The rapper Kendrick Lamar has long explored spiritual or religious themes in his critically-acclaimed and chart-topping work. On his fourth studio album, he surprised some by evoking beliefs associated with Hebrew Israelites.
“I’m an Israelite, don’t call me black no more,” Lamar recited on his April release titled “Damn.” A voicemail from someone identified as Lamar’s cousin Carl appeared on another song, in which the speaker said that Lamar will continue to suffer in this world until he recognizes he is “an Israelite according to the Bible.”
The references went over many listeners’ heads. But these weren’t throwaway lines.
Lamar’s older cousin belongs to a Hebrew Israelite group in Florida and has been teaching the spiritually seeking rapper — who was “blown away” by the group’s beliefs.
“The guy is really looking and searching for this truth,” said Lamar’s cousin Carl Duckworth, who now goes by the Hebrew name Karni Ben Israel, in a late April Periscope broadcast from Israel United In Christ, the Israelite organization where he is a member. “We decided to do a song … we talked about it while back.”
Israel said he and his cousin regularly study the Bible together — and it was one passage in particular that moved Lamar.
“When Deuteronomy 28 came out, it was like he was blown away, it was like — wow,” Israel said.
Hebrew Israelites are people of color, mostly African American, who identify as the descendants of the Israelites of the Bible. Israelites point to verses in Deuteronomy 28 as proof of their sacred lineage.
“If you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you,” the chapter reads. Among the curses delivered to the Israelites, it is written, “the Lord will send you back in ships to Egypt on a journey I said you should never make again.”
Israelites often point to this particular line — and the phrase “back in ships” — as evidence that the transatlantic slave trade was prophesied in scripture as a punishment meted out by God. “Knowing the past will make us understand the future,” the IUIC website reads. “This verse prophesied of the Israelites coming to America on cargo slave ships.”
Israel said he and Lamar came up with the idea of including Israelite references on the new album together.
“It was both of our ideas,” Israel said.
“[Lamar] was in the studio and he said, ‘I want to do that skit, I’m finishing my CD. I need that skit,’” Israel said. “He called me five or six times, put me on the microphone through the phone and this is what we have here. He said he’s an Israelite.”
The Forward revealed Lamar’s cousin is known now as Karni (pronounced KAR-nai) Ben Israel and has been a member of IUIC since at least 2015 but learned about the group sometime in 2014.
Israel lives in Jacksonville, Florida, but is originally from Chicago, where Lamar also has roots. The two cousins also apparently lived together for some time in Compton, California.
On the Periscope video hosted by IUIC member Deacon Abbayael, Israel called in and shared details about how he joined the IUIC — and how he hopes his cousin will follow a similar path.
Lamar’s cousin Israel was previously a member of a Christian church and said he was ordained as a minister. But he said he was left dissatisfied.
Israel said he was troubled by a recurring dream.
“I had a dream one night that my soul was on fire. I saw a lot of… ants and stuff like that eating at my soul. I woke up. I woke up in a cold sweat,” Israel said. “I didn’t have this dream one time, I had it twice. I went to my pastor, my so-called pastor at the time and I said, ‘I want to learn the Bible’ and he had no answer for me.”
Israel continued his spiritual search. “Something wasn’t sitting right with my spirit. So, I looked online,” he said.
Israel found the website of IUIC and was introduced to the doctrine of the group, which taught him that he was heir to a sacred lineage. “Once I heard Deuteronomy 28 and I actually read it … I was hooked,” Israel said. “God, like, turned a light switch on and it was like — this is it.”
Israel said he has offered spiritual counsel to his cousin.
“He was saying when he was going to church it just didn’t feel right,” Israel said.
In a recent email to the music website DJ Booth, Lamar said the same. Lamar criticized the church leaders of his youth for presenting too rosy an image of God. “Yes. He’s a merciful God,” Lamar wrote. “But He’s even more so a jealous God.”
Israel said he’s sending Lamar promotional videos from IUIC. “He is seeking IUIC, he watch the videos,” Israel said. “I sent him videos.”
Israel said his cousin is still in need of prayer and that the music industry is a “wicked” influence.
“When they sign these contracts Esau got a hand in there,” Israel said, referring to the biblical brother of Jacob. IUIC teaches that white people are “Edomites, the sons and daughters of Esau” and though whites are seemingly in positions of power today in America — just as Esau was blessed by God — their downfall is foretold in the Bible.
“We have to continue praying for that brother,” Israel said.
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.