Aug 9, 2017


The community feels conflicted about its new celebrity fans.


August 2, 2017

Kendrick Lamar’s dropped his fourth studio album DAMN. back in April, and attentive fans may have caught a new reference in the rapper’s dense and allusive rhymes. On the album’s third track “YAH.,” the Compton rapper declares:

I’m an Israelite, don’t call me black no more

A few moments later, he adds:

My cousin called, my cousin Carl Duckworth
Said know my worth
And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed

Kendrick is referencing the book of Deuteronomy in the Bible, where Moses addresses the Twelve Tribes of Israel who have made their exodus from slavery in Egypt and wandered for 40 years in the desert. The Israelites are about to enter the land promised to them by God, and Moses gives them God’s holy law and warns of dire consequences should they break it.

Kendrick’s lyrics often delve into spiritual territory, but the Old Testament fire and brimstone is a new theme for him. Perhaps disillusioned by what many see as a dark turn in the country’s history, he is searching for roots by referencing the teachings of the Hebrew Israelites, a black religious movement that has thrived on the margins of the country’s spiritual landscape for over a century.

Lamar is not alone. Two months after the release of DAMN., Kodak Black echoed Kendrick’s lines on “First Day Out,” the first single he dropped after being released from prison:

I’m a Israelite

“I Can’t Lie I’m #Israel #12TribesOfIsrael,” Kodak announced on Instagram, posing with a Star of David pendant dangling around his neck.

While affinity with the Israelites is common in broader African-American religious discourse, Hebrew Israelites identify as the literal genealogical descendants of the people mentioned in the Bible. The movement is theologically diverse; some follow the New Testament, others study only the Hebrew Bible. Israelites understand their spiritual practice not as a religion but as an ancestral way of life to which they are returning. There is no single patriarch of the Israelite movement but rather generations of 19th and 20th century leaders who taught similar messages, evoking ancient ancestry and teaching spiritual uplift.

The movement’s emergence can be traced to the late 19th century, when former slaves had their hopes for a more just United States dashed after Reconstruction was abandoned by the Federal government due to intense resistance from white supremacists. Blacks in the South became subject to restrictive Jim Crow laws and were the victims of periodic racial violence across the country.

Hebrew Israelites point to the chapter of Deuteronomy 28—in particular a passage that describes how the biblical Israelites will be sent “back in ships to Egypt” for their disobedience to God—as a prophetic foretelling of the enslavement of African people in the Americas.

It was Deuteronomy 28 that caught Kendrick’s attention during one-on-one Bible sessions with his cousin Carl Duckworth, a member of an Israelite organization called Israel United In Christ who goes by the Hebrew name Karni Ben Israel. “The guy is really looking and searching for this truth,” Duckworth explained in a late April Periscope broadcast from IUIC, speaking about his famous cousin. “When Deuteronomy 28 came out, it was like he was blown away, it was like — wow.”

Carl Duckworth can be heard referencing the Deuteronomy 28 prophecy in a voicemail recording towards the end of the song “FEAR.”

Kodak Black also encountered a teacher who introduced him to Israelite beliefs. While serving 97 days in a Florida jail for violating house arrest, Kodak met an Israelite teacher known as Priest Kahan who does regular prison ministry in the state. Kodak, who is of Haitian descent, was particularly impressed with the Israelite teaching that present-day nationalities are descended from Twelve Tribes of Israel. Haitians, according to a widely circulated “tribe chart,” are descended from the priestly tribe of Levi.

Just as Israelite beliefs crystallized in the wake of Reconstruction, contemporary events may be leading to renewed interest.

“Hebrew Israelite beliefs are experiencing something of a renaissance,” said André Key, a professor of African-American Studies at Claflin University who writes about Hebrew Israelites. On the heels of Donald Trump’s upset victory, the country finds itself in political turmoil. “In these times, people who are spiritually or religiously oriented may look toward alternative spiritual perspectives or solutions,” Key told Genius, “and this is one of them.”

