Yikes: Amy Winehouse raps about being Jewish

You guys, I love Amy Winehouse, I love Judaism, and I love rap…but this makes me cry a little inside.

Tablet‘s description:

More saliently, it includes the following flow from Ms. Winehouse: “Oh, snap, I never knew, I never knew that, well, I’m a Jew/Well a Jew makin’/Anyway, if you can smoke bacon/Then I reckon that, um…”—at which point she changes the subject to the drumming prowess of her friend Zalon. If we’re following the logic correctly, what should fill in the lacuna at the end of that line is that, if you can smoke bacon, you can smoke crack. And if you’re a Jew who smokes bacon—really, what can’t you smoke?

On the upside, the guy playing drums and singing (Zalon?) is actually pretty good.

Wednesday links

  • The Source highlights DMC’s work as a role model, covering a recent NYC panel on encouraging schoolkids to explore careers in the arts.
  • The always delightfully kooky Devendra Banhart discusses aleatoric music, his elderliness, selling out, alcoholic suppositories, falling in love with Natalie Portman, harmonium orchestras, and much more (and also makes some incredibly insightful comments about the incestuous relationships between indie and major labels–credibly defending his statement that to go with a major is actually the new anti-establishment) over at Pitchfork.
  • The NYT profiles the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.  Need I say more?
  • Scientific American gives us another sort of silly attempt to impose science upon music.  The only thing that’s good for is acoustics in my opinion.  Anyway, if you’re interested, check it out.


Like Jewish hip hop, Muslim punk or “taqwacore” is about finding one’s place at the intersection of a global religion and a nation-state in which that religion is in the minority.  I’ve heard of taqwacore a few times before, but it seems to be getting more buzz lately and I thought it was worth a shout-out.

Taqwacore as such is the brainchild of a guy called Michael Muhammad Knight, a convert to Islam who became disillusioned with his faith and, in 2003, published a novel called The Taqwacores in which a bunch of Muslim kids who feel like they don’t fit in anywhere else move into a house together and do their own thing.  (Basically just like parts of West Philly, but plus Islam and probably more fun…anyway.)

The novel inspired a full-fledged genre of Muslim punk music, which is becoming more and more successful all the time; most of the music deals with issues of concern to American Muslims and generally sounds like regular punk music with a few nods to Arab influence here and there.  The musicians conceive of themselves as

stoking the revolution – against traditionalists in their own communities and against the clichés forced upon them from the outside – “we’re giving the finger to both sides,” says one Taqwacore. “Fuck you and fuck you.”

Here’s a review of an Al-Thawra concert earlier this year. As an aside that should be developed further at some point, I think it’s pretty interesting that this is (to my knowledge) the only music scene that has grown almost entirely out of an imaginary group of music-makers in a fictional work.  It’s almost too pomo to be happening in real life.

Unlike Jewish hip hop (which is the topic of my current research hence my constant reference to it), which tries very hard to contextualize itself within and connect itself to both mainstream American society and to the larger Jewish diaspora, taqwacore seems to be more about individual identity–more about asserting oneself against the larger Muslim and American communities.  (Not that there aren’t elements of both in each style.)  I don’t always like the strident individualism in the punk ethos, but I think in this case it can be really valuable for members of a community who are often seen by other Americans, and by the media, as monolithic, dogmatic and obedient (especially women).

Taqwacores don’t unproblematically identify as Muslim; they have many different views on the practice of Islam, on American culture, on music, and how they deal with all of the above and more.  They’re also really savvy about speaking for themselves–check out the Taqwacore Webzine–and seem to be making room for themselves and their unique take on American Muslim identity.  Perhaps their paradoxical “shared sense of isolation” will be the tension driving a new way of thinking about Islam in the American public sphere.  We can hope, right?

The pitfalls of gospel tourism

Fiqah over at Racialicious and Possum Stew has an extensive, fascinating and much-needed take-down of Harlem gospel tours, from a personal perspective.

As you may know, there are plenty of African-American, largely Baptist, churches in Harlem which are well-known for their excellent (primarily gospel) music.  It’s not necessary to be a believer to appreciate the talent and incredible sound, and Fiqah herself describes how she’s not religious, but rather goes to church with a friend occasionally just to appreciate the music.  This doesn’t seem at all problematic to me; a few people going occasionally, behaving respectfully toward church community members, and appreciating good music can only be positive.

However, to make money, some churches have opened up to “gospel tours,” which essentially means white Americans and European and Asian tourists paying money to come in and hear the music.  But Fiqah describes some downright disrespectful behavior: nonstop talking, cell phone conversations, and worst of all, acting like the service and the music were spectacles to be gawked at instead of human beings making some good sounds in the service of their beliefs.

