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.
The guy likes reggae. Calm down.
Matt knows he's a minstrel act. he is no different than the 1000's of other Jewish suburbanite teen boys raised in the NYC burbs who moved to music to get stoned and laid in high school. Nothing wrong with that, I come from 4 generations of Jewish musicians.
I know dozens of other Jewish musicians our age we grew up around here who are by far better musicians.
To fully understand where Matisyahu comes from, listen to his unreleased song about White Plains high school. The spirituality was his "hook" to get the religious girls to put out, and he turned it into a career. He's still the 17 y.o. phishhead, add a few years of yeshiva study, but it's still a heavy stoner under that Lubavitcher facade.
disc 2 song 2
I've been to some small pre 1st record release gigs of matisyahu's, I couldn't resist seeing this schtick.
In between sets I grilled Matt and Alon Cohen about reggae, house, hall, dub, steel drum bands/musicians that are generally considered standard repetoire for reggae artists, trying to get a feel on where he came from, Matisyahu was blank on most of them, Josh Werner jumped in and took over the conversation. I also immediately saw Matisyahu as another Perry Farrell type, and they've since found each other.
I get a kick out of Matt stealing Jewish symbology BACK from the anti-Semitic Rasta culture.
And so do I, as others say, he rocks! My daughters were raving about him, and gave me his album as a gift last year. The Jewish lyrics are so much better than the drivel put out by some other reggae singers (although I do also like Bob Marley music).
This critics name is Kalefa, as in Khalifa. His views are probably colored by TROP. I don't care what he thinks..
He's a good reggae singer.
Either listen to him or don't, as you prefer. Quit whining. Stupid author, creating a fuss about nothing.
i've seen Matisyahu in concert - he's a very talented guy.
he was close personal friends with Jamaica's premier reggae DJ, producer and artist (until Bob Marley took his crown) Prince Buster.
Sanneh is a dumbass who doesn't understand the history of reggae music, and is apparently unaware of the fact that Bob Marley was as white as he was black.
I suppose that Sanneh doesn't listen to music by Jimmy Cliff or the Ethiopians or other seminal reggae acts because some of their music was written and almost all of it was produced by Leslie Kong, a Jamaican who must have been a "cultural appropriator" because he is Chinese, not black.
Ridiculous. O'Connor is most famous for ripping apart a photograph of the late Servant of God Pope John Paul II on live television - she is clearly an apostate, not a Catholic.
Matisyahu doesn't perform reggae exclusively - some of his tunes are reggae, some are melodic beatbox tunes and some are kind of neo-psychedelic jams.
Categorizing his music as "alternative" is proof of nothing.
"I get a kick out of Matt stealing Jewish symbology BACK from the anti-Semitic Rasta culture."
Me too! That's what I think is the best about him.
Matisyaho is ok. I'm personallu more a fan of dub like mad professor type stuff and also the more roughneck ragga styles.
"To fully understand where Matisyahu comes from, listen to his unreleased song about White Plains high school. The spirituality was his "hook" to get the religious girls to put out, and he turned it into a career."
I grew up on Long Island - not far away. If that's what he was looking for, he should have just joined USY. :)
How many rastas do you know? Do you know anything about rasta culture? I worked for rastas for years and never heard an antisemitic thing ever. I've never heard antisemitic reggae either and they played that stuff ALL THE TIME. I'm not into the really hardcore Buju Banton type stuff. Matisyahu and Bob Marley is as reggae as I get.
There are several "houses" of Rastafarianism. The one Marley belonged to - Twelve Tribes of Israel - is not black supremacist.
They actually consider themselves to be a branch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and many of these Rastas have been received formally into that church.
There are other "houses" that are openly racist and who perceive Marley to be a talented but wussy sellout.
I think us rednecks should sue the Black community for appropriating our dialect.
I knew a few Rastas in Brooklyn and got no "heavy manners". No beef..
Well, "Day-Oh" was written by a Jew, and sung by a black (Belafonte) who seemed to specialize in fake "calypso" songs, and that was apparently alright.
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