Music Wins: Matisyahu Makes a Stand.

The Wilderness | Issue 57 | 8 . 24 . 2015 |

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The push to endorse a pro-Palestine ideology is one of those “cool” movements often seen by liberal braggarts onto young eager activists who have no real concept of what the conflict is actually really about. It’s highly popular among young progressives and especially on college campuses (NYU in particular). Palestinian flags flew at Occupy rallies, at Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, and in New York City at Climate marches. The Palestinian flag itself is almost as much a pop culture symbol to the American left as, say, a Che Guevara t-shirt or the sickle and hammer. They are perfectly at ease eradicating an extremist flag of racial oppression from their history while, at the same time, happily promoting a new one in its place.

In the US, the pro-Palestine movement is much more of glam activism seen in Hot Topic apparel stores and nudged on by a still-somewhat-culturally-popular President and his allies in entertainment media (MTV, Rolling Stone, Vice, Vox, etc.). Actors, musicians and entertainers openly express their support for a “Free Palestine” without much education on the matter, but their politicians of choice on the left seem to be all for it, so why not? Rihanna tweeting out a #FreePalestine hashtag to her young audience is no different than an elitist Vox author claiming Israel is trying to unlawfully wrestle control of the Gaza bridge (which doesn’t actually exist). Current Vanilla Ice impersonator Macklemore can trot out in a costume of a Jewish stereotype while tweeting that George W. Bush was behind 9/11, and his career can still flourish among progressive elites. In the United States, the religious and territorial war happening in the West Bank is a war of information utilized by the worst sources in pop entertainment. Pro-Palestinian Academia and politicians then harness this glamorization as a messaging tool to promote their political agenda through media. It’s simple branding – Everyone thinks it’s cool, so you should also.

In the rest of the world, however, the flag waiving Free Palestine movement has become a dangerous and rapidly rising token of not just opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu, but rampant and bold Anti-Semitism spreading across the Middle East and Europe. Abetted in part due to an overeager and sympathizing media to portray Hamas and their allies as a brave force of freedom fighters (hiding in schools and using children as meat shields) in opposition of an imperial colonizing and fascist, Zionist Israel. It is a country and a culture that finds itself more and more surrounded by enemies, and thanks to a hostile presidential administration, less and less surrounded by friends.

Rises in anti-semitism is largely dependent on allies of Israel in pop culture or entertainment remaining silent so as to not jeopardize their friendships or professional relationships in these industries. This remains the case with almost any other conservative political stances as Brendan Eich from Mozilla discovered. As progressive mobs scour social media to shame and hang the next target that openly defies them, musicians and movie stars appear in liberal PSA announcements proudly parading whatever goofy cultish-like slogan they have written on their hands, and the minority of those around them that oppose slip away into silence and mind their own business. Play nice and nothing happens to them. The more and more our entertainment, music, and movies become politicized with a singular progressive ideology, the greater the chances anyone with different beliefs become silenced. There’s simply nothing to gain by publicly opposing, say, someone like Eddie Vedder’s radically batshit communist views and political positions that have overtaken his stage shows, if all it leads to is a PR print war where Rolling Stone, Spin, and Pitchfork are going to take his side. Acquiescence becomes the most convenient option.

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That’s what organizers of the annual Rototom Sunsplash Festival in Spain this past weekend (a reggae fest that claims to promote social justice and peace awareness globally) were hoping would happen with American Jewish hip hop reggae artist Matisyahu when he was asked prior to the event to release a public service announcement condemning Israel’s recent military operations against Hamas and supporting a Palestine state on behalf of the Free Palestine BDS group (Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions). Matisyahu (real name Matthew Paul Miller) has been an independent niche artist for a number of years and has been mostly written off by his most ardent critics as a gimmick act, a throwback to “Fight for Your Right”-era Beastie Boys (Matisyahu hails from the same NYC Borough — Brooklyn) who you could never tell were being serious about their hip hop roots or were simply mocking it as a form of cultural appropriation. Much like the Beastie Boys earned their place among Hip Hop elite, Matisyahu has almost mastered his craft. He has shunned the mainstream lifestyle and focused more on the lyrical sophistication of his albums and live performances, which have gained him a loyal international audience of all faiths, color and belief. If you haven’t heard of Matisyahu, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. One thing is assured, however, his lyrical displays of his Hassidic faith or performing in traditional attire is more than a stage act.

Along with the PSA request, the local Spanish chapter of the International Palestine BDS movement, BDS País Valencìa, cursed Matishayu’s involvement completely and threatened event organizers with disruptive action, including a campaign of cohesion and protests. Matisyahu’s music and lyrics are certainly influenced by his immersion in Chabad and are generally A-Political (similar to, say, U2), but, as stated above, that rarely matters in today’s hyper-politicized cult of entertainment activism, both in the United States and abroad. His pro-Israel statements away from the stage (remember, he is an American citizen) had all but condemned him to speak for all Israelis and Jews worldwide.

Matisyahu refused to cave to the BDS group’s political demands, which led to Sunsplash organizers revoking his invitation.

It was the kind of public punishment that’s become all too common in the past seven years as political correctness rises and the promotion of artistic freedom falls. Matisyahu released a statement on Facebook explaining his point of view for the cancellation. Rototom released a statement on their official website as well, declaring their sensitivity for the Palestine people in a desperate attempt to save face for BDS and their progressive audience. BDS claimed victory.  The Logo Network’s website NewNowNext (A network that promotes gay and LGBT lifestyles and entertainment) noted that no other artists were put to such human rights litmus tests.

