Chassidic reggae artists rise to stardom elicits controversy

new york | By this point Matisyahu, the Chassidic reggae artist, needs little introduction. His first album, “Live at Stubb’s,” has sold more than 500,000 copies. His second, “Youth,” released last week, 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 Kimmel’s late-night talk show.

But while most critics are united in praising his music, Matisyahu’s rise to fame 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 last week in a review of Matisyahu’s Manhattan concert written by the New York Times’ pop music critic, Kelefa Sanneh. The review, published on the front page of the paper’s Arts section, had little to say about Matisyahu’s music but plenty to discuss 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 (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 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,” 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 and if Sanneh would like, by extension, to exclude all of those artists from a relevant musical discussion, he’ll be excluding a good many who’ve made real contributions to the form.

“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, Weiss said in an interview, denies Jews the right to see themselves as an ethnicity, corralling them collectively into “whiteness.”

The claim of cultural appropriation, Weiss added, was particularly odd, given reggae’s traditional affiliation with the Rastafarian movement, which borrows heavily from Jewish imagery and whose followers believe themselves to be the true Israelites. And, he said, while Matisyahu 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 there’s borrowed imagery,” Weiss said. “But [Sanneh’s] acknowledgment that both [Matisyahu and reggae music] would be equally subject to a claim of co-option is absent.”

Sanneh, it turns out, isn’t alone in his critique of Matisyahu as something of a cultural thief. Writing in Slate this week, 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.

“While [Matisyahu’s] music is at best pedestrian, his minstrel routine may be the cleverest and most subtle yet,” Rosen continues. The singer’s “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 wouldn’t 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. 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 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.

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?

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.

“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 it’s the commonality between the Rastafari movement and Judaism, he has an interesting line. I don’t 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 reggae’s 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. “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.”