Chasidic reggae artist Matisyahu raises questions about cultural race and music.July 3, 2009
The New York Jewish Week
By this point, Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae artist, needs little introduction. His first album, “Live at Stubb’s,” sold more than 500,000 copies. His second, “Youth,” topped online music vendor iTunes’ album chart within a week of its release. His lanky figure - black hat, beard and all - has appeared everywhere from Rolling Stone to the staid Wall Street Journal to Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night talk show.
But while his music has been widely praised, Matisyahu himself raises a complex tangle of questions about race, religion and cultural appropriation, bringing these topics to the forefront in a way few other American artists - Elvis and Eminem come to mind - have done.
These issues were brought to the foreground in a review of a concert Matisyahu gave in Manhattan that was written by The New York Times pop music critic, Kelefa Sanneh. The review had little to say about Matisyahu’s music but plenty about his race.
“Matisyahu’s 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 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 Sanneh’s review as a “hackneyed, disingenuous, and self-contradicting series of assessments about religion, race, and culture.”
“What takes [Sanneh’s] essay from the disrespectful and disingenuous into the absurd,” Mr. Weiss wrote, “is Sanneh’s 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.
“But Sanneh doesn’t bring other white artists into the discussion, and it’s reasonable to wonder why. It’s 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, Mr. Weiss said in an interview to The Jewish Week, denies Jews the right to see themselves as an ethnicity, corralling them collectively into “whiteness.”
The claim of cultural appropriation, Mr. Weiss added, was particularly odd, given reggae’s 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.
But it turns out that Sanneh is not alone in his critique of Matisyahu as something of a cultural thief. Writing in Slate, the online journal’s 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,” Ms. Rosen wrote.
Murray Forman is a professor of communication studies at Northeastern University who has written extensively about reggae and hip-hop. Said Mr. Forman, “I sense that sometimes there are claims of racial essentialism that are somehow going to trump other forms of identity status. We’re always grappling with authenticity. Rather than isolate the debate solely in terms of racial dynamics, I’d take it to the question of reggae, and ask, ‘Is it legitimate or authentic in that context?’”
As an example, Mr. Forman mentioned Snow, an Irish-Canadian reggae musician who came from a working-class background, living and working mainly with Jamaicans. Another example is Sinead O’Connor, the Irish singer whose album of reggae classics, “Throw Down Your Arms,” was produced by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, reggae’s most prolific production team, and recorded in Jamaica with leading reggae studio musicians.
“As Matisyahu comes from the Chasidic perspective,” said Mr. Forman, “O’Connor carries her well-known Catholicism into the mix.”
What, then, determines the boundaries of appropriation? What measures must be used to ascertain an artist’s “right” to work in a cultural tradition associated with another religion or race?
Mr. Forman’s formulation is simple. The main principle, he said, should be that “you owe it to the culture,” stressing not an artist’s 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, Matisyahu’s connection may just be his religious beliefs and its thematic ties to Rastafarianism.
Matisyahu himself has claimed something similar when, in an 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 reggae’s recurring references to Jewish symbols that first attracted him to the genre.
Mr. Forman said that 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.
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.
As proof, Mr. Forman mentioned that the industry itself has refrained from labeling Matisyahu’s 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 Billboard’s 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, and became successful for appealing to a large white audience otherwise indifferent to hip-hop. He went on to become one of the genre’s most esteemed musicians, regardless of skin color.
Matisyahu may be moving in that direction. But Mr. Forman is skeptical.
Comparing the two artists, Mr. Forman said that “Eminem is a superior rhyme artist and a he’s a skilled producer. He’s much better than Matisyahu is in his respective category.
“Matisyahu will never be at the top of the reggae skill chart. He’ll never trump even half of the artists we haven’t even heard of,” said Mr. Forman.