Thursday, August 27, 2015

Critical thoughts on Matisyahu

There is currently a boycott going on in regards to the rap-rock artist Matisyahu, who has a history of apologetics for Israeli brutality and fundraising for AIPAC. 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.
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 modern Israel and the Occupied Territories. '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.
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
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 say3,000 years with no place to beAnd 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 seaNot 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 sixtyBurn in the oven in this centuryAnd the gas tried to choke, but it couldn't choke meI will not lie down, I will not fall asleepThey come overseas, yes they're trying to be freeErase the demons out of our memoryChange your name and your identityAfraid of the truth and our dark history
Here is the typical Holocaust Industry 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
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.

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