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Zionist Hip-Hop: a Critical Look at Matisyahu

There is currently a boycott going on in regards to the reggae rap-rock artist Matisyahu, who has a history of apologetics for Israeli brutality and fundraising for AIPAC. To make obvious his political agenda, the artist recently performed a concert at Auschwitz following an effort to boycott him in Spain. His claim is that “I do not insert politics into my music.”

This is just patently absurd, his lyrics are loaded with hasbara and justifications for Israeli policy. As such, rather than engaging in a denunciation, I have chosen to dissect some of his rhymes and see what lies beneath the surface.

Let us begin with his first album, Live at Stubbs, released in 2005. A good deal of the content is related to the artist’s embrace of the Chabad branch of Hasidic Judaism. Based in New York City, the sect’s leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was a militant hawk and refused to sacrifice one inch of land. In a November 1980 letter, he said:

I am completely and unequivocally opposed to the surrender of any of the liberated areas currently under negotiation, such as Judah and Samaria, the Golan, etc., for the simple reason—and only reason—that surrendering any part of them would contravene a clear ruling found in Shulchan Aruch (O.C., Ch. 329, par. 6,7). I have repeatedly emphasized that this ruling has nothing to do with the sanctity of the land of Israel, with “the days of Moshiach,” the coming redemption or similar considerations—but solely with saving lives.

By “saving lives”, Schneerson was referring to Israelis exclusively and in a theocratic sense. The rebbe would meet with Benjamin Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon, and other Israeli politicians, offering them encouragement and blessings. He even declared service in the IDF a Mitzva. Ergo, when Matisyahu invokes his faith in his lyrics, he is referring not just to a religion but an ideology loaded with a socio-political outlook on the Israel-Palestine conflict, an outlook that defines the messianic strains of the settler movement.

 

Now let’s consider this line in the song Aish Tamid. The song is based around the juxtaposition of the ruins of the Second Temple and the concrete jungle of Manhattan.

The place lays phased like a warrior slayed

Engraved into the space with his sword still raised

Layers of charcoal sprayed through hallways

Praise relays off the walls echoing all ways

Dirt covered earth lays beneath my rib cage

Giving birth to overgrowth invading on to path ways

Burnt out trees cover streets where children once played

Sown seeds decay through sacred stepping stones in disarray

Where the altar used to be placed inter-changed for bloodstains

Sunrays illuminate the smoke filled haze

Trace of incense scents of sacrifice stayed

Aish tamid eternally

A fire burns continuously

Wondering where you been

Won’t you come on home to me?

This emphasis on emptiness is problematic because, in reality, the site of the Second Temple is not vacant, the Dome of the Rock is located there. The language of emptiness, disrepair, and abandonment puts the entire Muslim project in East Jerusalem into the realm of undesirability. The final line, ‘won’t you come home to me?‘, carries this idea to the logical conclusion, destruction of the Dome. A few lines later, when he says ‘I’m left empty like the temple turned into a fox den’, you know exactly what he thinks of Palestinians.

On his second album, Youth, released in 2006, the lyrics get more interesting. He says in the song What I’m Fighting For things that obviate the Zionist project:

What I’m fighting for

Is worth far more than silver and gold

What I’m fighting for

Is a chance to unite the past

When a brother’s coming home at last

Fighting together for lives

Sons and daughters of Abraham

Lay down to a higher command

Don’t be tricked by the acts of man

God’s wisdom revealed in a holy plan

A chance to unite the past

When a brothers coming home at last

Fighting together for lives

To Zion we roll and we’re not all alone

Unite and you will find

By ‘unite the past‘, the author is referring to this concept of a Jewish kingdom of antiquity and the effort to re-create it in historic Palestine. ‘Coming home at last‘ is about the completion of full Israeli control of Palestinian lands in the name of the aforementioned Messianic mission. ‘Don’t be tricked by the acts of man‘ seems, in my own estimation, to refer to the efforts to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict, a type of trickery in the minds of the most hawkish and reactionary, while ‘God’s wisdom revealed in a holy plan‘ is reference to the idea that the Almighty sanctions the murder of children.

