How Matisyahu's Hasidic Reggae Music Made Me Cry
The musician has a unique style of singing—and makes some powerful reflections on the Holocaust.
Critics aren't supposed to cry at concerts. But I did.
Listening to reggae artist Matisyahu perform, I cried. In a Midwestern city, in the heat of midsummer dusk, standing midway between the stage and soundboard, I cried. This wasn't just my eyes misting over, either. Fully-formed tears fell as he sang the aching "Jerusalem," and it felt foolish having to wipe hot saltwater streaks from my face.
But let's flashback for context.
I've never visited Israel. For an American Jew, going there at least once in a lifetime feels vital; not only as a communal obligation, but as a personal, spiritual touchstone. Having to tell someone that you have been to Paris and Rome but never Jerusalem is a bit embarrassing—like a huge Elvis Presley fan who has never been to Graceland. Over the last several months, my longing for Israel seems to have grown. Just a few days before seeing Matisyahu, in fact, I had emailed a friend in Jerusalem, writer Yossi Klein Halevi, to ask about possible grants, fellowships, writer-in-residence programs—anything to help me see the Holy Land. He had written back with no good news.
Fast forward to the Matisyahu show. Going in, most of what I knew about him could be gleaned from Wikipedia. The Artist Formerly Known as Matthew Miller grew up mostly in White Plains, NY, and dropped out of high school to follow the band Phish. He wound up at an alternative high school in Bend, OR, where he began rapping at open-mic nights. At 19, he returned to New York to attend the New School in Manhattan and kept playing music. In the city, he also met a Lubavitch rabbi and ultimately embraced Hasidic Judaism. He formed a band, renaming himself Matisyahu, a rough Hebrew translation of "Mathew." Thus was born your average, everyday Hassidic-American Reggae act.
A debut album, Shake Off the Dust...Arise came out in 2004 on the independent JDub label . Touring in support in 2005, he recorded Live at Stubb's. The concert disc, replete with live beatboxing, was picked up for national distribution by Epic, and spawned the surprise hit "King Without a Crown." The 2006 follow-up, Youth, was Grammy-nominated and last summer's Light reached a still-broader audience, especially from NBC's wildly repetitious use of the anthemic "One Day" in their promos for coverage of the Winter Olympics.
Apart from the singer being a Hasidic Jew, the music comes straight out of Kingston—with stops in London, LA, and Brooklyn along the way. He pays homage to dancehall masters like Barrington Levy and Sizzla, with heavy doses of The Police and Fishbone, and a Rick Rubenesque production. Inventive and slick, the studio work has grown progressively more complex—as typified by the sonic blast of "Smash Lies" that opens Light—slathering ever dense layers of pop, electronica and hip-hop onto the ska/reggae base.
The lead singer, though, is a Hasidic Jew. He is a skinny, white, American-born Hasid in full Orthodox beard and payot whose lean, yearning alto nevertheless comes couched in a thick, Jamaican-dub accent. Like Sting, pilloried for his own faux-Caribbean patois, and Australian country star Keith Urban crooning in a mid-Tennessee drawl, Matisyahu is an especially gaudy example of a delightfully weird cultural cross-pollination that's been part of pop music since the Beatles first mimicked Little Richard and Mick Jagger pretended to be from the Deep South.
Stranger still is Matisyahu's use of Rastafarian imagery; his appropriation of traditional Rasta themes like Exodus and a longing for Zion. Or, rather, his reappropriation of those themes. Like gospel before it, reggae draws much of its symbolism from Torah. There is something bizarre yet poignant and undeniably American about a Jewish kid from the suburbs who found a path to his own ancient faith by hearing Jamaicans sing about it.
But a cultural mélange isn't what made me cry at the concert. The first two songs of the show, I was listening as objectively as a critic should. The third song got to me. "Jerusalem (Out of Darkness Comes Light)", an ode to the City of David, includes a fairly graphic reference to the Holocaust, "Years gone by, about sixty/ Burn in the oven/In this century/ And the gas tried to choke/But it couldn't choke me"
Hearing those lyrics, I flashed back to a bar conversation with a gentile friend a few weeks before. We were talking about the weird way victimhood can be competitive, how different religious, ethnic, and gender groups compete over who is the most oppressed.
"You guys had it the worst." Sergio said, meaning that being Jewish is the ultimate victimhood-conversation topper, with the Holocaust as a kind of macabre trump card.
