Jewish reggae rapper (that's Matisyahu) beats the odds
Jewish reggae rapper beats the odds
Jun. 15, 2006. 01:00 AM
Admittedly, the concept of a Hasidic Jewish reggae singer is an odd one. Stranger yet is the notion of such a performer opening for pop-rock's Dave Matthews Band.Last night, as Matisyahu took the stage at the Molson Amphitheatre, it all made sense.
After all, the Rastafarian beliefs that inform reggae music have some similarities — particularly regarding diet, facial hair and proprieties with women — to Orthodox Judaism. And the Brooklyn, N.Y. entertainer's connection to the Dave Matthews Band becomes clearer when you consider his links to certain other jam bands: as a 3-year-old attending his first concert — the Grateful Dead — with his parents; and as a floundering teen who dropped out of high school to follow Phish (and experiment with LSD) for half a year.
From there, he joined a progressive synagogue, adopted the Orthodox lifestyle complete with name change from Matthew Miller, then got his music career rolling. And he was the perfect appetizer for loyal fans of Dave Matthew's free-flowing Virginia-based quintet, who showed up in near-capacity numbers last night even though the band was in town on the same tour in December.
Much of the audience was still filing in when the lanky Matisyahu took the stage, backed by drums, guitar and bass, but they responded heartily, singing along to songs like "Jerusalem" and "King Without a Crown."Clad in grey slacks, black overcoat and a wide-brimmed hat that he doffed to reveal a yarmulke, Matisyahu sounded just like he does on his third record and major label debut Youth — a tolerable reggae/rap singer who co-writes earnest religious and political songs.
He showed he could ride a dancehall beat, Wyclef Jean-style, and deliver a melodic beatbox, but added nothing new or ear-catching to the genre. Even so, Youth debuted at No. 4 on Billboard's album chart on first-week sales of 118,000 copies — more than any other reggae act in history.That means more than spiritually themed Jamaican reggae artists such as Luciano and Morgan Heritage, who've been doing it longer and better; more than any Marley; more than lewd, but popular party starters such as Shaggy and Sean Paul.
There has been grumbling in some quarters about a white American in a yarmulke making music that stems from Jamaica's ghettos, as if skin colour or birthplace should dictate who sings what.But what does puzzle me is why the big record labels don't give equal backing to the plethora of superior black reggae artists, such as Toronto's Blessed, and why record buyers would so eagerly embrace Matisyahu's mediocrity. I guess it's the novelty factor. It can't be that reggae is more palatable emanating from white lips, 'cuz that would be ridiculous.