The Misinterpreted Metamorphosis of Jewish Rapper Matisyahu (Guest Blog)

Matt Miller, aka Matisyahu, recently faced an anti-Israel mob-mentality hatred that was aimed at him only for the fact that he is a Jewish-American artist

Getty Images

Matt Miller, aka Matisyahu has gone through some changes. Not since the Beatles traded their cherubic and cute mop tops and Cardin collarless suits for the transcendental look of facial hair and Nehru-psychedelic fashion has someone gone through a transformation so severe.

You need only to Google “Matisyahu” to see the radical change that’s occurred over the years.

Where The Beatle’s artistic growth was arguably fueled by copious amounts of psychedelics and the passion to exceed the technical limitations of their art, Matisyahu’s own “evolution” was a conscious decision to “reclaim” himself from a lifestyle and appearance that mirrored his “intuition to accept an ultimate truth.” The rules that Orthodox Judaism places on the individual kept Matisyahu from “falling apart” and provided an identity that was palatable to his community, yet hindered his growth as an artist.

Matisyahu’s comparison to the greatest band of all time doesn’t end with the shape-shifting of personal appearances. Having recently been drawn into the controversy of Israeli socio/economic politics, Matisyahu faced an anti-Israel mob-mentality hatred that was aimed at him only for the fact that he is a Jewish-American artist. Harken back to the days when Lennon’s statement that The Beatles “are bigger than Jesus” — it was the other three Beatles that were caught in the headlights of a rabid controversy, only for the association that they had with their famous bandmate.

Matisyahu is as much an Israeli as John Lennon was an Irishman [Miller was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania; Lennon in Liverpool, England]. He might have before his metamorphosis looked like the proto-typically ignorant stereotype of “a guy from Israel,” but he’s actually from Crown Heights and not Israel. He is however Jewish, and that along with the memory of his former self was enough for the anti-Israel forces to categorize him and therefore boycott him. Unlike Lennon, Matisyahu never made any incendiary statements. Matisyahu’s vision of tolerance and unity is expressed in his music. The song “One Day,” which has over 30,000,000 YouTube hits celebrates the day when the violence ends and a new era of peace and understanding shines on all people in all corners of the globe. As Matisyahu explained, “it is an anthem of hope with a big beat, the kind of song that makes you bob your head and open your heart at the same time.”

An invitation by the Rototom Sunsplash Festival last summer was pivotal to Matisyahu’s evolution. Caving in to pressure from pro-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction of Israel) factions, the promoter demanded Matisyahu sign a declaration endorsing a Palestinian state. Imagine the scene from “The Godfather” when the hulking Luca Brasi enforced Don Corleone’s threat that “either your signature or your brains will be on that contract.” As life imitates art, the mob mentality that sought to insure Johnny Fontaine’s release from his big band contract was repeated with Matisyahu, and to Matisyahu’s credit, he took a stand against taking a stand. The promoter informed him that he would not be performing.

The backlash was formidable as an outcry led by not only Jewish organizations, but the Spanish government itself condemned the decision to drop Matisyahu from the festival.

Responding to the controversy, Matisyahu took to social media and made a statement: “Honestly it was appalling and offensive, that as the one publicly Jewish-American artist scheduled for the festival they were trying to coerce me into political statements.”

Creative Community For Peace, an entertainment industry organization that was founded to promote music and the arts as a bridge to peace, according to CCFP director Jill Hoyt, worked behind the scenes with Matisyahu’s team in assisting them with ‘strategy, response and messaging to ensure the public understood the very anti-Semitic underpinnings of the anti-Israel movement.”

Although Matisyahu now resembles a taller and more sinewy version of Sal Mineo, the echoes of his original iteration that included a rabbinical beard and side curls was evidently still in the minds of those who tried to block him from the Sunsplash festival. There was no reclamation in the eyes of those who greeted him on that stage holding Palestinian flags and giving him the finger … and there was probably no braver example of performing under duress when Matisyahu stared down his detractors, and sang his heart out.

The transformation now took a new turn. Matisyahu was morphing from musician to diplomat. By the time Matisyahu left the stage, the catcalls had been replaced by a crescendo of love. The hate-filled banners and Palestinian flags were lowered as people locked arms and swayed to a different mantra where the percussive beating of the heart sync’d up with Matisyahu’s beat-box vocals.

This time, the political divide was bridged by music.

Listening to Matisyahu’s epic “Live At Stubb’s” while finishing this blog, I’m struck at how political everything has become. Music seems to be obfuscated while bluster trumps talent. The concert stage has been usurped by political performers adorned with Flock of Seagulls golden hair and Oompa Loompa-esque bloated, orange faces. Their shield is a podium and not a Fender Stratocaster — yet they wade into the flames of controversy and body surf over throngs of rabid fans. They claim victory with rock anthems announcing their approach to the microphone.

Matisyahu’s metamorphosis continues. There is something in Matisyahu’s music that transcends his changing persona yet defines the changing times. When his bravery is mentioned, he looks down, partly embarrassed and mostly wishing that this too shall pass. The politics of division have no place in his music. As he sings in “One Day”:

“Sometimes in my tears I drown
But I never let it get me down
So when negativity surrounds
I know some day it’ll all turn around because…
All my life I’ve been waiting for
I’ve been praying for
For the people to say
That we don’t wanna fight no more
There will be no more wars
And our children will play
One day.”

Matisyahu will be in concert at The Wiltern in Los Angeles on March 2, 2016.