When people’s experiences on these tours have been written up, it sounds uncomfortably like old-school ethnomusicology (read: “I went to a faraway place with strange brown-skinned natives and listened to their crazy music.  They are so sensual and primitive!”):

I meet Tim Rawlins at the Memorial Baptist church choir practise. He’s rare proof of the fact that white men can sing gospel. He says I’ve got to surrender to the music – feel it – and forget I’m English.

Tim: “What I like about gospel music, is that it breaks from that old European tradition which separates intellect and reason from feeling and really in Gospel music you feel with great thought and you think with great feeling…”

That probably means loosening up physically too. When the elderly women start to practice I find myself entranced watching the soloist, Lonnie Gray. She’s 77 years old but she’s out there, her face enraptured, her hips swaying, moving with the rhythm – feeling it.

Please, spare me.

The takeaway: respectfully appreciating, enjoying, potentially participating in, learning about music of other communities, and hopefully thereby building relationships across communities = good.  Fetishizing those communities and reinforcing existing problematic power structures = emphatically not good.

Ethnomusicology has largely moved on from this approach; maybe we need to be doing more as a discipline to help educate mainstream society on respectful, egalitarian ways to learn about musical communities.

Quick hit: Jay-Z teaches Oprah how to rap

Click through to see this amusing interaction on Jezebel.

I find Oprah’s awkwardness extremely interesting–here is a woman who has the self-confidence to appear on national TV almost daily and is the face of a multibillion-dollar media empire; who speaks publicly about weight and health issues; and in general seems pretty okay with herself.  But here she is, quietly freaking out about rapping.

It’s fairly well-established within hip hop studies that many baby boomer middle-class or wealthy African Americans tend to have negative opinions of hip hop, viewing it as trashy and aesthetically unappealing in comparison to R&B, jazz, Motown, etc.

So, I can’t help but wonder if Oprah, who is probably America’s most famous member of that demographic group, was so uncomfortable because of some age/class baggage vis-à-vis hip hop going on.

Tuesday links: L’shanah tovah!

This week, more from the Times–an uplifting story for Rosh Hashanah and another article about World War Two music.

Rush vs. Jay-Z: Is talk radio gangsta rap for angry white men?

David Segal has an interesting breakdown in yesterday’s New York Times comparing right-wing talk show hosts to rappers, especially gangsta rappers.  He admits that both groups would probably not be happy to be compared to the other, and I agree, but I still think he has a point.

Segal argues that four key things are necessary for success in both fields: an enormous ego that you’re not shy about discussing; haters; feuds with others in your field; and verbal skills, especially an ability for improvisation and free-association.  This is true, but not the most profound analysis–yet.

Segal then describes how rap can be among the most politically conservative of genres: that it “exalts capitalism and entrepreneurship with a brio that is typically considered Republican.”  And so do Rush, Glenn Beck, et al.

Rap loves the Second Amendment; right-wing talk radio fans are probably the kind of people who made gun sales spike right after the 2008 elections.

Both rap and talk radio regularly assert that criminals cannot be reformed–but “gangsta rappers often identify themselves as the criminals, and are proud of their unreformability.”


Finally, rappers and conservative talkers both speak for a demographic that believes its interests and problems have been slighted and both offer stories that have allegedly been ignored.

Obviously, there are limits to all these parallels, but there is one more worth noting: rap has inspired its share of fear and now, liberals and moderates are asking the same question about conservative talk radio that conservatives have long asked about rap: How dangerous is it?

Interestingly (with respect to the first paragraph of the quote) rap was often referred to as “black TV” in its early days for its timeliness and opinionated, sometimes paranoid take on current events.  Anyway, I will admit that I am much more scared of Glenn Beck’s followers than those who listen to Ludacris (notwithstanding the fact that I’m in the latter category), but perhaps that’s just the socialist-health-care-loving left-winger in me talking.

Anyway, I think that overall Segal’s right on here.  I would have been interested in a little more gender analysis, though.  It is well-documented that gangsta rap is (at least partially) about working out a very specific kind of masculinity in the face of oppression or perceived oppression–a tough, heterosexual, homophobic, muscular, violent, self-sufficient masculinity.

This has not been as studied in the case of right-wing talk radio, but anecdotally, it seems to serve the same purpose for angry white men.  In fact, Rush Limbaugh is well-known for tasteless rape jokes, Glenn Beck has made misogynistic remarks about women’s looks and a host of other things, and Michael Savage has stated that “any heterosexual woman today over the age of 25 who grew up in America is basically a dominatrix.  You ask any heterosexual guy” as well as making some nasty transphobic comments.  (Note, I find it interesting that Ann Coulter, who doesn’t have a talk show but who is a public figure who says a lot of similar things, is often characterized as “mannish.”  Perhaps we are picking up on this gender work going on in right-wing media, albeit in a sexist way.)

