Has Jewish Music Star Matisyahu Got a Middle East Problem?
After refusing to kowtow to a demand he advocate Palestinian statehood, the Jewish reggae hip-hop artist says he is a proponent for peace and ‘building bridges.’
It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be a reggae artist, accustomed to festivals filled with marijuana-induced serene audiences, facing a crowd of raised middle fingers along with chants to get out—and feeling physically threatened for the first time in one’s life as a performer.
That’s the exact scenario American Jewish reggae rapper Matisyahu found himself in when he took the stage August 23 at the Rototom Sunsplash festival in Benicassim, a town near Valencia, Spain.
While standing back stage, Matisyahu noticed a Palestinian flag in the audience, but when he stepped on to set up “about 20 flags came out,” he told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. “People were standing on each other’s shoulders with flags giving me the middle finger. It was intense. It was not peaceful. It was like ‘Fuck you, Matisyahu.’ I’ve never had the experience of anything like that, as a Jew or anything in my life.”
Matisyahu said that the Rototom performance marked one of the only times he’s ever felt unsafe taking the stage.
“I just assumed everyone in the festival was going to be regular reggae festival-goers, so I got really nervous. I felt totally open and that anyone could do whatever they want,” he said.
His performance was the culmination of back-and-forth rescinded invitations from Rototom organizers that blew up into an international controversy.
It’s only taken a matter of days to see that the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction (BDS) movement’s campaign to keep Matisyahu from performing at the Rototom Sunsplash festival completely backfired.
For the first time in arguably four years, the reggae hip-hop artist better known for his (former) Hasidic Judaism, not his songs, was nabbing media coverage across the globe.
Not since 2011 when Matisyahu shared a photo of himself having shaved his trademark beard and ditched his traditional Orthodox Jewish look—and for that matter, his traditional Orthodox Judaism with it—had he been so relevant.
And even then, Gawker responded with the dramatic transformation in Matisyahu’s look with the headline “Matisyahu Shaves Beard, Reminding World of His Existence.”
Since then, Matisyahu has continued making music and touring, but in clean-shaven, relative obscurity, at least compared to his earlier days.
Matthew Paul Miller took the stage name Matisyahu and burst onto the hip-hop scene a decade ago as an aberration. A former drug addict-turned Phish Head-turned-Hasidic Jewish rapper sounded like the basis of a Saturday Night Live sketch.
But people weren’t laughing; they were listening.
With his second album, Live at Stubb’s in 2005, Matisyahu gained mainstream props. He earned write-ups in Rolling Stone and thanks to the single “King Without a Crown,” Live at Stubb’s became the No. 2 Billboard reggae album in 2006.
Matisyahu kept recording albums and touring the globe, but once his novelty wore off, the mainstream media didn’t pay as much attention to him.
But then a BDS chapter in Valencia successfully pushed for Matisyahu to be removed from the Rototom Sunsplash music festival after he refused to make a public statement endorsing Palestinian statehood.
It could not have been a bigger misstep for Rototom or the BDS movement, both of which were almost universally panned.
People across the globe were alarmed that Matisyahu was the only performer at the week-long festival singled out to publicly declare his views, and a number of journalists—including this one—saw anti-Semitism at play in the sheep’s clothing of Israel critiques.
And as those two parties were lambasted, Matisyahu was thrust back in the spotlight.
He earned praise for not kowtowing to Rototom and, according to many advocates, exposing BDS’s bigotry to the world.
Recalling the chain of events, just days removed from the uproar, Matisyahu still sounds a bit dumbfounded that Rototom requested the statement of Palestinian statehood support in the first place.
“The first email I got [from Rototom] asked me to clarify my position on Palestine. It mentioned that they were getting pressure from this group, that they could make the group go away if I could make a statement,” Matisyahu said.
“I responded that I was sort of taken aback they would ask me for it. It felt weird. I’m pretty much known throughout, I think, as someone who is pro-peace and all about building bridges and bringing people together. It was kind of interesting to me that they would take this group seriously.”
