Skip to comments.Matisyahu and race: Is it okay for white Jew to sing reggae?
Posted on 03/30/2006 6:09:47 PM PST by SJackson
Matisyahu and race: Is it okay for white Jew to sing reggae?
By this point, Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae artist, needs little introduction. His first album, Live at Stubbs, has sold more than 500,000 copies. His second, Youth, has topped online music vendor iTunes album chart ever since. His lanky figure black hat, beard and all has appeared everywhere from Rolling Stone to the staid Wall Street Journal to Jimmy Kimmels late-night talk show.
But while most critics are united in praising his music, Matisyahu nonetheless raises a complex tangle of questions about race, religion and cultural appropriation, bringing these topics to the forefront in a way few American artists think Elvis or Eminem have done.
These issues were perhaps best, and most troublingly, brought to the foreground in a review of Matisyahus Manhattan concert written by The New York Times pop music critic, Kelefa Sanneh. The review, published on the front page of the papers Arts section, had little to say about Matisyahus music but plenty to discuss about his race.
Matisyahus black hat, Sanneh wrote, also helps obscure something that might otherwise be more obvious: his race. He is a student of the Chabad-Lubavitch philosophy, but he is also a white reggae singer with an all- white band, playing (on Monday night, anyway) to an almost all-white crowd. Yet he has mainly avoided thorny questions about cultural appropriation.
Almost instantly, the Jewish blogosphere lit up. Why, most commentators asked, was Matisyahu singled out for a cultural act call it appropriation that many white artists have happily, and seamlessly, committed?
Writing in his blog, Canonist, religion writer Steven I. Weiss labeled Sannehs review as a hackneyed, disingenuous, and self- contradicting series of assessments about religion, race, and culture.
What takes [Sannehs] essay from the disrespectful and disingenuous into the absurd, Weiss wrote, is Sannehs assumption that reggae is, at this point, a black thing: white artists using reggae and white reggae artists have been around for a long time and if Sanneh would like, by extension, to exclude all of those artists from a relevant musical discussion hell be excluding a good many whove made real contributions to the form.
But Sanneh doesnt bring other white artists into the discussion, and its reasonable to wonder why. Its hard to shake the notion that Matisyahu is being presented as singularly white, and that his Jewishness could comprise part of that judgment.
This singling out, Weiss said, denies Jews the right to see themselves as an ethnicity, corralling them collectively into whiteness.
For Matisyahu to be singled out, he said, speaks to an idea that theres probably some disdain for the fact that he gets off as an ethnic curiosity, and that Jews in general perhaps can be seen as something other than white.
The claim of cultural appropriation, Weiss added, was particularly odd, given reggaes traditional affiliation with the Rastafari movement, which borrows heavily from Jewish imagery and whose followers believe themselves to be the true Israelites. And while Matisyahu, he said, was criticized for co-opting reggae music, reggae music with its penchant for such themes as Mount Zion or the Lion of Judah is never criticized for appropriating these staples of Jewish thought.
The reality is theres borrowed imagery, Weiss said. But [Sannehs] acknowledgment that both [Matisyahu and reggae music] would be equally subject to a claim of co-option is absent.
Several phone calls and an e-mail message to Sanneh for comment went unanswered.
Sanneh, it turns out, isnt alone in his critique of Matisyahu as something of a cultural thief. Writing in Slate, the online journals music writer, Jody Rosen, goes so far as to position the singer as the latest in a long line of Jewish minstrel acts, from Al Jolson to Bob Dylan, who channeled the cadences of black bluesmen, to the Beastie Boys. Successive generations of Jewish musicians have used the blackface mask to negotiate Jewish identity and have made some great art in the process, Rosen writes.
And while [Matisyahus] music is at best pedestrian, his minstrel routine may be the cleverest and most subtle yet, Rosen continues. The singers genuinely exotic look and spiritual bona fides are an ingenious variation on the archetypal Jewish blackface routine, immortalized in The Jazz Singer (1927), when the immigrant striver Jolson put on blackface to cast off his Jewish patrimony and become American. In 2006, Matisyahu wears Old World Jewface, and in so doing, becomes black.
The question of cultural appropriation is always an important one to raise, said Murray Forman, a professor of communication studies at Northeastern University who has written extensively about reggae and hip-hop. And yet, he added, I wouldnt necessarily start from the perspective simply of race and difference.
Race, he said, is certainly an important factor, but it is not the only one. I sense that sometimes there are claims of racial essentialism, he said, that are somehow going to trump other forms of identity status. Were always grappling with authenticity. Rather than isolate the debate solely in terms of racial dynamics, Id take it to the question of reggae, and ask, Is it legitimate or authentic in that context?
As an example Forman mentioned Snow, an Irish-Canadian reggae musician who came from a working-class background, living and working mainly with Jamaicans. People gave him a little bit of a pass by virtue of class authenticity, Forman said. A similar statement, he added, could be made about Sinead OConnor; the Irish singer recently released Throw Down Your Arms, an album of reggae classics that was produced by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, reggaes most prolific production team, and recorded in Jamaica with leading reggae studio musicians.
As Matisyahu comes from the Chasidic perspective, said Forman, OConnor carries her well- known Catholicism into the mix.
What, then, determines the boundaries of appropriation? What measures must be used to ascertain an artists right to work in a cultural tradition associated with another religion or race?
