Rapper Kendrick Lamar’s recent lyrics referencing Hebrew Israelite doctrines were widely celebrated by members of that community as a sign that their movement is growing — but decried by some listeners as offensive and even “heretical” to Christians.
“It’s a brother returning back to his nationality,” said a member of Israel United in Christ in an online broadcast about the topic. “He has the ability to get the fact of who we are out to millions of people.”
Some fans even took to making their own online memes of Lamar, imagining the Grammy Award-winning rapper dressed in colorful Hebrew Israelite clothing. “You cannot stop the most high prophecies from happening,” wrote James Mordecai Guryon in a public Facebook comment. “[God’s] chosen people will come back to [their] true identity as Hebrew Israelites.”
Hebrew Israelites are people of color, mostly African Americans, who identify as the descendants of the biblical Israelites and view the Judaic or Hebraic way of life as their ancestral heritage. The movement is large and diverse and theological beliefs vary, with some groups revering Jesus as the Messiah.
On Lamar’s album “Damn,” he called himself an Israelite and referenced beliefs associated with Hebrew Israelites. Lamar says on the album that it is his cousin, Carl Duckworth, who told him about these ideas and his cousin appears on the album reciting Israelite doctrine. The Forward revealed that Duckworth is a member of Israel United in Christ and goes by the Hebrew name Karni Ben Israel.
It is still unclear whether Lamar has any formal connection to this Israelite group or any other.
Lamar’s Israelite lyrics were met with various objections. For some listeners, this appeared to be their first introduction to Hebrew Israelite beliefs. Christian critics characterized Hebrew Israelites — even those who worship Jesus — as heterodox or even heretical. Other listeners objected to what they saw as the strident nationalism or racially charged rhetoric of Hebrew Israelites.
“One is truly an Israelite when they are in Christ,” said the Christian blogger known as Faithful in God in a YouTube video dedicated on the subject. “Kendrick is being indoctrinated with heresy, outright heresy.”
The Christian website Trackstarz devoted a roundtable to discussing the new album, where a group of black Christian speakers worried that Lamar’s nod to Israelite doctrine means he is moving further away from the values of Christianity as they understand them.
“I fight hard that the core of my identity is in Christ, not in my gender, not in my race, not in my political affiliation,” said Maya Dawson during the discussion. “This theology or this form of belief can often fuel the opposite — and reinforce your identity coming form your ethnicity versus Christ.”
Hebrew Israelites point to verses in Deuteronomy both as proof of their sacred heritage and to show that the transatlantic slave trade was a curse for disobeying God. During one song on Lamar’s album, his cousin recites this doctrine, saying God is going to “punish us, the so-called blacks, Hispanics, and Native American Indians” unless they “come back to [God’s] commandments.”
Some bristled at this idea — that the suffering of these groups has somehow been punishment meted out by God.
“To chalk up mass genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, the Mexican-American War and countless other things to some kind of divine punishment… to blame it all on God’s will seems disgusting,” said the popular music blogger Anthony Fantano in a video review of the album. “Kendrick’s faith, his belief in God, takes the ugliest turn that is has on any project that he has released so far.”
This story "Are Kendrick Lamar’s Hebrew Israelite Lyrics Inspirational — Or ‘Ugly Turn’?" was written by Sam Kestenbaum.
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum .