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Monday, February 06, 2006

Article about Matisyahu : Hasidic Jewish reggae rapper kicks it Old Testament-style

Hasidic Jewish reggae rapper kicks it Old Testament-style

By Jack Silverman


Performing 12:30 p.m.

June 12 at Bonnaroo

Our next guest is the most popular Jewish rapper since MC Hammer," Jimmy Kimmel quips, as he introduces Matisyahu to his first national TV audience. It's August 2004. The singer grabs the mic and starts an unaccompanied minor-key chant (sounding as much like a Hebrew prayer as a reggae melody), then throws in some human beatbox. After about half a minute, a live band kicks up a reggae groove, and the MC rattles off "Close My Eyes," a half-rapped, half-sung call to praise that drives the audience wild.

Straight Outta White Plains: Matisyahu blends an esoteric mystic tradition with accessible modern music.

Straight Outta White Plains: Matisyahu blends an esoteric mystic tradition with accessible modern music.

Granted, it's not hard to drive a TV audience wild. Still, Matisyahu displays some undeniable gifts at the mic, both melodically and beat-wise. And though the Beastie Boys broke the Jewish rap barrier almost two decades ago, Matisyahu is not your standard-issue secular, suburban Jewish kid (though he grew up that way). After a religious awakening four years ago, he adopted Hasidism, a mystic movement within Orthodox Judaism that emphasizes the presence of God in all of one's surroundings at all times.

It would be easy to dismiss Matisyahu's act as shtick or novelty. You don't typically see a Hasidic Jew, complete with long beard and traditional black suit and hat, firing staccato bursts of dancehall toasting like Eek-a-Mouse or Yellowman. Watching him perform, your first impulse is to laugh—not in a mean-spirited way, just at the incongruity of it all.

Yet it's no gimmick. The transformation of typical-Jewish-kid Matthew Miller into a Hasidic reggae-rap phenomenon followed a natural, if somewhat unusual, progression. Like a lot of kids growing up in the comfortable suburb of White Plains, N.Y., Miller fell in with the hippie crowd, wore Birkenstocks and grew dreadlocks. He got more interested in music, playing bongos and learning to beat-box. After a series of revelatory experiences, including a trip to Israel, he had an awakening. (Interestingly, the last straw that would send him in search of deeper meaning was a few months of following Phish on tour.)

Like his personal evolution, Matisyahu's melding of dancehall reggae and Jewish theology has an intrinsic logic. Hasidic Judaism and Rastafarianism have more in common than meets the eye. Ethiopian emperor and Rastafarianism founder Haile Selassie was often referred to as the "Lion of Judah" and claimed to be a direct descendant of King David; the Star of David is a prominent symbol in both cultures. Both faiths encourage around-the-clock devotion, share common dietary laws and study the Hebrew bible. Rastafarians typically wear dreadlocks; many Orthodox Jewish men wear payos, long curls of hair grown above the sideburns. Also, there's a long history of Judaism in Ethiopia—in fact, during the droughts and famines of the 1970s and '80s, tens of thousands of Ethiopian "Falasha" Jews emigrated to Israel.

Furthermore, reggae music and Hasidism share a common spirit, in that both traditions seek to enlighten their participants through direct experience of God. When Kimmel asked him if Hasidic leaders frowned on his music career, Matisyahu explained, "The Lubavitch rebbe was saying that you should go out in the world and turn the world over; you should try and help people to connect to godliness." The means may be different—Talmudic scholars are rarely heard extolling the virtues of ganja—but the desired effect is the same.

Matisyahu doesn't really break new ground musically, and there's the matter of his Jamaican patois, which I'm guessing he didn't learn at the Yeshiva. Regardless, he's noteworthy on several levels. First, he's a good singer, gifted speed rapper and formidable beatboxer. More importantly, he's found a way to blend his passion for an esoteric mystic tradition with accessible modern music. And even better—particularly in light of Middle East affairs, where the most religious people are often the least tolerant—he preaches a message of unity. In fact, he often performs with Muslim beat-boxer Kenny Mohammed. As Matisyahu sings on "Close My Eyes," "Bob Nesta said it best, everything will be all right / Introspect, connect the sects and let this music make you fly."

(taken from nashvillescene.com)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bob Nesta said it best, Everything will be alright!

11:43 AM  

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