BDS founder Omar Barghouthi spoke with Al Jazeera shortly after the decision to remove Matisyahu. “Human rights organizers in Spain have successfully pressured the Rototom festival to cancel this U.S. artist’s show because of his record of hateful and racial incitement and his defense of Israeli war crimes and human rights violations.”

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The BDS movement is not simply an unorganized group of religious extremists. They have the support of activists in the United States from Black Lives Matter and the Occupy movement, whose many celebrity supporters have signed onto Israel Boycotts as well. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello (who performed at the White House for President Obama), and Sinead O’Connor have all cancelled events in Israel or at Israel-related events, according to Al Jazeera. The group understands the power of winning a propaganda war of information, especially as it relates to entertainers and their young fans and particularly in an age where musicians and actors place their politics above that of their creative choices and their audiences.

But the Jewish community has a voice as well, and they used it collectively on social media to spread the message of Rototom’s actions. The outcry over Matisyahu’s expulsion for what appeared to be over his loyalty to his Jewish faith was heard all the way from local government officials in Valencia, the location of the festival, to the Jewish and US embassies in Spain, as well as from other artists declaring their support. Ronald S. Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress issued a statement on the group’s website defending him. On top of that, sponsors began pulling out of the festival. By capitulating to the extreme demands of a religious mob, Rototom organizers had caused an international incident that was now casting an enormous cloud of intolerance over their festival, as opposed to the friendly cloud of . . . mellow artistic activism. Due to the enormity of the public backlash, Rototom reinstated Matisyahu’s invitation, complete with full apology, which he pondered but ultimately accepted.

But that’s not the end of the story.

As the festival wound down on its final day, Matisyahu took the central stage at his original prime-time slot in front of a somewhat politically hostile crowd flashing signs in support of BDS and Palestine as well as middle finger salutes. He walked out to both cheers and jeers amongst a sea of Palestinian flags waiving at him from the crowd. What he did next speaks for itself:

Opening his 45 minute set with his 2006 song “Jerusalem,” Matisyahu put BDS and their zealous supporters on notice that their attempts to silence free artistic expression of faith had failed. He did so without using intimidation tactics or threats of violence and disruption. He did it without having to pressure sponsors of Rototom or by using government or influence in media. He did it without launching a rocket into a neighborhood of civilians or faking injuries for BBC’s cameras.

He simply did it with his own lyrics:

Jerusalem, if I forget you, fire not gonna come from me tongue. 
Jerusalem, if I forget you, let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do.

In the ancient days, we will return with no delay picking up the bounty and the spoils on our way
We’ve been traveling from state to state And them don’t understand what they say
3,000 years with no place to be and they want me to give up my milk and honey
Don’t you see, it’s not about the land or the sea not the country but the dwelling of his majesty

Rebuild the temple and the crown of glory years gone by, about sixty
Burn in the oven in this century and the gas tried to choke, but it couldn’t choke me
I will not lie down, I will not fall asleep, they come overseas, yes they’re trying to be free
Erase the demons out of our memory, change your name and your identity
Afraid of the truth and our dark history, why is everybody always chasing we
Cut off the roots of your family tree, don’t you know that’s not the way to be

Matisyahu’s own words proved more commanding than intimidating threats. More importantly, he reminded us that what a musician says with their music is more powerful than the Che t-shirt they wear to the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood, or the flag they waive in support of a politician (See Katy Perry’s Obama dress or changing her Twitter avatar to a version of Hillary Clinton’s H logo). Matisyahu’s stand against political and religious bullying is one of the most punk rock acts witnessed in independent or mainstream music in recent memory. Jeers boos and heckles in the end turned to cheers and applause.

This was much more than free expression or courage. This was an artist seizing their moment, much the same way say Foo Fighters did when Westboro Baptist Church protested outside their show. These moments feel so visceral in modern culture and music because everything feels so automatic and synthesized. None of it feels real. Even the most outlandish antics of a Kanye West feel staged and nothing more than a simple exercise in ego. Mainstream music rarely feels like it means anything and when we see a salvo like the one Matisyahu displayed, it both turns our gut, and reinforces our resolve.

Matisyahu posted a simple message on Facebook:

“Today music wins. Freedom of expression wins. Spain, this Saturday Aug 22nd. I have always believed in the power of music to unite all people, regardless of religion, politics or geography. This was an excruciating decision, as I felt that my core, essential being was being used as a pawn for political convenience. It is my deep conviction however that acceptance and the ability for rebirth allow us to move forward. The incredible outpouring of worldwide support from fans and organizations who rose up as one to protest the intrusion of politics into a borderless celebration of music has been humbling. My deepest thanks to the worldwide community for rallying to the cause of musical freedom. Most of all, thank you to my incredible fans and to so many people of all faiths who refused to remain silent in the name of artistic freedom. This is your victory.”

Music wins

– SM –

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  1. Mpshe Pesach Geller Reply

    Really clear and strong article. Just one thing: Matisyahu long ago shed hos Chassidic garb and Chabad ways. Long ago.

    • Stephen Miller Reply

      Right. I Wanted to give some context as to who he was as a performer and I did want to explore more of his history but for word constraints was trying to focus on the current Sunsplash events of the past week. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Ben Avi Reply

    Good job Stephen. Matisyahu is mos def a mensch! BTW, you know his last name is Miller… right?

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