Welcome to the Rad Religion blog, created to accompany the segment of the same name broadcast weekly on Thursday mornings on 2SER 107.3! The segment explores cool combinations of religions and music genres in an interesting and fun way. This morning Steph Liong of the Thursday Daily show introduced me (Cale Hubble) and we chatted about Matisyahu, an (ex-)Orthodox Jew who sings a fusion of reggae, rock and hip-hop.
The audio is here!
Matisyahu used to wear the full outfit – long black coat, white shirt, black hat – bouncing around in his video clips, waving his hands like a rapper. These days he dresses in ‘street wear’ but his Judaism is still central to his music. Matisyahu – the name is Hebrew for his birth name, Matthew – is a member of the Orthodox sect named Chabad. The joke goes that Chabad is the religion closest to Judaism, because it sticks to all the tenets and rules but also emphasises emotion and the lived experience of faith. It’s an Orthodox sect, which means you’re only a Jew if your mother was, no intermarriage, only males to be rabbis, you wear a beard, a discomfort with modernity and so on. But Chabad was founded with an aim to proselytise, and not to anyone – just to other Jews. It is an attempt to speak to the reformed Jews, who have adapted Judaism to modernity and our changing moralities, or worse to the secular Jews, and to try and bring them back to observant, Orthodox practice.
But Matisyahu lives more or less a rock star lifestyle, with gigs and groupies and all the rest, he’s even had a song featuring Akon – isn’t that incongruous with his faith? He doesn’t think so: he still upholds all the traditions, and draws on Judaism when he writes his lyrics. He himself has said that “Chasidism [a type of Orthodoxy] teaches that music is ‘the quill of the soul'”, expressing things that words alone cannot. He prays and meditates before his performances, although after that he listens to Jay-Z and drinks wine. In his own words, “I’ve always had these two sides of myself … My music is about bringing them together.” A recent tweet saying, “Mazel Tov my bro,” also showcases this juxtaposition.
Now there was some news back in December that rocked the hip-Jewish world. Matisyahu shaved his beard. There’s a lot of talk about what it means, and he’s now growing it back, but the words from his Twitter feed at the time suggest that he has gone ‘beyond’ Orthodoxy: after a difficult and wayward adolescence, “I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules – lots of them – or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.”
On the segment this morning I spoke a lot about Matisyahu’s video clips, especially the one for ‘Jerusalem’, in which people build the Wailing Wall out of glowing pictures of family and friends. I suggested that these are people to be remembered, and that by making this holy wall out of faces, Matisyahu is making a comment about that uniquely powerful Jewish concern with memory. It clearly ties into the events of the 20th Century too, and the oft-repeated refrain ‘Never Again’ is not far from your mind when you watch the video. If you’re intrigued, go watch it!
Thanks for listening / reading. Next Thursday 26 April we’re looking at Buddhist death metal! Tune in at 10.30am on 2SER 107.3.