NYT with two nice pieces on culture and entertainment

Two really excellent and thoughtful reviews in the NYT today. The new TV show Black. White. and a performance by Hasidic rapper Matisyahu. Both articles are insightful and funny and deal with entertainment and culture and race. Read the excerpts below for most (but not all) of the good stuff.

Black. White. is a show where two families (one black, one white) are made up and go out into the world as white and black, respectively. And there the hilarity er um I mean cultural insights ensue.

If reality television can be said to be about anything at all, it seems to be about impersonation and the odd and increasingly tenacious hold it has on the American psyche. The crooked-nosed are made over and play the genetically good-looking. Heiresses get out of their $200,000 sports cars and enact the habits of the agriculturally inclined. A vegan mother from Boulder trades houses with an evangelical wife in Mobile, is encouraged to care about scripture and breakfast sausage, and essentially tries to pass.

Reality television, as we know it, in fact, could exist only in a culture infatuated with passing – a world where white suburban boys dress to look more like Nelly and Punjabi girls from Queens wear blue contact lenses to link them closer in appearance to someone who might trace her lineage four generations in Laguna
The problem with “Black.White.” is the extent to which it inadvertently supports the foundations of Bruno’s reasoning, searching for examples of racial discrimination, as it does, almost entirely within the world of the consumer marketplace. The participants are too often sent out to stores to take the measure of race relations in America. “Black. White.” would have felt far more substantive had it sent Brian and Bruno, in their racial guises, out on a mission to procure high-end medical care or mortgages, say, rather than trousers and shoes.

When Rose and her mother, as black women, go out with an African-American friend, all pretending to look for jobs, they do so not in the offices of a small insurance company but in clothing stores in a swanky shopping district on the West Side of Los Angeles. The women are told that managers are absent or applications not in stock. (Leaving aside the possibility, however remote, that the responses were honest ones, it might have been faintly interesting then had the producers sent Carmen and Rose, as themselves, out to look for jobs in hair extension salons in Compton.) At any rate, the suggestion you’re left with – one similar to a point made some years ago in a controversial essay by Patricia Williams, an African-American law professor – is that the worst injustice a black person can suffer is to be denied the best treatment at department stores or the chance to sell expensive jeans in Santa Monica.

I thought Hasids doing “black” music were a joke (Rapping Rabbis) as old as Night Court (and we’re talking fifth season of Night Court lame), but there’s a big NYC/Brooklyn Jewish hipster thing going on and reggae singer Matisyahu is increasingly hot (and presumably not as hip at the same time). But no one ever talks about the rapper Curly Oxide (profiled a while back on This American Life).

The record is dull, and the concert was often worse.

Still, once you hear Matisyahu’s music, you may wonder why someone didn’t think of this sooner. The plaintive, minor-key melodies of reggae aren’t so far removed from the melodies Matisyahu would have heard, and sung, when he attended the Carlebach Shul, on the Upper West Side. And the imagery of Rastafarianism borrows heavily from Jewish tradition: Matisyahu is by no means the first reggae star to sing of Mount Zion, although he might be the first one who has had a chance to go there.

Matisyahu’s black hat also helps obscure something that might otherwise be more obvious: his race. He is a student of the Chabad-Lubavitch philosophy, but he is also a white reggae singer with an all-white band, playing (on Monday night, anyway) to an almost all-white crowd. Yet he has mainly avoided thorny questions about cultural appropriation. He looks like an anomaly, but if you think of him as a white pop star drawing from a black musical tradition, then he may seem like a more familiar figure.

Perhaps Matisyahu’s fans aren’t familiar with a little-known group of performers who still make great reggae records: Jamaicans. Maybe they are waiting for a shopping list of the best recent reggae CD’s from Jamaica. So here’s a start: Richie Spice, “Spice in Your Life” (Fifth Element); Luciano, “Lessons of Life” (Shanachie); Sizzla, “Da Real Thing” (VP).

Matisyahu has built a following by bypassing reggae fanatics (many of his fans come from the jam-band world). That explains why he outsells and outdraws his Jamaican counterparts. And it may also explain why some listeners find his music so exciting. Certainly no one seemed disappointed after Monday’s concert. And as the crowd filed out, a wry young black woman working the door could be overheard singing to herself. It was a line from an older reggae song: “Could You Be Loved,” by Bob Marley. “Don’t let them fool you,” she sang.


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