Farrakhan may not like it but Jews and black people have a great musical past

Despite some who spread poison, when it comes to music the relationship is deep and wide


WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 16: Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan delivers a speech and talks about U.S. President Donald Trump, at the Watergate Hotel, on November 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. This is the first time that Minister Farrakhan will speak directly to the 45th President of the United States and will address "issues of importance regarding Americas domestic challenges, her place on the world stage and her future." (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

July 30, 2020 09:10

Of all of rapper Wiley’s grotesque outpourings on Twitter, one message leaps out.

Amid his lies about the extent of Jewish involvement in the slave trade, and his Nazi-esque adoption of ideas around Jewish power, the troubled 41-year-old tweeted a reference to the song Strange Fruit.

That iconic track was first recorded by the brilliant black jazz singer Billie Holiday in 1939.

The song compared the victims of lynchings to fallen fruit — and there have been few songs that better exposed the racism directed at the black population of the southern US around the turn of the 20th century.

It is doubtful that Wiley was aware of the roots of a song that became an inspiration for the emerging black civil rights movement: Strange Fruit was written by Abel Meeropol, a teacher, songwriter — and American Jew.

The story behind this great song is symbolic of the complicated, interlinked, and sometimes conflicting relationship between Jews and black people in the music industry.

Three years ago, John Woolf, a Jewish boy from Holland Park, west London, spoke to the JC and explained how he had ended up managing Wiley for the past decade.

Recalling their first meeting, the manager said he instructed Wiley not to rush into any decisions. “It was about management being like a marriage, and why you shouldn’t just jump into things,” said Woolf.

“But Wiley was like ‘no, you’re Jewish, my mum told me I need a Jewish manager’ and suddenly we were head-first into things and working together.”

It is an undeniable truth that Jewish managers, record label owners and producers have played a tremendous role in the shaping of the music industry — and that black music and black artists have been the reason why much of this had been possible.

Cleveland State University Professor Charles Hersch’s book Jews and Jazz: Improvising Ethnicity (Routledge) described this “fraught relationship” during the jazz boom of the 1930s and 40s. The jazz producer Norman Grantz  “lost millions of dollars because he wanted to take a group of jazz musicians on tours, and southern venues wouldn’t let him take black musicians — and they wanted to segregate audiences.” Meanwhile the great Benny Goodman was “appalled by some of the injustices of keeping blacks out of certain bands”.

But Hersch also detailed how: “There was always a tension there. Sure, there were Jews who took advantage of black musicians. But they loved the music, and helped spread it.”

For Wiley, his career as one of the biggest names in the grime scene is not what it once was. Over the past couple of years he has been eclipsed by the phenomenal success in the UK of artists such as Stormzy and AJ Tracey.

There were also widely reported rumours about his mental health — but nothing that comes close to excusing his actions towards the Jewish community over the past week.

Instead, we should recognise how Wiley has now joined a long list of black artists who have been lured by the crackpot ideas of American black nationalist leader Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam organisation.

It was Farrakhan — whom Wiley follows on social media — who once said: “The Jews don’t like Farrakhan, so they call me Hitler. Well, that’s a good name. Hitler was a very great man.”

In a speech at the Mosque Maryam, Chicago, in March 1995, he said: “German Jews financed Hitler right here in America...International bankers financed Hitler and poor Jews died while big Jews were at the root of what you call the Holocaust.”

And in hip hop — the musical genre that has been one of the greatest influences on the grime scene that Wiley helped launch —  Farrakhan’s name and speeches have featured in the recordings of a stack of artists, including Public Enemy in the late 1980s and an album released this March by the rapper Jay Electronica.

In 2011, the JC asked why there was no outcry from Jews in the industry over a stream of rap records — including a track by duo Clipse — which referred to Jews as “tightwad”.

The influence of Farrakhan’s warped ideology on a minority of black music artists should not be underestimated.

Seeking to explain the underachievements of black people in some areas of society, he has sought not to provide a critique of structural racism, but has instead sought to point the finger — particularly at Jews.

Farrakhan’s followers will leap on the examples — and they are there — of Jewish music managers who have behaved badly in the past to justify their racist ideology.

But they will ignore similar examples of black artists being treated badly by black managers — for example, singer Beyoncé being ripped off by her own manager-father.

As a community we should be proud, rather than embarrassed, about Jewish success in the music industry.

July 30, 2020 09:10

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