I was never a fan of Amy Winehouse’s music, but I think I understood where it came from. Like me, Winehouse grew up enthralled by black music, and with hip-hop in particular. Winehouse–who died on Sunday at 27, and was buried today in accordance with Jewish custom–told The Los Angeles Times a few years ago that her first singing act was in a female hip-hop duo. She formed the group when she was 10, apparently with another Jewish girl from England, where she lived, and called the group "Sweet ‘n Sour." The group, Winehouse went on, was like a "little white Jewish Salt-n-Pepa."
I loved Salt-n-Pepa growing up, too, and still do. Their music was addictive, and I play their meretricious anthem "Push It" on my iPod to this day. Like Winehouse, and countless other middle-class Jews, hip-hop had an enormous pull on our younger selves. Whereas many other white kids would find punk, emo or alt-group bands like Phish a suitable outlet for their anti-establishment streak, people like me found it in rap. I think it had something to do, specifically, with being Jewish, too. For it was not only that rap represented a flinty defiance of authority, but it came from a particular group–African Americans–who were doubly crushed by the system.
I’m trodding on well-worn sociological ground here, but the fact remains: over the last half-century, Jews have often found in black culture a surrogate for their own past suffering. Young Jews like Winehouse, and me, have no direct experience of social oppression, and yet our grandparents often did. We grew up in a broader Western society at pains to right the wrongs done to Jews only 70 years ago. And we were, in a word, quickly made comfortable, even a little complacent by all the patronizing.
So many of us turned, however unwittingly, to hip hop as a means of both experiencing oppression directly, and as a means of defying it. Racism in America (and Britain) was and remains an all-too-real fact that has given hip-hop its life. The irreverence, intelligence, tenacity, temerity and sheer exuberance of hip-hop speaks to us. Winehouse, an immensely talented artist, would take that source material and make it her own. And while I may not have liked what I heard, I understood where I came from. I’ll miss her.