The new face of Jewish pop music wears a black hat and jacket and a long beard. He embeds divrei Torah in his songs, which rely heavily on Jewish content. But his songs don’t come from the shtetl. Enter, instead, a bizarre matrimony between reggae, hip-hop, beatbox and Hasidic music. He is 25 years old and his name is Matthew Miller, aka Matisyahu. His new CD “Shake Off the Dust…Arise” derives from Isaiah 52:2, “Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down, O Jerusalem: loose thyself from the bands of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion,” which readers will recognize from the Lecha Dodi of the Friday evening service.
Matisyahu’s unique blend begs the question of what sort of animal a Hasidic reggae performer might be. Can Jewish music maintain its Jewish component while diluting itself with other ethnic, traditionally secular and political music? And more importantly, how does that shed light on Jewish music and the larger world of postmodern music?
As a prerequisite to properly understanding what is at stake, we must arrive at a grasp of reggae, hip-hop and “beatboxing”. Reggae refers to popular Jamaican music, which contains a heavy offbeat and closely relates to the Rastafarian culture. Rhythm & blues, “ska” and “rocksteady” are the terms to remember as precursors, and Bob Marley is the man to bear in mind as Reggae’s most popular proponent.
If one begins to wonder how a music form that pertains to the Rastafarian culture can find its way into a Lubavitch singer, consider the other elements. Hip-hop – rapid and candid beats and rhythms – derives from a movement that arose simultaneously in the inner-city streets of Harlem and across the West Coast. The roots of Jewish culture are also found in the inner city. Now, perhaps we can further appreciate this cholent pot of diverse music forms in which Matisyahu adds the Hasidic element.
These music forms carry sociological and class implications as well. A classical symphony demands an orchestra, a hall and instruments. The economics of the symphony accompany heavy attention to technique, harmony and mechanics. The symphonic language – and the opera by extension – is a vocabulary of process, complexity and a Baroque (overblown) sensibility.
Dadaists like John Cage would later undermine this model with their use of silence, but clearly classical music demands a whole procedure. By de-emphasizing the lavishness of the enterprise, hip-hop and reggae allow for inexpensive music. “Beatboxing” – mimicking instruments with the mouth – effectively turns the singer into a band, and this instrument impersonation also impacts the lyrics and the tunes. Where classical music constructs deep, underlying structures, these modern forms swap the traditional opus for fast, loud and more emotive music thus perhaps deserving the tag Romantic.
So what does it sound like to combine Bob Marley and Shlomo Carlebach? Take track two: “Got No Water.” It begins with a wailing sound, and Matisyahu’s voice has an edge to it that fits perfectly with the squeaky trumpet sound. “Chabad philosophy that’s the deepest well-spring/ Gaining knowledge of G-d while you’re gaining money,” Matisyahu sings, “Fill up yourself with the light of his majesty/ In a world of separation that’s the only way to be/ It’s time we leave we won’t flee just walk out easily.” The first line of the Shema figures prominently in the song, and the end of the song chants “May he build the Temple speedily in our days.”
Track four, “King Without a Crown,” offers, “Strip away the layers and reveal your soul Got to give yourself up and then you become whole/You’re a slave to yourself and you don’t even know/You want to live the fast life but your brain moves slow… You want G-d but you can’t deflate your ego.”
And perhaps track 13, “Exaltation” is Matisyahu at his best. The sound consists of a smooth, high pitched hum, that rises and falls over a drum beat in the backdrop. The chorus declares, “Exaltation, my G-d of salvation/The field and therein will be filled with jubilation/The Lord’s name will be proclaimed amongst the nations/We don’t have no time for patience.” The pace is just quick enough to meld the words together, but slow enough to process all the lyrics.
Matisyahu’s music thus epitomizes the exact opposite of Isaac’s declaration: the voice is the voice of Esau, but the hands are the hands of Jacob. The music sounds secular, the lyrics sound Jewish, and the singer hardly tries to hide the notion that he lives in Crown Heights. Matisyahu clearly aims to educate his audience – and this is where the Lubavitch identity kicks in – and his booking schedule sends him to clubs and different music venues across the country. He is giving his young Jewish audiences a modern, hip music that they can be proud of to the extent that they can say: look we got reggae of our own too! But ultimately there must be more than just music-as-education and a conglomeration of different musical forms.
But Matisyahu’s primary Jewish music identity comes from his secular audience and far less from his Jewish fans who merely find themselves attracted to the kitsch involved in a Hasidic looking man singing hip-hop. By taking Hasidic music – which often downplays lyrics in its own way, via niggunim – and removing it from its usual context and instead launching it in a club scene with modern beats, Matisyahu enters a discussion about sociology and politics that transcends literal Jewish questions. Instead, he uses his music to try to fit Jewish identity with some form of music into a modern picture that has never quite related to the Hasidic world before. The result is striking.
The mixture is rough around the edges. It leaves the viewers scratching their heads wondering what they got themselves into. The use of music to teach religion seems to pollute the pure auditory experience and to remove it from a high art to a pop one. But by using a musical language of enfranchisement, class and sociology, Matisyahu does achieve a self-conscious model of modern Jewish music that, though it hardly makes it all the way, does begin to scratch the surface of the question of the modern, Jewish musical landscape. Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.