The Music Industry’s Long History of Dividing Blacks and Jews

Lupe Fiasco

Lupe Fiasco. Facebook

When the supremely talented and socially aware Lupe Fiasco releases his sixth LP, Drogas Light, tomorrow, much attention will be paid to the subtext and themes of his rhymes by those looking for hints of anti-semitic rhetoric.

In mid-December, the rapper shared a single called “N.E.R.D.,” which lit up the music community for this particularly eyebrow-raising line: “Artists getting robbed for their publishing/By dirty Jewish execs who think that it’s alms from the covenant.”

As one might imagine, the Anti-Defamation League stepped in, with ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt releasing a statement: ”

These lyrics reinforce the anti-Semitic myth of Jewish control of the music industry, a stereotype that has been exploited in recent years by well-known hatemongers. It is irresponsible for a recording artist to perpetuate the hateful anti-Semitic stereotype of the ‘greedy Jew.’ Even if Lupe Fiasco has concerns about exploitation of his artistic output, it’s deplorable to stigmatize an entire group in response. Fiasco has a well-earned reputation as a highly respected hip-hop artist.  At a time when there are significant divisions across the country, we are disappointed that he has not chosen to use his platform and voice to promote a more inclusive message.”

After that, Greenblatt tweeted at Fiasco, asking why he doesn’t use his stage to promote inclusivity, and Fiasco fired back.

In a subsequent flurry of tweets, Fiasco clarified the sentiment he was trying to communicate through the lyric by showing photos from past meetings with Jewish intellectuals like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, while somewhat clarifying his distinction between those he felt defrauded by and the religion in its entirety.

Days after the comments, Fiasco hopped back on Twitter to specifically name the Jews in the music business he felt had defrauded him, including former Warner Music CEO Lyor Cohen and the company’s current CEO Craig Kallman.

“Lyon Cohen told me he may not honor the terms of an existing contract unless i signed a contract which changed the terms of the existing one,” he wrote. “Craig Kallman once negotiated a deal in secret which said I agreed to give away 85% of my pub rights to the song Airplanes to his producers.”

Then he tweeted about how the Jewish lawyer he hired to fight Atlantic took him for 5 percent of everything, amounting to $100,ooo, and the strength of his speaking truth to power became a bit diluted by his logical gap.

One thing that growing up in the melting pot of Miami, Fla., has taught me is that some stereotypes become dangerous when the observer amplifies and applies his or her observation from “some” to “all.” The difference between a cultural observation and a stereotype lies in that amplification of a perceived pattern into an absolute truth.

But as a proud Jew, I’m fascinated by the opportunity for dialogue that Fiasco has opened up. The historical reality is that Jewish label owners and producers have played a tremendous role in the shaping of the music industry, and much of that role has been on the backs of black artists.

Another reality is that groups like The Nation of Islam and their offshoot The Five-Percent Nation have had a profound effect on shaping cultural consciousness in rap music, and much of that cultural consciousness has included anti-semitic generalizations about all Jewish people based on the landlords, pawn shop owners and record industry people that black folks were interacting with.

It’s a complicated history worth unpacking, because a core truth that reveals itself is one of shared history—of cultures that share more in common with each other than anyone cares to remember. Black and Jewish histories are both wrought with slavery, diaspora and displacement. It’s my hope that by investigating the divisive role the music industry has played in further fracturing that divide, we can focus on what makes us the same.

Historically, Jews have done the jobs that were thought to be “unclean” or “dirty” by the gentry. In the Middle Ages, the church thought that handling money was a sin against God, so we became the tax collectors. In a move of cultural reclamation, we ran with it. And when Jewish immigrants sought work in an America even more racially segregated than now, they quickly acclimated to acting as landlords and pawn brokers in Harlem, some of the only work open to them at the time.

James Baldwin recounted these years, growing up in Harlem, and succinctly explains how the animus was fostered:

“[I]n Harlem…. our … landlords were Jews, and we hated them. We hated them because they were terrible landlords and did not take care of the buildings. The grocery store owner was a Jew… The butcher was a Jew and, yes, we certainly paid more for bad cuts of meat than other New York citizens, and we very often carried insults home along with our meats… and the pawnbroker was a Jew—perhaps we hated him most of all.”

But soon after he came to the realization that the Jews he was dealing with were not at the top of the food chain:

“The first white man I ever saw was the Jewish manager who arrived to collect the rent, and he collected the rent because he did not own the building. I never, in fact, saw any of the people who owned any of the buildings in which we scrubbed and suffered for so long, until I was a grown man and famous. None of them were Jews. And I was not stupid: the grocer and the druggist were Jews, for example, and they were very very nice to me, and to us… I knew a murderer when I saw one, and the people who were trying to kill me were not Jews.”

Harlem's famous jazz club the Apollo Theatre in the 1950s.

