“This is the first rap that I have actually enjoyed,” wrote Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Mordechai Becher. “That alone is an incredible accomplishment for Nissim Black.”
Rabbi Becher was referring to African-American-Israeli singer Nissim Black’s latest runaway music video, “Mothaland Bounce,” an explosive fusion of Zulu warriors, inner-city street youth and chasidic shtreimels, an unlikely mix in the genre of music appealing to Orthodox listeners.
Raised in Seattle, Black made a career for himself as a rap musician before converting to Orthodox Judaism in 2011 and ultimately moving to Israel. His meteoric transition to Jewish music has attracted the devotion of thousands of millenial followers, who appreciate his hip-hop contributions to contemporary Jewish music.
I don’t have any pretentions to speak with authority about contemporary music (my 18-year old son is quick to caution me in this regard). As a historian, however, I note two specific aspects of this powerful recording that have historical significance and deserve further examination. I’m grateful to the editors of The Jewish Link for asking me to share some of these ideas with their readership.
First off, while “Mothaland Bounce” is the autobiographical chronicle of Black’s own maturation as an artist and a Jew, it occupies an unusual space in the long, shared history of Jews and African-Americans in music.
Black offers a nod to this with a lyrical self-reference to “Sammy Davis’ cousin,” citing the famous black member of the “Rat Pack,” which included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and other super-celebrities of the 1960s. Davis, as is well-known, attributed his survival of a horrific car accident to the protective properties of the mezuzah that musician Eddie Cantor had given him. Davis lost an eye in that car accident, but he subsequently adopted the Jewish faith through Temple Israel of Hollywood.
Davis’ conversion, however, was far from a one-off in the collaboration between Jews and African-Americans in music. Long before the Beastie Boys engaged with Hip-Hop in the 1980s, George Gershwin’s classic (but not uncontroversial) “Porgy and Bess” was heavily influenced by his participation in the Harlem Renaissance, for example, and Abel Meeropol’s haunting poem “Strange Fruit,” a bitter ode to the violence of lynching, was rendered immortal by Billie Holiday in a 1939 recording.
It’s also not impossible that Billie Holiday herself was halachically Jewish—her mother, Sadie Fagan, may lie in a Christian cemetery in the Bronx, but mourners still leave stones to mark their visits.
There were infamous moments in this shared musical history as well, including Al Jolson’s cringeworthy “Mammy” in blackface, and Michael Jackson’s much-apologized-for lyric, “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/ Kick me, kike me, don’t you black or white me” in “They Don’t Care about Us” (1995).
But Nissim Black’s contribution is exceptional for his proud assertion of a hierarchy of identities: Without surrendering his identity as a black Jew in an overwhelmingly white and off-white Jewish music scene, without abandoning his artistic roots in contemporary hip-hop, Black fully embraces his artistic expression as a chasid. Black’s Judaism is not separate from his art: It is the undeniable source of his passion and his inspiration.
Others, like Sammy Davis Jr., may have joked about their dual identities. (He once said, “I’m colored, Jewish and Puerto Rican—when I move into a neighborhood, I wipe it out.”) With “Mothaland Bounce,” Black tells us that it’s not a joke, and it’s not even a dual identity. Visually, Black illustrates his message with a combination of subtle costume changes: While never removing his long black caftan and chasidic headgear, he alternates with accessories that evoke his African past (leopard-skin stole), and his American life (heavy gold necklace).
In a famous 2018 meeting with Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the revered rabbi told Black that his experience as a African-American was not a chisaron, a deficiency—rather it was a maylah, the source of his strength. Black has taken that to heart in this video. Wagging his finger directly at the viewer, he intones “Ain’t no monkey business/’cause ain’t no monkeys in here,” and with his shtreimel tilting at a precarious angle, Black closes his song by “signing off as Mr. Black/Hitler’s worst nightmare.”
The second historically significant element in “Mothaland Bounce” is its unusually syncretic value: Black plumbs the depth of contrasting musical traditions and brings them together in a cohesive manner, in which the entire piece culminates in a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. As I have written elsewhere, this cultural borrowing is an authentically Jewish phenomenon, readily evident with even superficial probing of Jewish culture, from the pedestrian to the sublime.
Consider the typical Jewish kitchen, for example. Which Ashkenazic home would be complete without Ukrainian cabbage rolls? Which Mizrahi table would be graced without Persian gundi? Jews may initially resist foreign interlopers to our prized culture, but we are easily won over by quality: I am old enough to remember when “sushi” was a questionable addition to the wedding smorgasbord, and now it is a staple (I wonder if there are any rabbis born after 1990 who haven’t mastered the use of chopsticks).
This exercise could be repeated with virtually every aspect of Jewish expression: poetry, literature, visual art. Purists may even be scandalized with the thought that some of our revered religious classics demonstrate the undeniable influence of non-Jewish sources, often freely acknowledged, from Maimonides’ reading of Aristotle to the reliance of the mussar classic “Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh” on Benjamin Franklin.
Yet historically speaking, Jewish societies frequently oscillate between periods of insularity and openness. Sometimes, external influences are seen as toxic, threatening the survival and integrity of the Jewish body politic. At other times, cultural influences are cautiously welcomed and even enthusiastically endorsed (think sushi), and the benefits are absorbed into Jewish culture.
We live in an unusually complex time, in which modern information technology has provided unprecedented (and often unwanted) access to more cultural influences than at any other moment in Jewish history. It remains to be seen how we, as a people, will ultimately manage the challenge of such cultural overload. In the meantime, however, we can enjoy the fruits of such artistic cross-fertilization in the masterful work of Nissim Black, as exemplified by his remarkable “Mothaland Bounce.”
Henry Abramson serves as dean at Touro’s Lander College of Arts and Sciences in Brooklyn. A native of northern Ontario, he received his PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 1995 and went on to visiting and post-doctoral positions at Cornell, Harvard, Oxford and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of several books and many articles in scholarly journals, and has appeared in historical documentaries. His research has been recognized with fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and he has lectured in North America, Israel, Europe and Japan.