Matisyahu has publicly stated his love for Israel—a fact that the BDS group members explicitly used as a criticism, calling him a “lover of Israel,” according to a Reuters report.
Matisyahu has also performed at events for AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group in the U.S. that is often criticized by supporters of Palestinian statehood, so he has hardly led an apolitical life.
Still, he claimed he has never taken sides in the conflict.
“I’m not a political scientist, and I don’t claim to know all the details and the facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I haven’t chosen a side,” Matisyahu firmly said in our interview.
Matisyahu said he responded to Rototom’s initial request, saying he “couldn’t give them a direct answer.”
A few days later, “they came back and said they wanted a specific statement saying I supported Palestine and to speak out against Israeli quote-end quote ‘war crimes,’” he said.
“At that point, I said I wasn’t comfortable and if they didn’t want me there, I wasn’t interested in being there.”
A number of news outlets pointed to the Rototom flare-up as the prime paragon of Europe’s growing anti-Semitism.
To some, kicking out Matisyahu fit a little too well with the attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris this year and the many studies indicating anti-Semitism was on the rise.
BDS groups have since fired back that Rototom’s ultimatum to Matisyahu was fair because he has publicly voiced support for Israel and performed for groups that support Israel and Friends of the IDF.
“A native New Yorker, Miller has certainly never needed to be coerced to declare that ‘I’m a strong supporter of Israel.’ But he has gone far beyond that,” Ali Abunimah all but sneered in his writing for the Electric Intifada.
Did Matisyahu also think Rototom’s request for a public statement from him, and only him, was a form of anti-Semitism?
“Absolutely,” he said. “That was the first thing I said in the first email I wrote back to them.”
He described it as an eye-opener, saying he never encountered a sense of anti-Semitism, regardless of where he performed.
“I’ve been touring in Europe even from the time I had a beard and yarmulke [religious Jewish head covering], and I had never been with people who expressed what I thought was outright anti-Semitism,” he said.
“You hear stories. You hear things on the news, but at the end of the day, you relate back to your experience.
‘I view it some extent as an isolated experience, but the [BDS] group seems to be making more noise. To me there’ s no doubt, maybe not for everyone involved in that organization, but there’s definitely an anti-Semitism that’s there.”
In the ultimate reversal of fortune, Rototom publicly apologized and invited Matisyahu back to perform. He agreed to, though with some reservations that he said were ultimately validated.
Haaretz reported from the festival that “dozens of people whistled in disapproval as Matisyahu took to the stage in the early hours of Sunday, with some waving Palestinian flags and chanting ‘out, out.’”
By email, a Rototom spokesperson told The Daily Beast, “Among the public there were 20 flags, but that night at the festival there were more than 15,000 persons.” She also confirmed people were flipping him off, though she didn’t know “if they were part of the BDS organization, or if they were just Pro-Palestinian.”
Matisyahu still played his 45-minute set, including “Jerusalem,” a riff on the Biblical psalm “Jerusalem, if I forget you, may my right hand forget its skill.”
Matisyahu said that song wasn’t chosen as a statement, but more because it is one of his most popular. He also denies that the message of the song is explicitly Zionist, though it is hard not to read into the lyrics: “Afraid of the past and our dark history/Why is everybody always chasing we/Cut off the roots of your family tree/Don’t you see that’s not the way to be.”
When asked what it felt like to perform at Rototom, Matisyahu gave the most Matisyahu answer: spiritual, zen-like, and opaque in a way that you can’t tell if it’s purposeful or genuinely foggy.
“At first it was frustrating, but I felt this shift where I felt this acceptance of the human condition, and this was all part of it. I felt the presence of God around it all, so the concert ended on a really high note,” he told The Daily Beast. “I felt that opposition, but I also felt acceptance of the whole situation.”
