Fractured Zions

Note: This paper was written for the class “Rastas and Rastafari,” taught by Clifford Campbell during Fall 2016 at Temple University, Philadelphia PA.

“By the rivers of Babylon—

  there we sat down and there we wept

  when we remembered Zion…

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

  let my right hand wither!

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

  if I do not remember you.”

Psalm 137; 1, 5-6

The image of the exiled Judeans pausing by the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates to rest and weep, dispossessed and forgotten, but not without hope has echoed throughout history in the three thousand years since it’s composition. The simultaneous despair and resilience expressed in these lines have found their way into the hearts of the oppressed and lost for centuries and has been claimed, appropriated, and constantly reimagined by numerous voices. In the early 1970s, the Jamaican Reggae group, The Melodians, recorded a song Rivers of Babylon, channelling the intense dispossession expressed in the Psalm. The song was included on the soundtrack for the 1972 movie starring Jimmy Cliff, The Harder They Come, and has since found audiences worldwide and become a standard in the Reggae canon, especially as it has been covered innumerable times by artists from a gamut of genres. Judeo-Christian 2006 saw the release of Hasidic Reggae artist Matisyahu (born Matthew Paul Miller)’s massive single “Jerusalem (Out of Darkness Comes Light)”. In the song’s hook, Matisyahu extolls, “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,” evoking the ancient longing of the Jewish people for salvation and determination in the context of the 20th and 21st centuries, all sung in a faux Jamaican patois accent. Rastas turned to the Old Testament as a source of inspiration, focusing on the aspects of liberation and disregarding anti-black passages as the not the word of Jah, but the corrupted translations of the white man. Matisyahu has turned to the same passage from the Book of Psalms to enhance his narrative of Jewish resilience, but Matisyahu’s conflation of the State of Israel with Jewish liberation in his music and politics problematizes even more his appropriation of the Reggae genre.

To step back briefly, it is integral that the relationship between the Rastafari movement and Reggae music is understood. Reggae and Rastafari are unique phenomena, but both are uniquely and explicitly products of Jamaican cultural syncretism. Rastafari was born within the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and in the context of extensive British colonialism in Jamaica in the 1930s. Reggae music was born from the creative progression of Jamaican music throughout the 20th century and developed independently of, but tangential to, Rastafari. Since then, however, the two have become inseparable in the global public consciousness, as Reggae became the primary outlet of Rastafari political and theological expression. Artists like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh toured the world preaching the message of Rastafari from the stage, with a one drop beat backing their every word. Reggae exploded onto the world stage as a vessel for Rastafari, and with that came radical politics of liberation, anti-racism, and anti-imperialism — as such Reggae resonated Black liberation struggles globally, even in contexts that Rastafari did not catch on in any meaningful way.

Reggae (and by extension Rastafari, at least as it is seen publicly by most of the world) is overwhelmingly presented as an ideology of freedom and peace, but many Rastas believed that unjust peace was no peace at all. “Everyone is crying out for peace, yes / None is crying out for justice // I don’t want no peace,” Peter Tosh sings in his song “Equal Rights,” “I need equal rights and justice.” Peter Tosh channels some of the most politically radical and revolutionary aspects of Rastafari through his music. He isn’t petitioning peacefully for an unjust peace, he is demanding that his humanity be recognized. Tosh continues, calling upon oppressed people resist, “everybody want to go to heaven / but nobody want to die.” The right of oppressed nationalities to resist is inalienable, and Tosh does not pretend that the struggle will not have sacrifices, but that liberation will come. This reaffirmation of the inalienable right of the oppressed to resist is a core component of Rasta consciousness, and this consciousness inspired action around the world, whether it be the importance of Bob Marley’s music for the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army or Peter Tosh pushing for urban social reforms in Jamaica.

