Because of his talent and spiritual lyrics, rapper Kendrick Lamar has become a favorite hip-hop artist among Christian music fans. Lamar’s 2012 album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, has been called “deeply theological” (Women in Theology) and a “work of theological genius” that is “nothing short of a contemporary [Augustine’s] Confessions” (Christ and Pop Culture). Christian magazine Relevant recently noted that Lamar is the “best reviewed artist of the 21st century.”

On his new album—which recently debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 charts—Lamar includes many references to a relatively unknown religious group called Black Hebrew Israelites. Among the references are a song titled ”Yah“ (the term the group uses to refer to Yahweh), a lyric that says, “I’m an Israelite, don’t call me black no more,” and voicemail from Lamar’s cousin, a Black Hebrew Israelite, that says that Lamar will continue to suffer in this world until he recognizes he is “an Israelite according to the Bible.”

Here is what you should know about the group behind Lamar’s religious references:

1. Black Hebrew Israelites (also called African Hebrew Israelites, Black Jews, Black Hebrews, Black Israelites, or Hebrew Israelites) is an umbrella term for various religious sects and congregations that believe that people of color, usually African Americans, are descendants of a lost tribe of ancient Israelites.

2. From the 17th to 20th century, African-Americans’ identification with Judaism was informed, as Edith Bruder and Tudor Parfitt say, “by the social and political orientations of black people in the United States and was often embedded in response to discrimination.” But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, certain African Americans began not only to identify spiritually with the ancient Israelites but also to claim they were their direct physical descendants. This lead to the creation of several factions of Black Hebrew Israelites (hereafter BHIs) that spread across America, and later to Africa and Israel.

3. BHI groups do not align themselves with Judaism. Instead, as Jacob S. Dorman explains, they “creatively manipulate traditions and ideas gleaned from a wide range of sources: Holiness/Pentecostal Christianity, the British Anglo-Israelite movement, Freemasonry, Mind Power, Theosophy, Judaism, the occult, and African American Christianity’s deep association with the Hebrews of the Old Testament.” African-American BHI groups also have no significant history with Ethiopian Jews (aka Beit Yisrael or Falahas) even though, as Dorman notes, “New York’s main body of black Israelites called themselves Ethiopian Jews from the 1930s to 1960s.”

4. BHI groups tend to define an Israelite as a descendant of the biblical patriarch Jacob, a “Hebrew Israelite” as the modern descendants of the ancient Israelites, and a Jew as a person who practices the religion of Judaism. Many BHI groups do not consider Jews to be true descendants of “Hebrew Israelites.” However, they also do not consider all people of color to be part of the “lost tribe” either. As one BHI website explains, “Israel is just one black nation that exist among many. The Egyptians, Canaanites, Ethiopians, babyloians etc [sic] were black skinned but they were not Israelites. . . . To say all black skinned people are Israelites is like saying all Asians are Chinese, or All Europeans are French.” BHIs also believe that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was prophesied in Deuteronomy 28:68 (Lamar makes reference to this belief in his lyric, “And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed”), which accounts for why so many “Hebrew Israelites” are found in America.

5. While there are some common beliefs shared by BHIs, the groups themselves vary widely in their connection to Judaism and Christianity. In a 1973 article for Christianity Today, historian James Tinney suggested the classification of the organizations into three groups:

• Black Jews, who maintain a Christological perspective and adopt Jewish rituals.

• Black Hebrews, who are more traditional in their practice of Judaism.

• Black Israelites, who are most nationalistic and furthest from traditional Judaism.

6. Many BHI organizations around today sprang up in the late 19th century and early part of the 20th century or are offshoots of those original groups. The three largest groups are the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, the Church Of God And Saints Of Christ – Temple Beth El, and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem.

7. Many BHIs who include elements of Christianity affirm the King James Version (1611) of the Bible as their only rule of faith and practice, and the interpretation of it is reserved for their ordained leader, D. A. Horton says. “Some groups accept some books of the New Covenant (New Testament) yet, many reject Paul’s writings on the idea, they were used often by white masters during the American slavery years,” Horton adds.

8. Most, if not all, BHI groups deny the Trinity and the deity of Christ. As one BHI congregation explains, “We believe that there is a distinction between God and Jesus of Nazereth. In particular, we believe that God is THE Supreme Being in the universe and that Jesus was merely a human being; a noteworthy prophet (see St. Matthew 21:11), but a human being nonetheless.” [emphasis in original]

9. The public interaction with BHI groups usually occurs in large cities, where more radical members often stand on streets and sidewalks, debating and berating passers-by.

Language warning: The video below contains profanity and racist language.

Some of the groups are so extreme they’ve been classified as hate groups because of their violent, racist, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic rhetoric. (An example can be found in this video, which contains extremely racist language and profanity.)

Other posts in this series:

Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease •  Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court's Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State