Harlem’s famous jazz club the Apollo Theatre in the 1950s. ERIC SCHWAB/AFP/Getty Images

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously explained this relationship as the beginning of tensions between the black and Jewish communities:

“When we were working in Chicago, we had numerous rent strikes on the West Side, and it was unfortunately true that, in most instances, the persons we had to conduct these strikes against were Jewish landlords… We were living in a slum apartment owned by a Jew and a number of others, and we had to have a rent strike. We were paying $94 for four run-down, shabby rooms, and …. we discovered that whites … were paying only $78 a month. We were paying 20 percent tax.

The Negro ends up paying a color tax, and this has happened in instances where Negroes actually confronted Jews as the landlord or the storekeeper. The irrational statements that have been made are the result of these confrontations.”

In reference to Baldwin’s observations about his relationship to the butcher who charged him more for cuts of meat, it’s entirely possible that there was simply genuine racism afoot. I can speak to the intensely Orthodox Hassids in Brooklyn, who still largely operate as slumlords, as being definitively and objectively racist. Their insular culture and dogmatic interpretation of scripture cause them to fear those they don’t understand, and justifies a “holier than thou” sense of exclusion that even I, as a secular Jew, feel heaped upon me in the distinct form of exclusion, disdain, and general otherness.

But insofar as these tensions are based on proximity and stereotypes, the music industry played a big role in exacerbating them. Most of the Tin Pan Alley publishers and songwriters were Jewish—as they were denied work in other professions, a new, unestablished industry became the best path toward becoming successful players in American life. But early 20th-century music is rife with Jewish appropriations of black identity, and several scholars have suggested that Jews viewed themselves as the true interpreters of black culture.

Stereotypes and racism were definitely prevalent amongst Jews in the entertainment business, too. “Jewish women vaudevillians at the turn of the century popularized what is now a little-discussed and misunderstood performance venue, known as ‘coon shouting,’ “ writes Pamela Brown Levitt.

“Trying to break into the entertainment business, [Tin Pan Alley entrepreneurs’] aesthetics were circumscribed in a vehemently antiblack and xenophobic milieu. By the mid-1880-s they had formed a tight-knit Tin Pan Alley industry that came to dominate vaudeville and early black musicals … Intended as comedy, coon song ranged from jocular and dismissive to cruel and sadistic … Coon song sheet music and illustrated covers proliferated defamatory images of blacks in barely coded slanderous lyrics. For example, the ‘N’ word and associated inferences were dispatched in words like ‘mammy,’ ‘honey boy,’ ‘pickinniny,’ ‘chocolate,’ ‘watermelon,’ ‘possum,’ and the most prevalent ‘coon.’

Jazz piano player Pete Johnson plays with his jazz orchestra in a New York City club in the fifties.

Jazz piano player Pete Johnson plays with his jazz orchestra in a New York City club in the ’50s. ERIC SCHWAB/AFP/Getty Images

This exploitation and racism continued far into the Jazz Age, when Jewish label owners would often take advantage of black artists with little music business acumen, paying them nothing for their work and churning out poorly recorded “race recordings” by paying the performer with a bottle of booze.

And the Jewish underworld largely controlled the live jazz scene, with the intention of segregating:

“Jewish Gangsters frequented nightclubs … In fact, Jewish underworld figures owned many nightspots and speakeasies. In New York, Dutch Schultz owned the Embassy Club. Charley ‘King’ Solomon owned Boston’s Coconut Grove,” writes Robert Rockaway. “In Newark, Longy Zwillman owned the Blue Mirror and the Casablanca Club. Boo Boo Hoff owned the Picadilly Cafe in Philadelphia. Detroit’s [Jewish] Purple Gang owned Luigi’s Cafe, one of the city’s more opulent clubs. Jewish singers and comedians, such as Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker played in the mob clubs.

It continued to manifest through the popularity of blues music, too. Consider Leonard and Phillip Chess, Jewish immigrants from Poland who founded the seminal label Chess Records, which featured artists like Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Etta James, and Chuck Berry.

“Some people have called Leonard and Phillip Chess visionaries who recognized the potential in the visceral blues of post-World War II Chicago, “wrote bluesman Willie Dixon in his autobiography. “A far greater number have branded the Chess brothers as exploiters who systematically took advantage of the artists who created that music.”

This history continues when we hear about George Clinton being defrauded of the publishing rights to his most classic songs, or when Ice Cube moaned about how MC Ren “let a Jew break up my crew” in reference to N.W.A.’s debatably criminal manager, the late Jerry Heller.

So I really feel empathetic toward the narrative that has been presented to black America about my people, and I can’t help but feel that my people bear a brunt of responsibility for nurturing much of the conspiratory-based anti-Semitism that has flourished in black communities.

Which isn’t to say it’s O.K. when former Public Enemy member Professor Griff cites Henry Ford’s The International Jew or a mural of Malcolm X is surrounded by stars of David, dollar signs, skulls and crossbones alongside the phrase “African Blood” at San Francisco State. These incidents continued through the ’90s until now, but the foundation for them was largely raised through intimate, disenfranchising working relationships between the two communities. Of those relationships, the Jews in the music industry seem to be complicit in most of the bamboozling.

