Matisyahu, the formerly Hasidic, American-Jewish reggae beatboxer/ rapper and West Chester native, took the stage on March 24 for University of Pennsylvania students as part of his 12-university tour.
After facing criticism for not taking the Arab side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Matisyahu is spreading his new stance across the country by promoting unity and empathy through music.
The formerly Hasidic, American-Jewish reggae beatboxer/ rapper and West Chester native took the stage on March 24 for University of Pennsylvania students as part of his 12-university tour.
Matisyahu has spread his message alongside Nadim Azzam, a hip-hop singer/ songwriter who was born in Michigan to an Egyptian-Palestinian father and a Jewish mother.
The two are hosting discussions on each campus, where they talk about both sides of the conflict without getting too political.
Instead, the tour transcends politics and focuses more on bringing people together through music.
Matisyahu was inspired to put on these concerts after a confrontation by boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement supporters at a show in Spain last August, where protesters waved Palestinian flags during his set. He was originally disinvited to the festival after he refused to castigate Israel.
Afterward, he decided to draw attention to his pro-Israel stance and get involved the best way he knew how.
“I knew that college campuses are a major place where there’s a lot of anti-Israel sentiment,” he said. “A lot of college kids were misinformed, feeling like this is the new apartheid — something to rally against without really knowing all the information. I felt the best way to try to combat that would be to try to bring those groups together on campus — the Muslim groups and the Jewish groups — in some kind of artistic endeavor instead of a political one.”
Matisyahu added that it’s important to teach kids about music because it is a gateway to many opportunities. If they listen to his music and attend shows with an open mind — as opposed to viewing it solely as a big party or youth group event — they can actually learn from it.
In that same way, Matisyahu has shaped his own audience. He doesn’t always play the hits or perform his music the way it sounds on the recording, he said, but rather focuses on creating a real spiritual, artistic and musical experience.
“It’s for some people and not for some people,” he admitted. “Over the years, I’ve sort of weeded out the fans to actually have people at my shows that are real music people.”
It’s kind of like showing an art gallery to a bunch of 4-year-olds, he explained, because without the prior knowledge of the art, they’re not going to fully understand it. They might be fans of one of his songs they heard at summer camp or when they went to Jerusalem for the first time on Birthright, but they don’t fully grasp the big picture at first.
“When I step on stage, I enter into a whole other state of being, and I’m unable to just be a performer or a youth group director or something like that,” he said. “So I’m trying to figure out how to expose these kids to this music without necessarily defending them, but at the same time teach them something about what live music is and what it can be.”
He hopes he has created an art form that both sides of the argument can embrace. Azzam embodies both sides as well.
Local Hillel chapters are funding the tour. Penn Hillel contributed to the concert, which was held at World Cafe Live.
Rabbi Joshua Bolton, director of the Jewish Renaissance Project and senior Jewish educator at Penn Hillel, said it was a great opportunity. He hopes students were inspired by the concert’s message.
“Music has the capacity to bridge boundaries to transcend the barriers that usually divide folks,” Bolton said. “I’m super hopeful that students will see also that this is an opportunity for a large, diverse group of students to get together for the sake of something that’s much larger than all of us.”
About 600 attended the performance, which was free for students.
“[Matisyahu] is the embodiment of such an interesting and authentic journey of self — religious, spiritual, identity — and that’s what Hillel is all about,” Bolton added. “It’s about enabling students and supporting students as they go through Jewish journeys of all sorts.”
Katie Hartman, student president at Penn Hillel, said both frequent and occasional Hillel-goers attended the concert.
“I think it’s really great to have an event that brings a diverse group of people together. We don’t have so many opportunities to do that,” the 20-year-old junior said. “Even within the Jewish community, there are people who are Jewish but aren’t involved, or Judaism isn’t a huge part of their lives at Penn. But Matisyahu they love, so this will be a good way for Hillel to have some interaction with those students, too.”
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