Wagner and Anti-Semitism... (and Wiley)

First of all, let me start by saying that I do not agree with anything Wiley said. There should be no place for antisemitism anywhere. While we do (and should) have the right to free speech, it must be said that while speech is free at the point of expression, it is not free from consequence.

Cancel culture has resulted in whenever someone says or does something abhorrent (whether that is against a group or individual), that person is banished to the proverbial elephant graveyard or sent to the upside-down. We've seen prominent musicians such as R.Kelly, Gary Glitter and Michael Jackson cancelled in certain places and spaces as a result of their nefarious (and legally it must be said, alleged in some cases) behaviour.

I recently saw comments by a couple of teachers, suggesting that even though Wiley is important to the Grime genre (no-one can argue with him being referred to as the 'Godfather of Grime') it's clearly not a good idea to teach mention him anymore. This made me pause. If we agree that people with antisemitic views should have no space for their voices or music to be heard, then why then do we gloss over Wagner's controversial past?

Wagner's "Judentum in der Musik" (Judaism in Music) was first published in 1850 under a pseudonym - the equivalent of a fake Twitter account if you will. Here are a few excerpts...

"Culture has not succeeded in breaking the remarkable stubbornness of the Jewish naturel as regards the peculiarities of Semitic pronunciation"

"I said above, the Jews had brought forth no true poet. We here must give a moment's mention, then, to Heinrich Heine...He [Heinrich Heine] was the conscience of Judaism, just as Judaism is the evil conscience of our modern Civilisation."

"The Jew—who, as everyone knows, has a God all to himself—in ordinary life strikes us primarily by his outward appearance, which, no matter to what European nationality we belong, has something disagreeably foreign to that nationality: instinctively we wish to have nothing in common with a man who looks like that."

There is nothing ambiguous about his thoughts on Jewish people.

While it is not clear how much of Hitler's hatred against Jewish people was influenced by Wagner's writing, it is clear, that Wagner's music greatly influenced Hitler. In his autobiography Mein Kampf, Hitler writes:

"At the age of twelve, I saw ... the first opera of my life, Lohengrin. In one instant I was addicted. My youthful enthusiasm for the Bayreuth Master knew no bounds." On the 50th anniversary of his death in 1933, the Nazi Party celebrated Wagner's music as part of the Bayreuth music festival. The festival was in large part conducted by Karl Elmendorff, who himself joined the Nazi party in 1937. It must be said, that we do not only see antisemitism in Wagner. There is evidence of other beloved composers such as Tchaikovsky and Chopin, displaying antisemitic views at one time or another during their lives.

This post is less about suggesting that Wiley and his music should have a place in music education, but more about questioning Wagner. His antisemitic views are so evident, but he is still afforded a prominent place in the canon. How much, if at all, does Wagner's status as a wealthy white man from Germany, affect how we treat him? Like Churchill, was he simply a 'man of his time'?

Even though at the moment, our collective focus is on Black Lives Matter movement, when doing the wider work of antiracism, antisemitism should be explicitly included in these endeavours. Wiley's statements should serve as a reminder that such attitudes and other unconscious biases towards Jewish people still exist, and need to be addressed head on. We also need to be critical of those who have espoused such views in the past, and question whether their 'statues' too, must fall.

©2020 by Nate Holder