Walking through Brooklyn last summer, some tattered advertising on a scaffolding stopped me dead in my tracks. Peering out from the upper left corner of a red, yellow, and green poster for the annual Reggae Carifest, the giant showcase for the top stars in Jamaican music, was a photo of a bespectacled young man in a black fedora and suit, solemnly stroking his thick beard. I’d fallen somewhat out of the cultural loop in the previous months while taking care of my new baby son and was dumbfounded: Who was this lone white face among dancehall titans Buju Banton, Bounty Killer, Luciano, and Elephant Man?
Next to the ad hung a poster for a newish CD titled Live at Stubb’s by Matisyahu, featuring a silhouette of the same young man clutching a mic. The poster led me to a website trumpeting the artist as “the Hasidic Reggae superstar.” Whether that means he’s a superstar who plays “Hasidic reggae” or a reggae superstar who happens to be Hasidic is moot. Right now, both statements are true: Live at Stubb’s spent most of the last year near the top of the Billboard reggae charts, peaking at No. 1, and if Hasidic reggae is a movement then Matisyahu is a genre unto himself.
2005 was a banner year for Matisyahu, and he’s braced for even greater success in 2006. He recorded two songs with born-again headbangers P.O.D. for their recent CD, and is set to release Youth, his first major-label album, on Epic this March. In addition to Carifest, his recent gigs range from sold-out shows at Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom and Webster Hall to the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, where he performed Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” alongside Phish veteran Trey Anastasio in front of 90,000 people. It’s been a remarkable journey for a high school dropout, now 26, who followed that same jam band across the country a decade ago.
Hasidic reggae: The very phrase sounds like fodder for a Saturday Night Live skit, and a predictably unfunny one at that. By dressing in the anachronistic manner of Lubavitch forebears”call it “Old Shul””and shunning the temptations of the secular world, an adherent of Orthodox Judaism would seem an extremely unlikely candidate to entertain the masses. It’s certainly an attention-grabbing combination, a surprising marriage of secular and sacred, black and white, made richer by the memory of the 1991 race riots in Matisyahu’s adopted neighborhood of Crown Heights.
Despite their aversion to pop culture, Hasidim have become a familiar visual presence in it. Like Canadians, secular Jews have blandly assimilated, so while the fervently observant make up only a small percentage of the overall Jewish population, the Hasidic “uniform” has become the most obvious signifier of Jewishness, easy shorthand to depict an identity that’s notoriously difficult”birth mother’s religion? no foreskin? High Holy Days ticket-holding?”to define.
Hasidism are often employed as a cheap source of humor, from the davening scholar in the mosh pit in the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” video to the photos that American Apparel uses in its ad campaigns as bearded non sequiturs. Read as a gimmick, then, it’s no wonder that Matisyahu created such a media stir, one that until very recently outstripped his actual record sales. In the last few months, however, those have soared; to date he’s sold 369,000 copies of Live at Stubb’s, while sales of his 2004 debut, Shake Off the Dust. . . Arise, approach 12,000″a 400 percent spike since the fall.
With write-ups in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal, and appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Last Call With Carson Daly (whose host proclaimed him the “most exciting thing happening in music today” even as he mispronounced his name “Modest Yahoo”), Matisyahu has garnered more mainstream media attention than any new reggae artist in years and become the first artist from the ranks of the Haredim to crossover to the mainstream. Even my shrink, who hardly possesses Daly’s cultural antennae, has heard of him.
He may be the focus of attention thanks largely to his novelty, but Matisyahu’s not a joke act relying on sophomoric punchlines, like 2 Live Jews, M.O.T., and Yidcore. Nor is he like the performers who normally target the frum demographic, purveyors of what some call “shiny shoe music”, a kind of slick Yiddish pop. Startling in its earnestness, his music attempts to unite the redemptive vibes of Bob Marley and Shlomo Carlebach, who left Chabad to found a commune for troubled Jewish youth.
The journey from rebellious teen to devout Orthodox scholar makes for an irresistible story. Born Matthew Miller, Matisyahu was raised Reconstructionist in White Plains, began listening to Marley at age 14, grew dreads, and slid into hippiedom. At 16, a trip to Israel connected him to Judaism, but his religious awakening didn’t really begin until he moved to New York to attend the New School and stumbled upon the Carlebach Shul. In Washington Square Park, he met a young Lubavitch rabbi who was a former Deadhead, and Miller soon moved to Crown Heights to devote himself to Torah study. Passionate about music long before religion, his performances for fellow yeshiva students led to his reggae career, but only after he received the blessing of his rabbinic advisors.
Matisyahu isn’t the first Jew in reggae; that honor probably falls to Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records. There are relatively few Jewish reggae artists”dancehall superstar Sean Paul, indie ska stalwart King Django, and Elan Atias, the American-born, Israeli-raised lead singer of the Legendary Wailers, who will release his debut on Interscope in 2006″but long before The Matrix reggae artists were invoking Zion. The first international reggae hit was Desmond Dekker‘s “The Israelites,” which topped the British charts in 1969 and climbed to No. 9 in the U.S”the first reggae act to reach No. 1 in the UK and the first to chart in America. The Star of David, a familiar icon on album covers, graces the logo of Tuff Gong, Bob Marley’s Jamaican label, and a sense of ersatz Yiddishkeit abounds, from Biblical imagery in Marley’s “Exodus” or the Congos’ “Ark of the Covenant” to the “Fiddler on the Roof” melodies that float through Augustus Pablo’s “Skanking Easy” and “Havendale Rock.” The Ivory Coast’s Alpha Blondy has even taken the philo-Semitism to the extreme, titling his albums Masada, Jerusalem, Elohim, and Yitzhak Rabin.
