Chabad’s very Own Messianic Rasta #6

The Jewish Week has an article about the racial controversy surrounding Matisyahu. I’ve made the point before that much of this idea that Matis is being singled out for approbation because he is white is foolish. He’s being singled out because, for the last 100 years, white artists have taken black artists’ songs and released them to white audiences – often without acknowledgment. For much of this time, these black artists were denied both public acclaim and money, while the Pat Boones of the world became rich and famous at their expense.

If Matisyahu were a more substantial act, and if Matis was generous to those black artists he mimics, perhaps things would be different – but Matisyahu is not generous in this regard, and his act is far from substantial.

This history is largely ignored by those who attack Matisyahu’s critics.

The Jewish Week quotes Murray Forman, a professor of communication studies at Northeastern University who has written extensively about reggae and hip-hop:

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. “There’s an industry alongside this that says this is where we’ll meet the largest audience and generate the greatest revenue. And I think it’s folly for anybody to overlook the industrial role here.”

As proof of sorts, Forman mentioned that the industry itself 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, became successful for appealing to a large white audience otherwise indifferent to hip-hop and went on to become one of the genre’s most esteemed musicians, regardless of skin color.

Given the recent ride he’s on, Matisyahu may be moving in that direction. But Forman is skeptical.

“Eminem is a superior rhyme artist, he’s a skilled producer, he can freestyle, and his style is quite literally unparalleled,” Forman said. “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. He is not a superior artist.”

And that is exactly the point I’ve been making all along.

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4 Comments

Filed under Chabad Theology, Matisyahu

4 responses to “Chabad’s very Own Messianic Rasta #6

  1. Mikhaelmeir

    Shmarya,
    I read the article in the Jewish Week and the NY Times critique of Matisyahu. Aside from owning and loving all the songs on “Legend”-Bob Marley’s greatest hits-I am not an afficianado of reggae-so I can’t make a qualified judgment of Matisyahu’s qualifications. I heard parts of a couple of his songs, and to my ignorant ears, he sounds like he has some skills, but nothing too special, and I could definitely do without his meshichist lyrics. Clearly he is enjoying a lot of success because he is a novelty-there are not too many halfway decent ultra-Orthodox reggae singers, and his star will wane. That said–I am against the notion that any white singer who sings in a “black” genre must be thought of as appropriating or stealing black culture. If they are good, what’s the problem? If an opera buff lamented that Leontyne Price, a talented soprano who happens to be African-American, was “stealing” white European culture and was merely a gimmick, they would be denounced as racist today. Ms. Price, and Marian Anderson before her, did face discrimination in their careers because they were black. Talking about cross-cultural mingling, look at the recent story of the black kid from Oakland, CA, who is a rising star in Chinese classical opera…

    http://tinyurl.com/pnwpf

    I haven’t heard of many Chinese kvetching that the blacks are “stealing” their culture–they see it as a compliment!

  2. Mikhaelmeir

    Before anyone objects to my comments that race shouldn’t matter in music..and brings up that so much of American pop music was appropriated from black inspired music and black artists who later found themselves on the skids while white performers and artists enjoyed success, I am aware of that. But I don’t think reggae stars have anything to fear from Matisyahu or the music industry’s promotion of him. And I have one friend, who is originally from Nevis in the Carribean who said she liked him–and wanted me to explain some of the Hebrew references. Go figure.

  3. “That said–I am against the notion that any white singer who sings in a “black” genre must be thought of as appropriating or stealing black culture. If they are good, what’s the problem?”

    The problem is as follows:

    1. The history, which you acknowledge.

    2. Until very recently, black musicians often lived in poverty while white musicians like PAt Boone got rich off their work. In other words, this was (and in some cases may still be) discrimination.

    3. Crediting those you steal from/mimic-learn from. The good guys do this. They also seek to find gigs for the their muse, perform with them, etc. The bad guys do not. So far, Matisyahu is in the wrong camp on this one.

    4. Matis very clearly is not good as you mean to define it. He’s a weak act. (He may grow to be better, but so far has gotten worse as his fame has grown.)

    “I don’t think reggae stars have anything to fear from Matisyahu or the music industry’s promotion of him.”

    The music industry uses Matisyahu the way it used Pat Boone 50 years ago. Pat Boone never made the black artists he “borrowed” from famous or wealthy. He did not grow the black end of the business. He enriched himself at the expense of others. And this was just fine with the music industry. The business puts lots of money behind Matisyahu because Chabad in effect assures them of getting lots of press and record sales. Chabad pimps Matisyahu and Matisyahu pimps Chabad.

  4. And the black Chinese opera star is 9 years old and attends a predominantly Chinese school where his Chinese teacher has been teaching all the kids Chinese opera. This case is in no way analagous to Matisyahu or to Pat Boone, for that matter.

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