JewBlackFace..A Blast From the Past


Jews in the United States have dominated the music scene since the turn of the 20th Century. However, the early pioneers of American music not only delved into their past musical traditions  (and when I speak of Jews I speak of the rise in Cantorial records being made, along with other folk songs from Eastern Europe and beyond……This being one example..),

This is a rendition of V’shamru, which is the prayer beckoning the Sabbath/Shabbat to come in all its beautiful glory. As you can hear, the recording is minimal where the full richness of his voice, along with the organ, punctures the very soul.

they also delved in African-American culture. While doing this, as arguably certain Jewish rappers do today, they picked up these pre-conceived notions, as well as stereotypes, of black cadences, vernacular, and all around behaviors. Jews also wanted to legitimize themselves in order to blend in with the culture. However, in this rigidly defined land of race and racism, Jews at first were lumped in as racially black. Like the Nazi regime’s ideologies, and the growing tenor of the biological and racial aspects of anti-Semitism, the United States looked at them first as black.

This meant that Jews were placed in the same geographic locations as other undesirables like blacks, but also Italians, and the Irish. However, unlike the Italians and the Irish, Jews have had a far more fraught and ambiguous life in Europe. Once coming to the shores they tried something new, and this was the true beginning of the Jewish musical synthesis. Many notable artists, and performers donned the racialized guise of the burnt cork. The minstrel shows were dying down by the turn of the century, but Jews brought it back in a while new way.

One of the best representations, and one I recently came across, is a piece by Al Jolson. Jolson, is interesting as he grew up in a religious household, only to shun it for show business. Also, being the son of a Cantor, as was depicted in the semi-autobiographical movie The Jazz Singer, Jolson chose the stage over the Bimah (The Jewish equivalence of singing at the pulpit). This interesting segment shows how deeply ingrained his performance was with his use of black face.

To the modern viewer, this is a repulsively racialized representation of the simple pastoral scene for a simple black man. The dark face, torn and loose-fitting overalls, the nappy hair, and the location all tried to convey a simple past, which was far in stark contrast to the reality. However, this performance is very telling in how he tries to imitate, and even emulate this mysterious music. Many scholars, and theorists, as well as the politically correct find this abhorring and highly insensitive. If we side step all their baggage, it could also be said that this was Jolson’s form of flattery. He is trying his best to combine his Jewish musical sensibilities with this untapped treasure, which was black music. No matter the case, this is a great representation of a Jolson act in all its live authenticity.

George Gershwin, the amazingly talented pianist and composer, is another example of this Jewish and black fusion. His most ambitious, as well as category defying, opera was Porgy and Bess. In 1926 George Gershwin read the book Porgy, which is the basis of the opera, by DuBose Heyward, who was a native of Charleston, South Carolina. Gershwin was highly enthusiastic about doing the opera, as well as pumping it full of new innovations he had not used before. In the summer of 1934 Gershwin came down to South Carolina where he and Heyward stayed at Folly Beach, which is a small island near Charleston. Gershwin’s time in that locale was mind-changing as he soaked up the climate, and its amazing music. By living in this environment Gershwin began to write out his masterpiece. Porgy and Bess was revolutionary in its complexity, and the tale is gut wrenching. However, the use of what he perceived to be the black vernacular enhanced that southern feeling. You could feel the hot sun in the tune “Summertime” as the beads of sweat drip down the body.

This is another great synthesis of Jewish black music. Some see this as exploitation, racism, and any other negative connotation. But, some see this as a progression of a new direction in creativity. It is also telling how using these racial overtones could be the highest form of, a perceived (?), compliment.

Moving down the line and closer to the present we can see many Jews doing the same. Jewish rappers take the same cue by using this art form, in this case rap music, and transforming it into their own. Artists from the highest plains of fame, like Drake, to the underground like Edan, El-P, and Action Bronson are walking in the footsteps of Jolson, Gershwin, and the rest of the pack.

Drake is a perfect example, and his video for “HYFR” with Lil’ Wayne, shows both sides of this coin. Drake, who is half black and half Jewish, identifies with both. Therefore, he used both images and combining them into one Jewish/Black Bar Mitzvah…

He incorporates the celebration of a Jewish Bar Mitzvah, which is a right of passage ceremony for twelve-year-old girls, and thirteen-year-old boys. It is filled with the usual gawking relatives, old bubies, uncle Moishe, and his best friend Josh. The party is also laced with black people who are partying in their delight, while a panda masked Wayne represents this side of the aisle. Drake is also showing how these Jewish images, and other words and phrases, are becoming rather ubiquitous.

Again, this is another natural progression where Jews synthesized the music they knew with the music they love.


#AlJolson #GeorgeGershwin #Drake #El-P #ActionBronson #Edan


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