It’s the kind of crunchy-granola, state-of-nirvana hopeful transcendence that one would expect from a white, vegan, reggae artist—especially when he no longer has the physical trappings of Orthodox Judaism to distinguish him from a yoga teacher in L.A. (which is pretty much exactly what Matisyahu looks like now).
His experience at Rototom does not appear to have jaded his (some would say naive) belief in peace—a peace to be reached through reggae, not politics.
“I stand in the same place I did before with my beliefs,” he said. “Something has to supersede the logic of the politics of who’s right and who’s wrong. I think the only way for there to be peace is for something to happen beyond all that,” he said. “I think our music has a better capability of bringing human beings together than politics. That’s still how I feel about it.”
But I asked Matisyahu to put his money where his mouth is if he really believes music can bring about peace: Would he perform in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip?
“I will perform wherever I am invited,” he says point blank, though he then adds, “ as long it was a genuine invitation, and I felt like it was safe for me to be there.”
That small qualification stands out in severity, only because it’s being uttered by a man whose voice is utterly placid and spacey, like he’s drunk a bit too much of the peace-love-happiness Kool-Aid.
But then, how could he not be enjoying the renewed interesting in him —especially in time for the launch of a new album, Live at Stubb’s Vol. III, and a fall concert tour across North America.
So, I asked Matisyahu, is there any credence to suggestions his reaction to Rototom was a play for more media attention?
“I guess I would say that’s an interesting idea, and the end of the day, that’s definitely a question that came across my mind: When was the last time I got this much press? When I shaved. It wasn’t about my music or my lyrics. That is what it is. What can I do about it?,” he said.
His apparent candor and serene nonchalance make it easy to overlook the darker side to Matisyahu’s career and life.
In 2011, Rebecca Smeyne, a photographer for Paper magazine, said Matisyahu stepped on her face to kick her and break her camera. The description of the alleged attack is revolting, though few seem to remember it. Matisyahu released a statement apologizing, though he said he “wouldn’t call it a kick.”
Matisyahu didn’t just go off the derech (OTD)—an expression for leaving the Orthodox “path.” He also got divorced along the way from his still-religious wife. Together they had three sons, Shalom, Menachem Mendl, and Laivy.
I ask if he’s worried about how they will perceive him or cope with their parents following two very different lifestyles.
“I think it’s important for kids to see different sides of the coin and be able to make more free decisions for themselves as they get older. It’s the reality. They will see people believe different things,” he said. “It can be difficult at times, but I actually think that’s a great lesson.”
During his OTD time, he also fathered a daughter, Sasha Lil, with Toma Danley, a friend from the days when he was an acid-tripping high school kid sent off to a wilderness therapy program in Oregon.
The Times of Israel reported that Danley appears to be engaged to someone who is not Matisyahu, based on her Facebook photos.
And in case you had any doubts that a reggae artist enjoys the ganja, Matisyahu is happy to confirm that he does. His interview with High Times last year not only included how cannabis “can make the creative process smoother and easier,” but a video of him lighting up and giving a top five of people with whom he’d like to share a spliff.
“I stopped smoking when I became religious around 2000 and didn’t smoke for about seven or eight years,” he said.
“When I became religious, I was trying to focus on being something else, developing a different side of myself. That was the me that was more prevalent to the world at that time,” he said. “Even at that time, if you had been around my band at the time, they would have known a different me than the band I’m with now knows.”
It’s unclear who the Matisyahu of now is. The more one speaks to him, the harder he is to characterize. He’s vague when I ask about which religious traditions he still observes, stressing “the practice is always what fluctuates” for him.
At one point, we slip into a bit of hometown nostalgia, since we grew up in suburbs next door to each other, just north of New York City in Westchester County.
Of a job he had at a farmstand near a local swimming pool, he said, “I probably sold corn to your dad”—not a phrase I expected to hear from a Grammy-nominated reggae hip-hop artist. But then everything about Matisyahu seems unexpected.