Trials of a Hasidic Rapper

By Forward Staff

Published March 24, 2006, issue of March 24, 2006.
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Music fans seem thrilled with Chabad-Lubavitch singing sensation Matisyahu; his new album, “Youth,” debuted at number four on the Billboard 200. Critics, on the other hand, are a tough bunch: Some complain that he’s not black, while others say he has betrayed his Jewish ideals.

On the day after his album’s release, The New York Times ran a withering review covering both the new album and a recent live show. The basic gist: Don’t let the black hat fool you; this guy’s as white as a ghost. “He is… a white reggae singer with an all-white band, playing (on Monday night, anyway) to an almost all-white crowd,” Times music critic Kelefa Sanneh wrote. And not only is the singer a cheap substitute for the real deal, Sanneh wrote, but his music is, too. “Perhaps Matisyahu’s fans aren’t familiar with a little-known group of performers who still make great reggae records: Jamaicans.”

Just a few days later, the rapper became the victim of a critical barrage of a different sort. Taking a page from the classic script of the breakout star, he dropped the producers who’d helped launch his career — JDub Records co-founders Aaron Bisman and Jacob Harris — and signed on with Gary Gersh, the manager credited with steering Nirvana to superstardom.

JDub’s Bisman threatened to sue. “We in no way are out to harm Matisyahu,” he told Billboard, “but we can’t just sit and take this. We have a contract and a longstanding relationship.”

But in the eyes of some, Matisyahu’s sins go far beyond mere breach of contract. After reading of the singer’s decision to leave JDub, Daniel Sieradski, editor of the Web log Jewschool.com, called him “a false prophet… who traded in his most devout ‘true believers’ merely to maximize his cash flow potential.”

In the days that followed, Sieradski, who writes under the nom de blog Mobius, expanded his critique to include the singer’s boosters. “What’s interesting to me about most people’s defenses of [Matisyahu’s] actions,” he wrote, “is their blatant hypocrisy, picking and choosing when halakha [rabbinic law] is relevant. If he broke Shabbos and performed on Friday night, everyone would throw a… fit. But when he violates halakha pertaining to business ethics, no one seems to care.”

Not black enough for the music critics, not pious enough for his Jewish critics. Where does that leave the beleaguered rapper? On top of the charts.






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