Schadenfreude Time!


The truth is, Matisyahu isn’t really a novelty—his is the oldest act in the show-business book. Minstrelsy dates back to the very beginnings of American popular music, and Jews have been particularly zealous and successful practitioners of the art. From Irving Berlin’s blackface ragtime numbers to Al Jolson’s mammy songs—from jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, who passed as black, 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.
Matisyahu is the latest in this line, and while his music is at best pedestrian, his minstrel routine may be the cleverest and most subtle yet. Matisyahu is like a thousand other white guys from the suburbs who’ve smoked a lot of dope, listened to some Burning Spear records, and decided to become reggae singers. But as a Hasid, he has a genuinely exotic look—that great big beard and the tzitzit fringes flying—and the spiritual bona fides to pull off songs steeped in Old Testament imagery. It’s 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.”

A lot more of that here. The whole piece is a much more intelligent diss than Kelefa Sanneh’s recent diatribe, but it shares Sanneh’s premise about whites appropriating black culture and takes it one step further, singling out Jewish entertainers in American history. The piece has some great zingers: “What’s next, an Amish boy band?” “It’s more Oprah than Torah.” And the conclusion points out the political/cultural similarities of Orthodox Judaism and Christian fundamentalism. So the piece has something to piss off — or delight — everyone!

15 thoughts on “Schadenfreude Time!

  1. The thing is…
    This is America.
    In all honesty, ALL genuinely American music – jazz, blues, gospel, rock, hip hop – is steeped in African/European symbiosis.
    This cultural appropriation… does it qualify with Reggaeton,? Or if, say, a black man from Surinam decided to form an African-American-style blues band? What about if and African-American played flute or violin on a European Classical orchestra?
    There’s shtick – and every showman’s got SHTICK, whether it’s Britney Spears’ ‘Look! I’m hot blonde ass with very little talent, but shake my maraccas like you wouldn’t BELIEVE!’ or Jay-Z’s ‘I’m from Marcy Projects’ or Matisyahu’s Crown Height’s hybrid…
    But this ‘cultural appropriation’ bullshit is getting alittle thick in the 21st century.

  2. It seems that SIW doesn’t agree with your “more intelligent” comment. He rips into this review, quite effectively I think, over at The whole “blackface” line of argument is inane. The Beatles carefully studied and covered works by early black rockers early in their career. Is that blackface? Gimme a break. Yes, Al Jolson was Jewish. Matisyahu is Jewish. Is there really any more connection than that? I have listened to klezmer groups with black members. Are the in Jew-face? If you cannot handle the task of reviewing a performer based on performance, don’t write a review.

  3. 1.5,
    I didn’t say that I agree with the argument, just that it’s more intelligently handled than Sanneh’s piece in the NYT.

  4. I’ve read one article too many like this, and I’ve had it. America is just too damn fixated on skin color and religious garment. It comes from the left and the right.
    Here’s a challenge for assholes like this guy: if any person is brought up on a certain style of music, and that sound is what comes out when he performs, is that so out of place? Let’s assume Eminem grew up on rap (which he mostly likely did). That’s going to be the style of music that he is going to perform because that is what is NATIVE to him. He is not out to “steal” rap away from blacks. I love rap, and I’m a white Jew. Does that make me a “wigger,” or perhaps “Jewigger”?
    Perhaps “enlightened” jerks like this reviewer should learn to stop seeing everything in black and white.

  5. dare i be one person here who thinks the article is really on point about a lot of pieces, including cultural appropriation of blackness in jewish communities–if you need only one reason why the argument about the hype of young jews being all about trendiness and hip, the underlying issue is just this–cultural appropriation. and it’s an important and necessary discussion to be having, and has a lot to do with internalized jewish oppression for sure–

  6. cole,
    are you saying that Jews who are “trendy and hip” are appropriating another culture? which?
    and are you saying that that young Jews’ desire to be trendy and hip is a result of their having internalized oppression of Jews?
    i just want to give you a chance to confirm/deny/explain those arguments before people go ballistic.

  7. the article is more or less irredeemable.
    blackface and minstrelsy in general involved pretending to be black, explicitly, for the purpose of entertainment, while making fun of and reinforcing white society’s stereotypes about black people.
    even elvis, the archetype of “cultural appropriation,” wasn’t doing that. bob frickin’ dylan certainly wasn’t doing that. and matisyahu — well, he’s just trying his hardest to pass himself off as jewish, with blackness (if you can really lump in caribbean patois with african-american stereotype) probably coming even more naturally.

