JewDan’s Manifesting

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My Dissertation Ideas for the Masses

This blog post is part of my dissertation ideas and the analysis. The dissertation analysis will cover the historical relationship between Jewish Americans and African Americans in popular American music. Were Jews responsible for the theft and exploitation of black artists? Or was the relationship more complicated, as shown by the past half-century of scholarship. In the past five decades scholars have written on this so-called relationship by chronicling its heights, such as with the labor unions, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Civil Rights Movement, to its fracturing due to black militancy, Islamic extremism, and Jewish disillusionment. Other scholars have written on the fiction of a cohesive relationship that never existed, or at least in the way it is portrayed. Historians like Hasia Diner, Paul Berman, Seth Forman, and Ethan Goffman have written on this myth over the decades in their works. According to the Jewish scholar Emily Miller Budick their works, along with Jeffrey Melnick’s study, are all part of the larger argument that, “Identification and the utilization of black cultural materials were less acts of Jewish commitment to the black cause than a way American Jews had of positioning themselves as white Americans within a racist and potentially anti-Semitic social structure.”[1] This is not the entire story because Jewish immigrants to the United States had their past severed by these scholars. European Jews constantly faced violence and oppression due to their beliefs. It would take centuries for them to attain emancipation from the ghettos, but the next challenge would be assimilation. European Jews have always adapted their country’s culture, so much so that most of the Jews who perished in the Holocaust were not observant. Once the great waves immigrated to the United States they naturally continued the process of assimilation. These scholars also do not state the fact that European Jewish immigrants had a long tradition of music through liturgy, one example being Mark Slobin’s book Tenement Songs, and other religious observances and celebrations, not to mention that the Eastern European Ashkenazim and the Middle Eastern and North African Sephardim have very distinct differences with regards to tunes, melodies, and music making. The story of the Jews in music, as well as their relationship with black artists, is far more complicated and rich.

 

These Jewish immigrants, and their children, had very little encounters with African Americans before the 20th Century. Once they both arrived at the urban centers of the United States due to the immigration rates and the great migration from the south, they began to encounter each other. They worked with each other and though Jews began to gain more power by positioning themselves as owners, they still were not the settled Christians of the nation. Due to their history in Europe there was a sense of anxiety, which in certain sections remains to this day, so they felt far more dutiful to assimilate. Scholars have asked why so many Jewish personalities have been part of the music industry, especially when working with black artists? Jonathan Karp argues that certain Jews could immerse themselves in blackness while remaining distant to its true implications. He writes that, “Jews attracted to the black mystique may have sought escape from their own ethnic heritage through immersion in the culture of a hipper “other,” but such empathy did not mean sharing in any debilitating anxieties that blacks may have felt over their capacity to succeed in business.”[2] These individuals he calls “non-Jewish Jews” or “Jewish white negroes” were mostly the businessmen of the 1950’s and 1960’s. By the 1960’s and 1970’s many Jews became visible artists, yet they shared the same interests in black music promoting the electric blues genre, as argued by Jon Stratton in his work Jews, Race and Popular Music. This sentiment changed, but the equation would remain for the next great music genre, rap music.

The wage of whiteness is important to mention because these Jews were still considered white, yet some felt far more akin with blacks. This kinship is complicated because Jews are white therefore they have more power than blacks in the industry, which was built on illegality and racism. This issue is important with regards to the relationships being called exploitative or one sided. This is the case in certain examples, but it wasn’t the norm. By the decade of the 1950’s and 1960’s the Civil Rights Movement, and later the Black Power Movement, African Americans were becoming far more empowered than in the past. They had more control over their destinies, yet the music business remained racially hierarchical. By the decade of the 1970’s a new art form began to take hold first in New York City, and later in the tri-state area, and globally in the present. Hip Hop is the newest musical form created by blacks, as well as Hispanics, and the dynamic remains. Just like the independent record labels of the 1950’s, which were overwhelmingly almost all owned by Jews, and mentioned in Karp’s article and by other writers like Jon Stratton and Michael Billig, the same story occurred with the early years of rap music. Rap music saw the rise of many Jewish personalities, and the best example of this literature is by Dan Charnas, who have helped it in its infancy to become the global phenomenon it is today. But unlike the past African American artists, as well as producers, label owners, radio personalities, and promoters, were far more empowered than in the past. This has sparked some controversy with rappers openly chiding Jewish ownership. However, the relationship between Jews and blacks in Hip-Hop is far stronger today than ever before. This bond helped create American popular culture, and remains fixed in most of our imaginations.

[1] Budick, Emily Miller. “A…..

[2] Karp, Jonathan.

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