And this doesn’t take into account the xenophobia, pro-gun and pro-war positions, and other macho and bigoted things that come out of these guys’ mouths.  They are constructing a notion of white American masculinity that is even more unappealing than gangsta rap’s portrait of black American masculinity.  Men can do better!

Tuesday links

What I’ve been listening to lately, old-school edition

Over the past couple weeks I undertook the extremely dull and time-intensive task of uploading all 6,000 (!) of my photos to Picasa.  I had no choice because I wanted to install Snow Leopard (the new Mac OS) and it required a lot more room than I had on my hard drive, so I decided to transfer and then delete all my photos.

To make a long and boring story short, looking at all the old photos brought back a lot of memories.  I have a ton of pictures from summer 2006, the summer between high school and college, involving lots of hijinks with all my Tosa friends, and looking at the photos brought back especially intense sound memories (as we spent a lot of time rollin’ in the family Honda Accord listening to music).

With no further ado, the soundtrack of summer 2006 as filtered through senior-year-of-college nostalgia:

1) Beck, “Qué Onda Guero” from Guero. What a great album.  Not incidentally, the Marcel Dzama cover art inspired my subsequent purchase of my famous sad-ghost salt and pepper shakers.

2) James Brown, “Make It Funky (Pt. 1)” Allow me to write out certain key lyrics:

“What you gonna play now?”

“Bobby, I don’t know.  But what’s ever I play, it’s got to be FUNKY.  One.  Two.  Three.  Make it funky!”


Neckbone.  Candied yams!  Turnips.  Spud steak.  Spud steak!  Grits and gravy.

3) Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins, “You Are What You Love” and “Handle With Care.” The entire album, Rabbit Fur Coat, is fantastic, so listen to it in full.

4) Gnarls Barkley, “The Last Time”

5) Shakira, “Hips Don’t Lie.” Because really, what else was on the radio that summer?

6) Miss B, “Bottle Action.” I don’t fight, I don’t argue, I just hit that bitch with a bottle.  Eastside eastside till we die.

7) Elton John, “Bennie and the Jets”

8 ) Etta James, “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.” I actually prefer “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield,” but I couldn’t find a good video clip.  But look it up if you have a minute.  You can’t really go wrong with Etta, so I didn’t think you all would mind the substitution.

Should Jay-Z be a relationship role model for the black community?

Jozen Cummings over at The Root argues that, now that Jay-Z is tied with Barack for the coolest, most influential married African-American man, he should use that power to encourage young black men to put a ring on it.

I’m skeptical of the research Cummings cites, not in terms of methodology but in terms of agenda and what’s really driving the “marriage crisis” for black women.  I agree that it’s hugely problematic if someone can’t have the relationship status they want just because they belong to a certain demographic group or–heaven forbid!–are incredibly successful.  And I hope this doesn’t showcase how some women, unfortunately, still have to choose between personal success and familial success.

But read further.  According to the article, most people commit to others with similar levels of education.  One of the reasons that successful black women might not be finding black men to marry, then, is because fewer black men than women go on to higher education.  This is the real problem.

Jay-Z is hugely influential–Cummings mentions that

[Jay-Z] still has the ability to write the kind of rhymes young people follow as though they are gospel.  On his 2004 album The Black Album, Jay-Z rapped, “I don’t wear jerseys/I’m 30-plus/give me a crisp pair of jeans/[expletive] button up,” every guy ditched their throwback basketball jerseys in favor of button-up dress shirts.

Okay, fine.  But this doesn’t work so well:

When it comes to the marriage discussion, black men need to get involved. Black women are already on board. This week one of them will probably buy one of the two books written by Harvey or Hill or read another article in Essence about what they need to do to make a man happy. Meanwhile, by this time next week Jay-Z will probably have the No. 1 album in the country and a big reason will be because young black men everywhere listen to what he has to say and live vicariously through his lyrics.

The way Cummings paints unmarried successful black women as desperate is really unflattering, unfeminist and undignified.  The solution to the situation is not to make black men decide that marriage is cool and snap up desperate successful black women on a whim.  The solution is to encourage black men–perhaps using Jay-Z’s formidable powers of persuasion–to be similarly successful.

Just putting a ring on it won’t solve anything.  But if successful African-American women and men can find equals to date and marry–if they so choose, let’s not advocate marriage as a universal necessity here–because everyone in the community has access to education and is getting pop-culture messages encouraging success and working hard, then that would go a long way toward solving the problems Cummings laments.

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