  8. BH
    i’m sorry, mobius. i just don’t see how you can put “intelligent” and this article in the same sentence. rating it higher than sanneh’s bottom feeding crud doesn’t make it intelligent…
    rosen just doesn’t get it. i personally don’t care if it’s a positive review or a negative review of the music (which the article-it’s not a review-barely touches on). but the minstrel reference is rediculous, the cultural appropriation argument just plain stupid already, and this one goes so far to even say the cd isn’t jewish enough?
    quotes like this are just ignorant or lazy, i can’t tell which:
    “And yet, despite the copious “Hashems” and what is undoubtedly the first reference to “treyf wine” ever to appear on a Top 40 album, there is very little distinctly Jewish content on Youth. The only invocation of the idea of Jewish nationhood—Judaism’s organizing principle—comes in “Jerusalem,” a nonsensical riff on the Bible’s most beautiful poem of exile, the 137th Psalm.”
    i guess the references aren’t obvious enough for a secular jew? i don’t know; even though i’ve been a secular jew most of my life, three years davening with chabad and learning has expanded my knowledge, and my beard, quite a bit. but you and most who comment and lurk around here, those who like matis or not, know differently.
    and is the idea of our nationhood our organizing principle? or is it Torah? or is our organizing principle more complex than that?
    and that “bad for the jews” comment… what does rosen know what’s good or bad for the jews? seems to me, rosen thinks faith, tradition, and religion itself is bad for the jews.
    with matis’ popularity, we’re starting to see a great many varying opinions outside his original base about his music and his message. this had been coming and i believe it’s a good thing. debate is always healthy, no? unfortunately, some of us, myself included, gots to understand that most people sharing those opinions will be uninformed, ignorant, or promoting an already established agenda–good or bad. i don’t suggest ignoring, but i also don’t suggest letting this stuff slide. then again, perhaps by acting one can seem defensive. oh, what a bind.
    i’m feeling that i don’t even want to read anymore of the stuff. i’ll just enjoy the tunes. they can have their opinions. ain od milvado.
    love to all.

  9. Boruch,
    It wasn’t Mobius who posted the link, it was me. I think the essay is clearly more intelligent than Sanneh’s because Rosen is familiar with Jewish concepts. In his review, Sanneh was pretty clueless. I can’t imagine Sanneh knowing of the Baal Shem Tov, the terms Baal Teshuvah, Hashem, etc. Most Jews don’t even know what those words mean.
    Anyway, yes, it’s possible that Rosen is a secular Jew and is therefore approaching the material from a different perspective than yours. If that’s the case, you’re right, you shouldn’t read it and should just enjoy the music. But you’re also right that now that Matisyahu is popular, his music, lyrics and message (and even the message and tenets of Chabad itself) will be open to criticism — sometimes ignorant criticism, okay, but that’s the price of fame, etc. (sorry, I’m tired and can’t think of an appropriate platitude to end this on).

  10. BH
    ooops. sorry mobius. tired eyes…
    okay, ev, but being familiar with certain concepts or vernacular doesn’t imply intelligence. nor does “having a clue”. and i’m too tired as well to continue.
    may an easy sleep give you good rest.

  11. In the end, I think it can easily be said that black America took a ready analogy for their oppression, as illustrated in about a bazillion spirituals, from Hebrew scripture. This sort of cultural exchange happens all the time.
    Maybe the folks who are so damn fixated on “mine” and “yours” in the great cultural bazaar need to get over it, figure out who they are, and stop trying to find molds to fit everyone else (and themselves) into.
    I know I’m a lot happier when an artist fails to meet my expectations spot-on. Otherwise, why listen?

  12. I actually think that Sanneh has a lot of good points here which we ought take seriously and not feel defensive because Matisyahu is one of us, so to speak.
    I also think that in some of his more recent Times pieces on Matisyahu that he was spot on in a number of instances too – albeit also a snotbag. of all the ‘times music critics, i tend to like sanneh’s work best. his piece on pig champion from poison idea was terrific.
    what i appreciate about what sanneh is doing in these pieces is taking a legitimate political axe to his work – which does need proper and critical reflection. i’m glad Matisyahu’s doing well, but there are political problems with his work which you can criticize without being an ethnic essentialist – something that Sanneh’s criticisms suggest without going whole hog.
    i personally don’t like matisyahu’s work. the new record is positively awful, whereas the earlier CDs I got as promos weren’t all that bad. as a reggae singer, matis is interesting, but his band is a little too Wetlands – you don’t hear real reggae history in it, which is essential for the kinda artistic credibility he still needs.
    my vote next record – get rid of Bill Laswell , replace with Adrian Sherwood, and replace the backing band with Dub Trio.

  13. I actually think that Sanneh has a lot of good pointswhat i appreciate about what sanneh is doing in these pieces is taking a legitimate political axe to his work.
    Erm, that’s nice. Myself, I’m a Yankees fan. If you had some actual point to make besides flag-waving, suggest you make it.

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