black said in a telephone interview with The Times of Israel.
It was in 2013 that Black, formerly known as D. Black, first heard Elbaz’s recording of the song. Soon afterwards he went home and played it for his son, then just over a year old. As toddlers will do, his son asked Black to play it again and again and “one more time whether I wanted to or not,” Black said.
Then just a little more than a year ago Elbaz contacted Black and asked him to collaborate on a remix of the song. Black didn’t hesitate. He knew and admired Elbaz, the son of Israeli singer, Benny Elbaz.
Something of a prodigy, Elbaz began singing and writing at the age of four. He broke out as a solo artist in 1998, after being featured on four CD’s with his father, whom he said “influenced my character, my performance, and me being professional in what I do.” Elbaz added that he has his “own style and aims to bring more color to the Jewish music scene so the new generation will feel more related too.”
Elbaz’s latest album “Ze Hayom” was released in 2014. When he was working on the latest incarnation of “HaShem Melech 2.0” he knew he wanted to work with Black.
“His life story touched my heart and I feel the Jewish world needs someone like him to inspire a new generation of music in the Jewish industry,” Elbaz said.
Black is at once humbled and awed that he came this far, given that his childhood and teen years were a whirlwind of instability.
Born and raised in the Seward Park neighborhood of Seattle to musical parents — his father is Captain Crunch from the 1980s rap group Emerald Street Boys – Black’s parents used and sold drugs.
The musician once described his house as being like Grand Central Station for dealers and users. His parents separated when he was two and when his mother was arrested on drug charges when he was seven. She died from an overdose at the age of 37.
His grandfather, who was Muslim, came to care for Black. He read the Koran to Black and showed him how to pray. Black said he remembers feeling a little more secure with his grandfather in his life — until the day he didn’t. In 1996 Black’s grandfather, who once played alongside Quincy Jones and Ray Charles, was arrested on a parole violation and sent back to prison where he died in 2013. Black was in Jerusalem at the time.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the tumult in his life Black increasingly turned to music. He had started rapping at age 13 under the name of D. Black (his birth name was Damian Black) and slowly gained notice. His song “Ali ‘Yah” reached number four on the CMJ hip hop charts and he performed at several festivals including SXSW and Capitol Hill Block Party.
Still the music didn’t fill the void.
And so Black kept searching. Along the way, he flirted with Christianity and Messianic Judaism. But again, the young musician felt something wasn’t working.
“I always felt different, out of place. I had a drive to find a place to fit in,” he said.
That place turned out to be just a few streets away.
Black’s childhood neighborhood bordered Rainier Avenue, home to a thriving Jewish community and one of Seattle’s oldest synagogues. As it happened Black often played basketball next to one of the synagogues. Searching for stability, Black started researching Judaism on the Internet. One day he walked into the Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation and realized he was home.
“When I came to Judaism I found the connection I had been looking for,” he said.
In 2008 Black married his childhood sweetheart, Adina and after their conversion in 2013 they received an Orthodox marriage at Bikur Holim.
Later this month Black, his wife and their four children will board a Nefesh B’Nefesh sponsored flight and make Aliyah.
“Since I told friends we made the decision so many have come up to me and said ‘We wish we had done that,’” Black said. “I didn’t want to ever say I wish we had done it. My kids and wife are very excited. I’m very excited. I’m also leaving the only place I’ve ever known, but I feel fearless.”
Black plans to settle in Jerusalem and connect with other musicians there soon after he arrives.
“Professionally for Nissim, Jerusalem does have a large artist scene, and it’s only an hour from Tel Aviv,” said Marc Rosenberg, director of Pre-Aliyah Planning for Nefesh B’Nefesh.
Black will return to the US in March when he and Elbaz give a concert at Brooklyn College in New York. As part of his trip he will meet with at risk youth to talk about his path.
“I have no shtick. It’s just all coming from my heart, because at the end of the day we are all connected,” Black said.