Formans formulation is simple. The main principle, he said, should be that you owe it to the culture, stressing not an artists essentials place of birth or color of skin but his or her connections to the art form. And, he added, just as Snow was connected to reggae through his socioeconomic class, Matisyahus connection may just be his religious beliefs and its thematic ties to Rastafarianism.
The onus is on Matisyahu to articulate more explicitly what his cultural approach is in relation to this black cultural form, he said. What is it about reggae that he sees as viable, and how does he see himself as a white performer in a predominantly black idiom? If he wants to say its the commonality between the Rastafari movement and Judaism, he has an interesting line. I dont want to privilege race, because in this case, maybe it is not the most dominant aspect.
Matisyahu himself has claimed something similar when, in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, he said, In any Bob Marley song, you hear lots of powerful quotes from the Torah, and added that it was reggaes recurring references to Jewish symbols that first attracted him to the genre.
But, Forman added, no discussion of Matisyahu or any other artist, for that matter would be complete without mention of a social force mightier than race and religion combined: money.
At some point we also have to recognize that Matisyahu is also a product of culture industries, he said. Not only he benefits from adopting reggae, but the music industry benefits as well.
In Matisyahu, he said, the industry found an unlikely and attractive musical vehicle, one that could deliver reggae music to an audience, predominantly white, that would otherwise have most likely remained uninterested.
Matisyahu is being promoted and marketed to a particular audience, Forman said. Theres an industry alongside this that says this is where well meet the largest audience and generate the greatest revenue. And I think its folly for anybody to overlook the industrial role here.
As proof of sorts, Forman mentioned that the industry itself refrained from labeling Matisyahus music as reggae. His albums are listed under the Alternative category on iTunes, and King Without a Crown, his biggest hit, reached No. 7 on Billboards rock chart, and not the R&B and hip-hop chart, which monitors reggae musicians as well.
To be sure, other artists who have begun as marketing schemes have since risen to prominence. Eminem, to cite the best example, got his first break for being the first white rapper, became successful for appealing to a large white audience otherwise indifferent to hip-hop and went on to become one of the genres most esteemed musicians, regardless of skin color.
Given the recent ride hes on, Matisyahu may be moving in that direction. But Forman is skeptical. Eminem is a superior rhyme artist, hes a skilled producer, he can freestyle, and his style is quite literally unparalleled, Forman said. Hes much better than Matisyahu is in his respective category. Matisyahu will never be at the top of the reggae skill chart. Hell never trump even half of the artists we havent even heard of. He is not a superior artist.
His music ROCKS.
Yes, the patriarch of the Maccabee family. Some might transliterate it a little differnetly.
I see this stuff on MTV and it is certainly better that rap.
Reminds me of Snow's song "informer"
(i have an mp3 of the Snow song if anyone is so inclined)
from the article you cited.
The writer of that article sounds like he had a preset story, based on some personal prejudices, and wasn't about to let any facts get in his way - lot of that going around in what masquerades as journalism these days - speaking of wearing a face other than reality.
In the meantime, back to the original article and the phrase: "...thorny questions about cultural appropriation.
So are we going to legally regulate who can sing what music? Is it just me, or does this whole thing send a chill whiff of control that goes beyond even socialism?
So true!!!! We have been listening to it in our office for way over a year now....very positive and uplifting music.
That's the problem. ;o)
I went on the link and listened to a couple - and I gotta say - I liked it! Of course his lyrics are uplifting and encouraging, from what I heard, for kids to stand tall and make the right decisions - maybe that's another problem?
(by the way, I'm a grandmother of 15 - so what does an ole lady know...
Maybe the dude just like the music. Here's a list of classical composers of African descent. Are they stealing my whiteness?
I went to North Texas State, one of the premiere music schools in the country, in the late '70s, and most of my friends were music majors. I remember how they always used to ridicule Rolling Stone music critics because they said you could tell they knew nothing at all about music. They reviewed albums based on the trendiness of the band's image or how leftwing their lyrics were, but they couldn't even describe anything musical in accurate terminology. They were, in short, ignorant, arrogant, self-absorbed wankers. Sounds like this guy would fit right in.
"multi-culturism" = "multi-culturalism." I type badly when I'm P.O.ed by idiots.
Warning! This is a high-volume ping list.
Bob Marley would be embarrassed to associate with the writer ~ I think he'd like this guy.
Interestingly enough, the "skinhead" movement traces its roots back to Jamaican reggae music.
The writer from slate is an idiot. Matisyahu ROCKS!
Exactly. Reminds me of something a nice Jewish boy named David Lee Roth once said: The reason music critics like Elvis Costello is because they look like Elvis Costello.
Excellent point, but the cretins who call themselves pop music "critics" wouldn't know Kathleen Battle if they tripped over her.
Got him spooled up on the Dell Jukebox now. Awesome.
I have always loved reggae and ska music (and yes, I am a white guy) and I think Matisyahu is terrific! Not only are his messages uplifting but his music is really good. I play it at work on my PC interspersed with Bob Marley and the Maytals and none of my co-workers (who are largely black guys) have caught on that OMG, this is a white Jewish guy with a beard! I see nothing wrong with his "appropriation" of the reggae style. Rock on!
My kids love him.
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