As you may have heard, hip hop magazine XXL put up a blog post ranking members of the hip hop community with numbers of stars of David per their Jewish street cred. Some regrettable stereotypes find their way into the article (pickles, money, business skills), but I interpreted it as a tongue-in-cheek rundown of the visibility of Judaism in the hip hop world lately (what with Drake, Russell Simmons’ PSA, and all that jazz).
Others didn’t find it quite so funny. Carly Silver over at New Voices, a magazine for young Jews, got pretty upset about this (h/t Emma Morgenstern), worrying over XXL‘s use of stars of David as rankings, saying that they’re holy symbols (huh?) and believing that this ranking implies that the magazine is worrying about the role of Jews in hip hop.
I’m not trying to downplay tensions between African-Americans and Jews, and the fact that hip hop has historically been a site of tension and negotiation between black people and white people at times. And I’m not trying to downplay the fact that many Jews are sensitive to their historical status as an endangered minority. But let’s take a step back.
First, despite the fact that Silver interprets XXL‘s ascription of Jewishness to certain hip-hip figures as a sign that the magazine doesn’t think they have street cred, Jewishness has long been a way for white people to be more accepted in African-American musical communities. While Ashkenazi Jews are firmly in the “white” column of America’s racial binary today, this only became true 50-60 years ago–much later than other ethnic groups that we would commonly consider white. Before that, Jews were for the most part considered nonwhite or “not-quite-white.” Because of this, Jews generally had an easier time negotiating African-American musical styles, primarily jazz at that point (or musical styles that played on the most pernicious stereotypes of African-Americans, such as blackface).
While Ashkenazi Jews are no longer considered nonwhite in the same way, this engagement with African-American music hasn’t stopped, and many of the social interactions are similar. Rick Rubin and the Beastie Boys, for example, were given a degree of credibility within the early hip hop community in NYC partly because they were Jewish–not the same degree of credibility that black artists had, but more than non-Jewish white artists (or producers, in Rubin’s case).
In a musical culture that’s widely discussed as “black,” Jewish people–and white people more generally–stick out and are considered novelties (despite the fact that “white” people, especially Jews, have been involved with “black” music since the age of minstrel shows, generally on the business end, sometimes respectfully and fairly and oftentimes not).
While I can’t say that XXL‘s commentary was the most tastefully-done article I’ve ever seen, it doesn’t surprise me that the recent high visibility of Jews in hip hop was considered interesting to write about. And I wouldn’t worry too much about the stereotypes. While they’re slightly tacky, they’re pretty consistent with the way a lot of publications do rankings and lists. A lil’ bit racist/(hetero)sexist/classist across the board? Yeah, probably. Specifically anti-Semitic? Probably not.