Concerts | Matisyahu
FFM Performance: Thu, Apr 7; 9:00, Covenant Fine Arts Center
For the past four years, Matisyahu has celebrated Hannukah with an eight-night concert run he calls the Festival of Light. This run of concerts is a good distillation of the blend of popular music and faith that distinguishes Matisyahu’s music. The shows feature a disco-ball dreidel and menorah lighting, but also beatboxing and reggae basslines. The audience consists of Jewish kids in yarmulkes, but also jam band fans who come to be immersed in the grooves. And then there is the tasseled and sidecurled, Orthodox Jewish, beatboxer, singer and rapper himself, Matisyahu. The man is a walking synthesis of faith and popular music: a yarmulke on his head and a mike in his hand.
The question of what came first, the music or the faith, is one that can be partially answered by Matisyahu’s life story. His condensed bio goes something like this: Matthew Miller was raised in a reconstructionist Jewish home in White Plains, New York, but was much more into the Grateful Dead than Judaism. At one point he even dropped out of high school to follow Phish around on tour. In college he encountered Orthodox Judaism and eventually devoted himself to the faith and took on the Hebrew name Matisyahu. But his devotion to the Jewish faith did not mean that he gave up his musical devotion to reggae, hip hop and the jam band sounds of Phish, though. So, out of all this you can see how his first big single, “King Without a Crown,” is something of a manifesto, as he raps over a reggae beat:
Givin' myself to you from the essence of my being
Sing to my God all these songs of love and healing
Want Moshiach now so it's time we start revealing
But Matisyahu doesn’t hit you over the head with the Talmud—it’s not just rabbi rapping over reggae. Matisyahu believes that singing songs of love and healing to God can happen through the music as well as the lyrics. He recognizes that he has some overtly religious lyrics, saying, “All of my songs are influenced and inspired by the teachings that inspire me.” But he also believes in the power of the music itself, saying, “Chasidism [a movement within Judaism] teaches that music is ‘the quill of the soul.’ Music taps into a very deep place and speaks to us in a way that regular words can't.”
Matisyahu’s belief in the spirituality of music goes back to his teenage days as a (self-professed) Phish-head. While bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead may not be “religious,” Matisyahu is deeply informed by the spiritual experiences he has had listening to their music. As he said in an interview, “I connect their music to God because those [concert] experiences bring people to such a deep place within themselves, and in that core place, that’s where the God question comes up. At least for me it always did.” And it seems that Matisyahu’s own musical vision is in some ways an answer to that God question.
One part of his answer is liberation. He has said that a major theme of his music is breaking out of slavery; some of the best reggae and hip hop also shares this theme. But the liberation Matisyahu sings about isn’t liberation as an end unto itself. Rather, it’s liberation out of Egypt into the Promised Land. And the Promised Land is the subject of Matisyahu’s best songs. There is “Jerusalem,” in which he raps about the need to keep the holy city in the forefront of his mind: “Jerusalem, if I forget you / Fire not gonna come from my tongue.” And then there is his anthemic “One Day,” about which he has said, “There is sort of this utopian vision in Judaism. There is this messianic vision, and I do to subscribe to that. I believe that there will at some point be a utopian world, where God is revealed and love is revealed. That song is tapping into that place.”
That place can be tapped into, rapped about, sung about, written about, ad infinitum. But the Jewish—and the Christian—hope is that one day that place will truly arrive. At the end of his concerts, Matisyahu will often toss his yarmulke to his fans and then stage dive into the crowd. It’s a cliche of live music, but for Matisyahu it may be more like a leap that symbolizes the leap of faith: believing that one day the Promised Land won’t just be sung about, it will be walked upon.
- Ben Dixon
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