A major single from the Youth album was Jerusalem, a song loaded with messianic Zionist imagery. As such, an almost line-by-line dissection is appropriate.

[Chorus]

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

[Chorus]

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

[Chorus]

Caught up in these ways, and the worlds gone craze

Don’t you know it’s just a phase

Case of the Simon says

If I forget the truth then my words won’t penetrate

Babylon burning in the place, can’t see through the haze

Chop down all of them dirty ways,

That’s the price that you pay for selling lies to the youth

No way, not ok, oh no way, not ok, hey

Ain’t no one gonna break my stride

Ain’t no one gonna pull me down

Oh no, I got to keep on moving

Stay alive

Obviously the invocation of Psalm 137, a source for the reggae song Rivers of Babylon by The Melodians, carries multiple meanings. On the one hand, there is the Jewish theological connection to Jerusalem on full display. But there is also the socio-political justification of Occupation. As we continue through the lyrics, the theological references continue to serve as such justification.

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

This is typical reference to the wandering of the Jews and alleges Gentile discrimination because the peace process would require ‘me to give up my milk and honey‘. As usual, any solution based on the pre-June 1967 borders is deemed anti-Semitic.

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

Again, references to the Temple Mount and the messianic goal of destroying the Dome of the Rock. The fact that an entire population and religion has a concrete claim on the land does not phase the artist.

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

Here is the typical Holocaust guilt trip twinned with militancy and a kind of Israeli nationalist agenda of the most reactionary kind.

Ancient Lullaby is the song that I find most blatantly discriminatory and Orientalist in verbiage.

Jerusalem breathes, bringin’ me ease from the Brooklyn squeeze,

Dirty Babylon I’ll bring ya down to ya knees

The implication here is that Jerusalem is held in bondage by the Babylonians, both a reference to the Bible and also the Palestinians.

Track ya like a lion, leave me be

When they come with their disease to drag us into the street

The combination of predatory and illness references here is disturbing and classically seen in both anti-black and anti-Semitic propaganda. The lion, associated with purity and royalty, is a further implication of righteousness as opposed to the diseased Arabs.

My law’s still pure, you can’t take that from me,

3000 years until this last century,

Impossible to break the seal of the High Priest

This is more of the same messianic hawkish tendency exhibited elsewhere. The fact that the Old Yishuv and Neturei Karta both oppose Zionism is obviously not on the radar of our Orthodox rap star.

No more leaders, we must flea

We want see God in our enemy

If that were so, Mr. Matisyahu, why are you so militantly opposed to the solution of the conflict?

The 2012 album Spark Seeker features only one song that I could discern as related to the conflict directly, Tel Aviv’n, but it is a doozy.

I’m on a plane over

The Mediterranean

And this terrain of the plains

That’s beneath my feet

I’m on a Jeep at twilight,

With my night vision on

To find the song of my people

‘Til we hit the dawn…

These lines tell of a kind of euphoria and spiritual freedom in Occupied land, utilizing Jeeps and night vision, elements of warfare.

Independence Day the sunset

Dj plays one day

The Independence Day he refers to here is the foundation of Israel, a day of mourning for the Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed from the land. Yes, the nakba was such a celebratory event.

Fly high, higher than all the walls

Fly high, like a desert eagle…

A desert eagle may be a bird, but it is also the name of a high-powered rifle.

I’m on a hillside

Feeling so alive

Below me the Dead Sea and F15’s

Bullet shells be

Just like graffiti

Kojak in a flag with an M16…

You feel so alive among reminders of disenfranchisement and child murder?

You could teach your children hatred

Teach them how to fight

I’m a teach my children how to love

This is typical victim blaming, the Palestinians teach their children hatred and the Zionist project fosters the growth of cherubs.

The history of reggae is one of a music politicized by design. The late Bob Marley was a pan-Africanist and emphasized a critique of the Jamaican political order that resulted in an assassination attempt. Now we have Matisyahu, utilizing the most reactionary of Zionist currents to spread a message of violence and disenfranchisement. How quaint, we go from some of the best anti-racism music to music that promotes blatant anti-Arab racism.

A version of this appears on the authors blog about Israeli and Palestinian media studies, Shoah/Nakba: Two Cinemas, One Land.

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Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

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