I was driving west on the Cross Bronx Expressway, a place that always makes me extremely nervous, with my both hands clenching the wheel, listening to WFUV, Fordham University’s tres cool radio station, when mine ears beheld some wacky dub reggae with a very rock sound and out-a-control singer going on about G-d using very “old testament”-y sounding language. I was quite taken. Three minutes into the song I was screaming, “Yah, Mon! Yah Mon! Rock on muthafucka!” as the guitar solo went stratospheric.
“Who the hell was that?” I asked my invisible car mates when the song ended.
Turns out it was this guy, Matisyahu, nee Matthew Miller, a Hasidic rapper now from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. So I downloaded his album Live At Stubbs, which was recorded at a rock club in Austin, Texas, and listened to it about 10 times yesterday.
Kinda got me thinking about things musical, Jewish, and Brooklyn.
Let me say that this kid Matisyahu is a first-rate talent, and he has a quite competent backing band behind him. After having listened to album several times now I can hear the ragged edges– his “flow” is not always especially flowing, and he’s not a first-rate poet, although a lot of his lyrics are quite good (after all, a lot of what he sings is lifted from the psalms of David, so he’s starting with some quality sources). Musically, the songs, when you get down to it, are pretty straightforward three or four-chord Reggae/Dub. Which is good stuff, generally speaking, but hardly new news anymore. So what was it about this music that had me screaming with the radio? What made me go track down this album and listen to it compulsively all day? (I don’t do that very often.)
It’s genuine, that’s what. That first song I heard, “King without a crown” starts off with this eerie kind of ecstatic moaning, very Marvin Gaye, that surprisingly mutates into reggae. (It was surprising to me, that is, as some guy hearing the song on the radio, unintroduced, without context.) I assume that the opening verses are in the psalmic tradition–something a cantor would sing– but I don’t know. All I know is that I was completely grabbed by the singer. I was totally convinced that he was singing something that he felt to be absolutely true and vitally important. He could have been singing about the color of the floor tiles in aisle six of the local Stop & Shop for all I cared. It was the passion, the intensity, that was unmistakable, and so very compelling.
It turns out that virtually all of Matisyahu’s songs are religiously themed. The bio on his website tells the story of a kid from White Plains, New York, who grew up in the typical American suburban pattern, got in touch with his inner Jew after a spiritual experience while hiking in the Rockies, went to Israel and had some more spiritual experiences, met a Hasidic rabbi in a New York City park and had some more spiritual experiences. Along the way he put his band together.
But what is one to make of his “message”? If he were a so-called “Christian rocker”, what he’s doing would be called evangelizing. Christians, even those of the non “evangelical” stripe, believe that they have heard the “Good News” and have a responsibility to share that good news with the world. When they “testify” about how great Jesus is, it’s implicit that you, the listener, should get hip and let “Him” into your heart too. But last time I looked, Judaism was still, (thank (fill in the blank)), a pretty non-evangelical religion. You don’t see many rabbis on the street corners exhorting random passers-by to “Come to Y—–h”.
I’m not a Jew. So what exactly am I supposed to do with Matisyahu’s expressions of love for Hashem? In a way, listening to Matisyahu’s ecstatic hymns is like listening to somebody sing about how much he loves having sex with his wife: it’s nice and all, but, how do I relate? And it’s not as if I can transfer his meaning to my own situation by contemplating how much I like having sex with my own wife, because, if you’re a monotheist like Matisyahu, there is only one wife. I’m saying that, ontologically speaking, it’s somehow voyeuristic.
Not that I think that Matisyahu or any other Jewish person owes me an explanation of how I’m supposed to relate to “their” God — and furthermore, I don’t care. I just note the oddness of the phenomenon of a Hasidic rapper preaching the Hebrew God, if you will, to an enthusiastic audience of goyem (including me). On the other hand, I don’t suppose it’s much more odd than taking delight in the music of Rastafarians singing songs in praise of Hailie Selasie, which is, after all, the inspiration of Matisyahu’s music (and an even more alien religious proposition, at least to me).
Like every sophisticated person in the western world, of course, I have Jew envy. As a smart, inquisitive, direct-talking hardworking person with a sense of humor, I am aware that my not being Jewish is some kind of cosmic mistake — although being an Americanized Scottish-Irish-SwedeFinn is not a bad pedigree. “We can’t all be Jewish,” my mother used to explain, “but at least we can be Catholic. After all, that’s why Jesus came.”
A climax of the original Acts of the Apostles (the chronicle of the early church attributed to St. Luke, not the novel of the same name by me) is the big showdown between Paul (nee Saul), who never met Jesus (at least, not before the crucifixion) and a powerful faction of (Jewish) Christians in Jerusalem, over whether a man needed to be circumcised in order to be a Christian (chapter 15). Paul was of the “absolutely not!” school, and came back from a mission hundreds of miles away to argue his case (based on the theology of the Holy Spirit). Peter had already started by ball rolling, having received a vision (confirmed three times) that dietary laws of Moses had been superceded by the teachings of Jesus and no longer needed to be followed. Between Peter’s vision and Paul’s logic, the early Church began to be something different than a Jewish sect, although it was clearly still a Jewish something. Having claimed the prophets without the messy bother of circumcision or the sensual deprivation of keeping kosher, the early church offered a kind of free lunch. It was a way to be Jewish without having to actually be Jewish; plus you got to see miracles and other cool stuff.
Nowadays, of course, Christianity has evolved and mutated and metastasized into 43,952 different idiot bastard dress codes, each of them more stupid and incomprehensible–when it is not simply more perverse–than the others. Who knows what “Christianity” means these days? And furthermore, who cares?
The point of this whole digression is simply that were Paul or Peter or Barnabus or any of those other early church dudes rapping in front of a reggae band preaching the love of Reb Jesus at Stubbs in Austin, at least we would know where we stood in relation to the words coming from their lips. With Matisyahu, that’s kinda unclear.
But back to the music. I was really hoping that the album would contain some klezmer influences. I don’t know if he’s done anything other than reggae & hip hop, but there some tantalizing hints out there on the net–photos of Matisyahu in front of an accordian player–give me to hope that there are new musical treats in store for me. I really think that this guy is a phenomenal talent, and I will not be surprised to see him creating all kinds of new mixes and genres.
I also had some thoughts about Brooklyn, including my adventures as a furniture mover in Crown Heights and a recent encounter with an old friend in Park Slope, but I think I’ve rambled on sufficiently for one entry already.