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.