But there is not “one” Jew, despite how personal and historically consistent a narrative may seem to some black Americans. “In the case of black-Jewish relations, the ambiguity of Jews’ whiteness also played out in reverse,” writes Cheryl Lynn Greenberg in Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century.

If Jews were not entirely white, they nonetheless often ‘stood in’ for whites in black people’s minds, and absorbed the full force of their racial resentment, promoted by both propinquity and the ubiquity of anti-Semitism. “[J]ust as a society must have a scapegoat,” James Baldwin observed, ‘so hatred must have a symbol. Georgia has the Negro and Harlem has the Jew.’  Unpacking race from ethnicity or religion is a challenge, especially when the players themselves were none too clear about the distinction.”

Dr. Cornell West echoed a similar sentiment from his often-cited writings on the relationship:

“Black anti-semitism is a form of underdog resentment and envy, directed at another underdog who has made it in American society. The remarkable upward mobility of American Jews–rooted chiefly in a history and culture that places a premium on higher education and self-organization—easily lends itself to myths of Jewish unity and homogeneity that have gained currency among other groups, especially among relatively unorganized groups like black Americans.

The high visibility of Jews in the upper reaches of the academy, journalism, the entertainment industry, and the professions—though less so percentage-wise in corporate America and national political office—is viewed less as a result of hard work and success fairly won and more as a matter of favoritism and nepotism among Jews. Ironically, calls for black solidarity and achievement are often modeled on myths of Jewish unity—as both groups respond to American xenophobia and racism. But in times such as these, some blacks view Jews as obstacles rather than allies in the struggle for racial justice.”

While Dr. West alludes to the patterns of persistent mistrust and disconnect between black American culture and the people who have played a role in its universal media dissemination, he leaves out the conspiratory “they control the media” because he acknowledges how they function with the same reductive oversimplification that “Jews control all the money” claims make, negating the history of Jewish assimilation into societies and economies that had long kept us, too, on the fringes of success.

We ought to listen to Lupe Fiasco, however, beyond his dismissive words about the Jews, to his core message. We Jews need to isolate ourselves from the typecasting and stereotypes that have come to negatively define us, and not come at people with a lecture about inclusivity or anti-Semitism from the start, even if that’s what it feels like we’re responding too. We can isolate ourselves for acknowledging the historical foundations that the stereotypes were born from, and seeking to curb any present signs of such perceived exploitation that persist to this day.

Fiasco asks for some accountability from Jewish figures in the music industry to acknowledge this painful and ugly history we’ve been complicit in perpetuating, and wants to see a system reform itself from what he considers to be shiesty business-as-usual. And though the ADL’s Greenblatt makes a point in noting that Lupe’s means of speaking his truth drudge up ugly, long-held stereotypes about Jews by the black community, that should not render his stake in the discussion invalid.

We can acknowledge that the behavior of certain Jews is not the behavior of all Jews best by looking at the ultra-Orthodox neocon contingent in Washington, a world away from the progressive, socialist foundations of a Jew like Bernie Sanders. Yet when Sanders held a town hall-like symposium at Harlem’s Apollo Theater during primaries, a man’s question about the Jewish conspiracy threatened to lump him in with the old stereotypes.

As Greenberg writes:

There is no single black community, no single Jewish community. Both groups have polarizing internal differences based on class, region, gender, politics, generation, occupation, and a host of other less tangible factors. The resulting internecine disputes fractured unity, and community sentiment often collided with organizational priorities. There have also been many venues in which African Americans and Jewish Americans have interacted; there are multiple ‘black-Jewish relations.’

There is the relationship between the civil rights organizations in both communities that fought for many of the same goals, sometimes separately and sometimes in collaboration. There is also the relationship between black and Jewish activists within the same organizations, from the Communist Party to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

There is the relationship between blacks and Jews in the music and movie industries, in labor unions, and in the garment trades. There is the relationship between members of the two communities in their everyday interactions, affected as they necessarily were by the economic and power inequities that race and class differences produced and by recurring allegations of black anti-Semitism and Jewish racism.

What can I do to spread this message, while also acknowledging the patterns of division that my cultural ancestors have engaged in? And am I accountable for any of their nefarious practices?

We can look at the history, all of it—from moments of division and exploitation to moments unity and solidarity during the civil rights struggle that still persist to this day—and look deep within to parse out what, if anything, we can be culturally accountable for. but most importantly, we can listen to the stories lived by those who are different from us.

Correction: An earlier version of this story quoted Dorothy Wade in Music Man: Ahmed Ertegun, Atlantic Records, and the Triumph of Rock and Roll reporting that the Rolling Stones saw Muddy Waters painting the Chess Brother’s home. A Chess family relative and other sources have confirmed that this only existed in Keith Richards’ mind. 

The Music Industry’s Long History of Dividing Blacks and Jews