March 1, 2012
Matisyahu's Chasidic Reggae-Rap at the Boundaries of a Performative Israel
— Meredith Aska McBride
The Jewish reggae-rap-rock artist Matisyahu has recently been in the news for what may seem like a trivial reason: formerly a staunch Chasid, he appeared in public with his hair and beard completely shaven, saying that he no longer affiliates with Chasidism but still considered himself observant. Many commentators expressed surprise and even shock, as an intense attachment to Chasidism has formed an integral part of Matisyahu's work for nearly a decade.
As someone who has been observing Matisyahu for the better part of that decade, however, I was intrigued, but not surprised. Right before his career began, Matisyahu became a ba'al teshuvah, or newly-observant Jew. Later, he disavowed the Chabad movement, saying that he was a Chasid without a movement—a move perhaps unprecedented within the history of Jewish populist mysticism. That is, Matisyahu has long been a boundary-crosser, both in his religious life and in his musical work, ever-moving toward an idiosyncratic religious identity.
In his music, Matisyahu makes extensive use of Jamaican popular music styles. Space and scope do not permit me to go into detail here. However, five minutes on the MatisyahuVEVO channel on YouTube will illustrate this quite well. Rhythms and instrumental sounds drawn from reggae, dancehall, and dub form the backbone of his work. Furthermore, despite hailing from White Plains, New York, Matisyahu often sings using a distinctly Jamaican accent. The soundworld of his music is, then, primarily Jamaican.
At the same time, Matisyahu's lyrics deal exclusively with Jewish themes, including liturgical texts, devotional meditations, and didactic narratives. He makes extensive use of metaphors of Biblical geography, which are then analogized to contemporary Jewish life. For example, he frequently refers to what he perceives as the materialism, alienation, and shallowness of secularism as "Egypt," and his vision of the ideal observant life as the "Promised Land." Indeed, his lyrics are almost obsessed with this metaphorical promised land, using analogies and terms drawn from Zionism.
Yet, I argue, this Zionism is not the same as contemporary political Zionism. Although Matisyahu seems to be fairly right-wing on Israel issues, his music consistently establishes that the metaphorical Promised Land—i.e., promoting strict Jewish observance—is more important to him. Zionist discourse is but an elaborate metaphor for the religious outreach in which Matisyahu is engaged through his music.
Ultimately, Matisyahu's verbal and musical strategies allow for elements of mainstream American and Caribbean culture to be selectively utilized and assimiliated, while at the same time strenuously maintaining self-other boundaries. These strategies create a clear hierarchy between meanings carried in the lyrics and meanings carried in the instrumental accompaniment.
These hierarchies and strategies themselves serve as metaphors. Just as Chasidic or religiously-observant lyrics can create a new musical world within an almost exclusively non-Jewish instrumental soundscape, so too for Matisyahu can American Jews be observant islands that coexist harmoniously with the surrounding mainstream culture without having to change whatever constitutes the "essence" of their Jewish identity.
Thus, although Matisyahu appears in many senses to be a boundary crosser, these crossings primarily serve to reinforce the existence of these boundaries. I look forward to seeing what boundaries he crosses next, and in what ways he uses music to play with and around them.
For an example of commentary on Matisyahu's beard-shaving see Emily Wax, "Hasidic reggae-rapper Matisyahu shaves beard," The Washington Post, December 27, 2011.
Meredith Aska McBride is a graduate student in ethnomusicology and Jewish studies at the University of Chicago. Most of her research focuses on American Jewish popular and liturgical music.