There are actually a number of similarities between Rastafarianism and the Lubavitch, including strict adherence to the Old Testament, dietary laws that shun pork and shellfish, a proscription that women keep their head covered, and a fervent Messianic belief”for the Rastas in Haile Selassie, who claimed to be a direct descendant of King David; for some Lubavitch, in Menachem Schneerson. One Rasta sect considers itself the Lost Tribe of Israel, and another early Rasta proselytizer wrote that “A Rastafarian is a Jew by nature, being a righteous one of principles, dignity and love for God.”
In a world that embraces Christian rap-metal, perhaps Hasidic reggae is not really so absurd. Matisyahu’s smooth, retro groove has a traditional roots-reggae approach, and avoids the clanky, stuttering rhythms and abrasive barking of dancehall, with its impenetrable patois and inflammatory homophobia. Possessing a sweet falsetto, a soaring cantorial croon, and an impressively authentic delivery”it’s sometimes hard to tell what language he’s chanting in”Matisyahu’s songs tackle the Exodus (“Chop ‘Em Down”), the destruction of the First Temple (“Aish Tamid”), and spiritual salvation, both divine (“If you’re drowning in the waters and you can’t stay afloat/Ask Hashem for mercy and he’ll throw you a rope”) and earthly (“Bob Nesta said it best everything will be all right”). On “King Without a Crown,” he even subverts one of reggae’s most familiar associations, marijuana as a sacramental herb, singing “Me no want no sinsemilla/That would only bring me down/Burn away my brain no way my brain is to compound/Torah food for my brain let it rain til I drown.”
Aside from the obvious stylistic collision, Matisyahu’s real innovation is the connection he makes between Jamaican toasting and niggun, the improvisatory wordless melodies”sort of a Jewish scatting”that Hasidic writer Mordechai Staiman defines as “a stammering infant language G-d created for us when our feelings are too delicate or too intimate for others to hear.” There’s also a dash of hip-hop “flava”: His backing band’s easygoing rhythms are punctuated occasionally by Matisyahu’s beatboxing”one of the highlights of his concert repertoire”and at his show at Webster Hall last fall he was joined onstage by his White Plains white rapper homeboy Stanley. Yeshiva boys and frat brothers represented in equal numbers and the crowd’s rapturous response to him suggests he has potential for broad crossover appeal. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a dynamic live performer; bouncing up and down in exaltation, his tzitzit flailing, he stage-dived into outstretched arms, putting the “mosh” into Moshiach.
Though Matisyahu’s talents are evident in concert, his albums leave me wanting. He’s not without real skill, but on record his backing band is dull; the grooves are too tame and overly polite, and the basslines”perhaps reggae’s most crucial sonic component”are positively timid. Matisyahu is devout not only in his love of God and Torah but in his fealty to the reggae genre, and his albums are reverent to the point of blandness. While songs like “Warrior” and “King Without a Crown” have memorable melodies, elsewhere he falls prey to the same affliction that plagues much underground “backpack” hip-hop, especially by white rappers: overcompensating on their props-paying to the point of tedium. His records suffer not from a lack of talent but from a lack of excitement.
That hasn’t stopped Orthodox fans from engaging in online debates about purity and selling out similar to those among hip-hop and indie rock diehards”compounded in this case by the perennial question: But is it good for the Jews? Matisyahu’s inclusion last year at a benefit for the Hebrew Academy of Special Children at Madison Square Garden proved especially controversial. “Are we supposed to be impressed that he sings like a goy?” snarked one writer. Another complained that, after a 2004 Hanukkah concert, sheltered yeshiva teens ventured to Manhattan to see him perform at “treif nightclubs where drugs, alcohol, body surfing and other stuff goes on.” Matisyahu “may be attempting to maintain a distinction between his ‘kosher’ performances and his club gigs,” wrote yet another, “but the reality is that given his PR success, that distinction is impossible to sustain at this point.”
Will Matisyahu propel listeners toward tempation or keep them from it? This is, of course, the very battle between body and soul that pop music has engendered since its dawn, inspiring such establishment responses as anti-dancing laws, record burning, and the PMRC. Matisyahu may draw inspiration from a higher source, but despite his attempt to infuse that ol’ devil music with spirituality, at root it’s still only rock-and-roll (so to speak), and that’s precisely why crossover crowds flock to his shows. Whether he offers a walk on the wild side for the Haredi, an opportunity for the less observant to reconnect in some way with their roots, or simply a groovy night out for the curious, this pious piper is singing pop’s siren song”one intelligently designed to get feet, shiny-shoe shod or not, a-tapping.