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The Burden of Light

Publicity cuts both ways. With the help of a smart press pack and a persistent publicist, a musician who defies categorization can inspire the creation of a new category. But success of that sort can be heavy load to bear. Once your media profile is well established, it’s hard to modify. And that problem, faced by anyone who sustains a meaningful career, is greatly magnified when you have helped to construct the box into which critics eagerly put you.

Such is the fate of Matisyahu, born Matthew Miller, whose deft combination of different musical genres has made him one of the world’s most successful Jewish musicians. Although it has been half a decade since he first started to attract the attention of the mainstream press, he continues to be defined by the perception that it is strange for someone to practice his religion on tour.

A recent piece in The Idaho Statesman provides a good example.  After labeling Matisyahu a “devout Jewish rapper,”  the author Jordan Levin goes on to describe him making “the kind of journey he makes all the time between his music and his religion.” Matisyahu, mic in hand, looks skywardIt sounds like a major undertaking. But the trip in question, later further embellished into a “dual spiritual and musical odyssey,” only turns out to take Matisyahu across Manhattan, from a voice lesson to the preparations for Shabbat, which the author finds it necessary to identify as “the Jewish holy day of rest.”

It’s a long way from New York City to Boise, a distance that has as much to do with ideology as geography. For all of its diversity, vast stretches of the United States remain strongholds of a white, Christian worldview that struggles to make sense of other cultural heritages even when it is open to doing so. That Matisyahu has achieved sufficient market penetration to merit features in those hinterlands as well as in the major cities and college towns where his name first circulated testifies to his talent and dedication. But the increased exposure has also contributed to an awkward lag in the reception of his work.

Although Matisyahu’s musical and religious interests have expanded since he began his musical career, he continues to be labeled a Hasidic rapper. Whereas early profiles concentrated on the strangeness of that coupling, more recent ones have tended to emphasize that he is no longer a “novelty.” Yet in making that point, they reinforce the impression that his music must be understood as an expression of his cultural identity. Whether he wants to talk about other matters or not, his interviewers relentlessly force him back to the subject of his religious convictions.

And Matisyahu, as someone who cares deeply about his faith, takes the responsibility too seriously to play the rock star who brushes off difficult topics. It’s clearly a good thing that his music is helping to educate previously oblivious Americans about what it means to practice his kind of Judaism. At the same time, though, one gets the nagging sense that he will soon weary of pieces that wrap discussions of his music inside discussions of his religion.

A recent feature in The Aspen Times states that, “Matisyahu’s faith appears to be more fundamental to him than the particular style of music he makes.” Nor does the musician argue with his assessment. How could he? Any true believer is bound to confess that, yes, religion takes precedence over art. But whereas country or soul singers who are practicing Christians are permitted to have that fact tacitly acknowledged, Matisyahu is forced to declare his priorities openly.

Tellingly, although the piece notes that his “high-energy stage presence” is “mostly untouched by his religion” – a significant point, given the fact that his commercial stature rests heavily on his reputation as a great concert performer, as made evident in his 2006 album Live At Stubbs – it still concludes by exoticizing him: “One aspect of his performance, however, has been limited by his religion. Matisyahu, who is married, no longer stage-dives, for fear of being touched by women other than his wife – something forbidden in Orthodox Judaism.”

While such trivia may be old news to those who have followed Matisyahu’s career – he has repeatedly been asked about the challenge of keeping faith on tour – it still carries a hint of sensationalism targeted at those unfamiliar with his work. Just as the few Jewish, Hindu or Muslim students in otherwise homogeneous suburban or rural schools tend to be assigned the awkward task of explaining why they don’t celebrate Christmas or Easter like everybody else, Matisyahu becomes a figure here for a cultural difference that intrigues people to the precise degree that it remains foreign to them.

A catchy Matisyahu graphic emphasizing his band's role

The irony in all this is that Matisyahu’s music itself represents a fetishization of difference. The affection that Jewish young people have for reggae has often been noted, sometimes wryly. One persistent joke holds that this appeal derives from the frequency with which the name of “Israel” is invoked within the genre. What Matisyahu did, whether consciously or not, was to turn a taste for otherness into a way for others to get a taste of his otherness.

It didn’t hurt, of course, that reggae is inextricably bound up with a religious practice that is simultaneously conservative and countercultural. The faith that the genre’s greatest stars professed has roots in Christianity and African spirituality, yet adds up to something distinctive. From one perspective, it looks a good deal like the Lubavitchers take on Judaism. In Matisyahu’s able hands, the reggae that serves as the foundation for his musical approach provides a means, both of breaking with tradition and asserting the importance of becoming reacquainted with its essence rather than perpetuating the “broken” traditions of the modern world.

The release of Matisyahu’s new album Light, now due in late August, was put off at the behest of his record label. Significantly, it’s a major label, Epic, even though the trend in the music industry has been for many long-established artists to migrate to independent labels. That confirms the commercial potential that his work is deemed to have. But the decision to expand and revise the record’s contents suggests that there may be trouble ahead. Such delays are often a warning sign, suggesting that the artist has failed to produce the sort of music that label representatives expected, that they have deviated from the form that made them a desirable commodity.

So far, Matisyahu hasn’t conveyed any displeasure at the label’s decision. Yet if we read between the lines of the interviews he has been giving on his current concert tour, originally intended to accompany the album’s release, it’s not hard to see that he has been struggling with the burden of expectations. Although he continues to confirm his religious devotion in interviews, he has parted ways with the Lubavitchers in favor of an approach more open to kabbalistic Judaism. And although the album contains plenty of reminders of his music’s reggae roots, it also takes bold steps in the direction of rock and electronica.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Epic wanted him to work with reggae legends Sly and Robbie, whose contribution will make it more likely that Light reproduces the formula for success – the familiar rhythms of reggae and its offshoots – that made its predecessors unexpected hits. Although the label couldn’t very well ask him to return to the religious beliefs that underpinned that success, one almost gets the sense that insisting he bend his new musical directions back towards their roots was tantamount to the same thing.



Charlie Bertsch is Zeek‘s Music Editor. Prior to joining Zeek, he held the same position at Tikkun. He was also a longtime contributor to Punk Planet, and was one of the founders of the pioneering electronic publication, Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life. He is working on several book projects, as both a writer and an editor. He welcomes your feedback whether in comments posted here or by e-mail.

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