"Not in the US," I said. "We've had it good here," and mentioned Public Enemy's "Can't Truss It," where Chuck D seems to say that the African-American experience has been harder than the Holocaust.
A little later, my friend was teasing me about Jews being nerdy while I teased him back about Mexicans along similar stereotypical lines. Defending my people, I said that the so-called nerdy Jews make up less than 1 percent of the world's population, but have won about half the Nobel Prizes ever given—a slight exaggeration for effect.
Somehow, that idea triggered a seismic shift in my own view of the Holocaust—a jump up from the merely personal or communal to a more global view. Jewish love of learning had given so much to the world; in science, medicine, music, and the arts. It hit me how many minds like Einstein, Freud, and Kafka must have died in Hitler's ovens and how many more were never born. The world lost millions of scientists, doctors, writers, and artists—three generations' worth—and everything they could have given the world. In some alternate universe where the Holocaust never happened, humanity might have already cured cancer. We might have already have set foot on Mars.
While I recalled this conversation, Matisyahu launched into "Jerusalem's" chorus, lyrics based on the famed Psalm 137 lament of the Israelites in Babylon, "I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill."
The crowd was dancing and waving. Remembering the disappointing email from my Israeli friend, I wondered if Jerusalem would always exceed my grasp. Then, for no reason which I'm conscious except the need to make some kind of gesture, I extended my right arm skyward and made a fist. It simply stuck there. The pose would have looked exactly like the famed Black Power protest at the Mexico City Olympics, were I black and wearing a medal.
The band jammed for a bit. Matisyahu prowled, dub/rapping, playing to fans near the stage, then to the far reaches of the crowd. He seemed to pause once or twice, peering my way. A guy behind me, who I'd never met, said, "Dude, I think he sees you!"
A few seconds later, Matisyahu looked our way again. This time he raised his fist to match mine. The whole bunch of guys behind me erupted into cheers and backslaps. My fist still aloft, the new take on the Holocaust and longing for Jerusalem merged. That's when I cried. Or got teary, anyway. There weren't sobs and gasps, but I was incredibly grateful to have brought a bandanna to wipe my face clean.
Even pretending to be objective about the rest of the show felt stupid. Any performer who gets you to weep has pretty obviously done something right.
The experience was shocking. It certainly wasn't anything I had planned to mention during my interview with Matisyahu the next day.
But it spilled out instantly when he did something most artists don't. He opened the interview by talking to me, not just waiting for questions. After introductions, he said "I heard you were at the show last night" with a question in his voice.
This kind of threw me off. "Oh... Yes, I was. It was really emotional."
"Oh?" he said.
"I didn't expect it. During the song 'Jerusalem'... I'd just been thinking about Jerusalem a lot. I've never been to Israel. I just got really emotional and, sort of, cried."
"Oh wow. That's... That's just awesome."
"My right fist was raised for the whole song. I don't even know why, really. You saw me, I think. You raised your arm back at me. Everybody in the crowd around me saw it and sort of cheered."
"Yeah! I saw you!"
"Do you remember?"
"Yes, I totally remember! You were standing there, just standing still in the middle of the crowd, right?"
"Yes! Oh, man. Wow, that means a lot to me. In some ways, all a fan really wants is to feel some kind of connection with the performer, you know?"
"It's so cool, because I was just in Krakow, in Poland. At the show, there were about six (Holocaust) survivors. And something happened that doesn't really happen too often when I'm playing. But I was just come overcome with emotion and broke up. It was really cool. So, I'm glad you had that experience."
"Was there a moment when you had an epiphany? I'm a fairly assimilated Jewish kid from the suburbs who used to follow jam bands. Was there one moment where the faith just kind of clicked, in your head?"
"Well, basically, it was a combination of things, not necessarily one experience. When I was 14 and into Bob Marley, it was just all about the lyrics. I totally got into the culture and the history, knowing where you come from and your identity and strengths. And I was like, wow, he's Rastafarian and there was so much history there. And when he sang it, there was so much strength and power based on where he came from. And I'm thinking well, I'm Jewish, what does that mean? It wasn't something where I'd say 'I'm Jewish' and it would feel like my identity and my strength. Then I started to think more about the history. I started thinking about all this rich history; about pogroms, about Germany, one thing after the next. But not just the bad either. There's so much history of sheltering, and of strength, and overcoming and all these things. It overwhelmed me. There's so much strength in that identity. But that message today, for an average Jewish kid, somehow doesn't come through."
For at least one average Jewish kid, for at least one night, that message couldn't have been more clear.