Who Are the ‘Hebrew Israelites’ Influencing Rappers Like Kendrick Lamar and Kodak Black?

Kendrick Lamar 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 Reconstructionwas 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.

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SOURCE: Sam Kestenbaum