Consider that the integrated dance floor — where non-Jewish staff mix after hours — is moving to Otis Redding, The Contours, and other African American performers. We know – even if the young dancers don’t yet – that white performers will achieve far more financial and popular success with versions of the same music adapted for white audiences. In the main ballroom, the mambo and meringue are all the rage (topic for another day, perhaps.) And so, if we look more closely at the dance floors, we might notice the fine line between cultural sharing and cultural appropriation.
We know, too — from our vantage point in 2016 — that prominent among the promoters of black music will be Jews, sometimes recognized as supporting important black music and sometimes seen as using black music to support themselves. See, for example, varying views on the earlier history of Chess Records as well as later involvement of Jews in soul and other music genres.
Here is just one contemporary remark, illustrating a common viewpoint, from a website devoted to hip hop music:
And the sad truth is that rappers might be rich while they are hot, but Jews and other white men that own the labels (and thus own the music) continue to stay rich after the rappers have faded off the scene.
The Civil Rights movement did not address these dynamics. Focusing on marches and sit-ins of the 1960s does not give us a perspective that is wide or deep enough to help us consider the complicated history of Jews and Racial Justice.
A Deeper Layer
At least from the early 20th Century, mainstream, White press and popular sentiment railed against music considered too sexually explicit and encouraging of inappropriate behavior in its fans. The story was repeated with ragtime, blues, jazz, rock and roll, up through hip hop. At each stage, what White people performed on stage and did on the dance floor was eventually accepted, while “Black music” was continually viewed in many quarters as retaining some “jungle” element:
“Jazz. Here in Germany it become something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame – we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines.
“…we was officially degenerate.
“…And poor damn Jews, clubbed to a pulp in the streets, their shopfronts smashed up, their axes ripped from their hands. Hell. When that old ivory-tickler Volker Schramm denounced his manager Martin Miller as a false Aryan, we know Berlin wasn’t Berlin no more. It had been a damn savage decade.”
— Sid, Black musician narrator, in Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edyugan (NY: Picador, 2011), p.78-79
Half-Blood Blues is set in Germany, but the illustration of how Jews and Blacks were viewed in the 30s in Berlin has a parallel in U.S. history. As with many other groups of new immigrants to the U.S., Jews were once considered exotic, often hyper-sexualized degenerates. When the U.S. eagerly and legally classified people by race, Jews were non-White. The lynching of Robert Frank, a Jew accused of raping a “White” girl, in the early part of the 20th Century is part of that non-White Jewish history.
The view that Jews are involved in Jazz “on purpose,” while Blacks cannot help themselves, had parallels in the U.S. as well. Jews are occasionally still subject to this stereotyping in U.S. mainstream press and public opinion. It is all too common still, in 2016, in White Supremacist comments, including some from current candidates for office. But Black people in 1963 regularly faced this kind of stereotyping – still do in 2016 – and this has dangerous repercussions in everything from housing to education. It has particularly deadly ramifications in policing.
The related image of Black youth as part of a “thug life,” promoted by the hip hop industry, benefited and still benefits quite a few people outside black neighborhoods, non-Jews and Jews, who do not live with the consequences of that image in their daily lives.
Collis, John. The Story of Chess Records. NY: Bloomsbury, 1998. See also 4-part YouTube series called “The Chess Records Story”
Stratton, Jon. Jews, Race, and Popular Music. Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2009.
White, Miles. From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity. Univ. of Illinois Press, 2011.
Whitfield, Stephen J. American Space, Jewish Time: Essays in Modern Culture and Politics. North Haven, CT: Archon Books, 1988
and a few notes:
Half-Blood Blues stands on its own as literature and entertainment. It’s also a great opportunity to turn the neck, getting perspectives — from a black woman writer (from contemporary Canada) describing the lives of black musicians in Berlin in the 1930s — we might otherwise miss. This particular story also gives us a non-Jewish narrator, a Black man at risk for reasons unrelated to Jewish heritage, relating the rise of the Nazis from a vantage point we don’t often see.
The novel touches on the history of Rhineland Bastards. Learn more at USHMM, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website.