According to Israelite doctrine, political activism is futile: hardships will continue to plague people of color until they return to their Hebrew heritage. As Kendrick’s cousin says on “FEAR.,” “Until we come back to these commandments, until you come back to these commandments, we’re gonna feel this way, we’re gonna be under this curse.”

Hip-hop has provided a platform for alternative black spiritual movements for years. Rap pioneers like Rakim as well as Wu-Tang Clan members incorporated the beliefs of the 5 Percenters into their music; Ice Cube peppered his songs with the teachings of the Nation of Islam; in his very early days Jay-Z even referenced Dr. York’s Nuwaubian Nation. Hebrew Israelites, on the other hand, have enjoyed a relatively low profile. But they’ve been out there.

On Doug E. Fresh’s 1988 single “Keep Risin’ To The Top,” a Brooklyn Israelite makes a brief cameo in the video as Fresh raps:

As a brother extended out his hand to me
And asked me would I rock the microphone
I just gave him a pound and said Shalom

On Killah Priest’s “One Step,” a single from his 1998 debut Heavy Mental, the Wu-Tang affiliate spits:

Early natives related to thrones of David, captured by some patriots and thrown on slave ships

The “thrones of David” is a reference to the genealogical line of Israelite descendants coming from the biblical King David. Later on, he continues:

Deuteronomy 28, verse 68, it all relates.

St. Louis rapper Chingy, famous for 2003’s “Right Thurr,” later abandoned mainstream rap, adopting an Israelite identity. In 2013, he released the single “King Judah” to mark the transition.

The latest mainstream breakthrough has generated excitement in the Israelite community. Lamar’s pronouncement launched “FEAR.”-inspired memes, freestyles from underground Israelite rappers, and even fan art.

“This young man has an audience of millions,” said Nathanyel, the leader of IUIC, the Israelite group that Kendrick’s cousin belongs to, in an April YouTube broadcast. “Prophecy is being fulfilled.”

The small Hebrew Israelite community has also met the celebrity cosigns with ambivalence; it’s glad to have its views broadcast, but questions the orthodoxy of these new advocates. “There’s excitement, but there is also hesitation,” said Tyrone Webb, the publisher of the community magazine Hebrew Israelite Nation Times, to Genius. “Will these stars pick up this truth and then drop it right away? Will they be good representations? You never know what will happen.”

Some have denounced artists like Kendrick and Kodak, doubting their dedication to the movement and saying they are still mired in the “sinful” world.

“We gonna go in on these so-called celebrity Israelites,” one member of the Israelite group known as Grand Millstone said in a YouTube video. “Kendrick Lamar… not putting his whole heart into Yahawah Bahasham Yahawashi,” he said, using a Hebrew rendering of the names of God and Jesus.

There is even dissent in the group closest to Kendrick with some members preferring music produced with Israelite doctrine firmly in mind. In a periscope broadcast, a member of IUIC also cautioned listeners against buying Kendrick’s new album. “I wouldn’t suggest just going out and buying the album,” a leader known as Deacon Abbayael said. He took the opportunity to add, “we got some albums out.”

IUIC has its own roster of rappers and producers who put out polished music videos promoting the group’s message and work. In one video entitled “Purple Reign,” referencing the group’s distinctive purple garb, a group of MCs trade lines in front of a foreboding, computer-generated skyline. The group’s charismatic leader delivers snippets of sermons between verses.

A year before Kendrick told listeners “I’m an Israelite, don’t call me black no more” the rapper Obadia recited, “No Afro-American, Hebraic heritage, backed with biblical doctrinates” on his single “Israelite Boy.”

Israelite artists themselves are embracing the new attention brought by their mainstream competitors, although they have some qualms.

Georgia-based artist Beloved Daud, who released his debut album last year, tells Genius that he would welcome any sincere devotee, but was dismayed by some lyrics from Kodak and Kendrick, which seemed to celebrate money or degrade women. “No one likes a lukewarm believer,” he said. “I can see they love more of the world than the righteousness.”

Still, Daud says he’s seen a wave of new interest following their Israelite-inspired lyrics and he welcomes it. “They started a mass search,” he says. “They put that vibration in the air.”

Sam Kestenbaum is a religion writer and reporter at The Forward.

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