However, in the past two decades or so, Reggae and, to a lesser extent, Rastafari, have seen many of the radical political ideologies of their inception forgotten in the wake of global popularity. Rastafari and Reggae are inextricably linked in the popular consciousness, but the radical origins of Rastafari have been silenced in a global context, with popular focus almost exclusively on the more, for lack of a better term, “feel good” kind of lyrical content. This is immediately evident by the way that more radical artists such as Peter Tosh exist in relative obscurity next to the giant form of Bob Marley, who’s own radical music is relegated to “deeper cuts”.

How then, does Matisyahu’s “Jerusalem” fit into the global canon and context of Reggae music and it’s explicit connection to Rastafari? It is clear that Matisyahu’s “claim” to Reggae music as a white American Jew is tenuous, but traditional arguments of cultural appropriation are complicated in the case of Matisyahu. Rastafari (and by extension Reggae) owes a huge debt to the spiritual heritage and scripture of the Old Testament, and it is from this same source that Matisyahu’s Jewish faith compels him to pull from in “Jerusalem” and countless other tracks. There is a long, long history of white musicians appropriating black music for capitalist gains — jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, hip hop— innumerable white people have made millions of dollars from bringing traditionally black music forms into the palatable white mainstream of America, and Matisyahu is part of that history, but “as a Hasid, he has a genuinely exotic look— that great big beard and the tzitzit fringes flying,” says Judy Rosen, quoted in Kaplan’s piece, “and the spiritual bona fides to pull off songs steeped in Old Testament imagery.” This same Old Testament imagery has been appropriated and reimagined by Rastas for decades, but the political and theological divide between Rastafari and Matisyahu is obscured by the superficial similarities in sound and references.

Specifically focusing on “Jerusalem,” Matisyahu sings “They come overseas, yes they’re trying to be free” in the middle of the second verse of “Jerusalem,” referring to the 20th century migration of Jews to Palestine. Throughout the song this Zionist narrative is reinforced and reiterated, that the freedom and security of the Jewish people and the State of Israel are inseparable. By singing of the persecution of the Jewish people, their long dispossession and even longer longing for self determination, Matisyahu taps into some of the core emotions and themes present in Reggae, even seeming somewhat at home, what with the beat that was produced by Jamaican producers Sly and Robbie, his faux patois accent, and deep reverence for the Old Testament. This is what is particularly insidious about Matisyahu’s work, and what separates him from other white appropriators of black music. Matisyahu’s politics are fundamentally at odds with the Reggae image he is cultivating and using to make money.

The Zionist narrative of the state of Israel being the fulfillment of Jewish longing for self determination is fundamentally flawed and ignores the imperialism that allowed for the conditions of the creation of Israel, and the imperialism that has funded and supported its existence for the past seventy years. Since the war in 1967, Israel has occupied all of Historic Palestine (in violation of international law), and the system of walls, checkpoints, mass incarceration, curfews, and violent repression of both Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Arabs who live as citizens within Israel can be accurately and succinctly called apartheid. However, Matisyahu’s support for Israel goes beyond his music. Matisyahu has performed at fundraisers for Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, and also at the 2015 Policy Conference for the right wing pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee). In 2015, Matisyahu was removed from the lineup at the Rototom Sunsplash Reggae festival in Valencia, Spain. The festival organizers requested that Matisyahu release a statement disavowing Israeli war crimes, and in response Matisyahu posted to Facebook saying, “My music speaks for itself, and I do not insert politics into my music… Music has the power to transcend the intellect, ideas, and politics.” This position ignores the material political realities of his actions, of his support for Israel, and represents the fundamental contradiction of Matisyahu’s artistic career. His appropriation of Reggae music goes beyond simple capitalist exploitation or even artistic admiration for Reggae music because in using Reggae as a platform for Zionism, Matisyahu spits in the face of the radical heritage of Reggae cultivated through the close relationship with Rastafari.

To see apartheid whitewashed in a nominally Reggae song is almost inconceivable when the history and context of Reggae is unpacked, but Israeli war crimes have been normalized and justified by Western media and art for decades, and the appropriation of Reggae to those ends should not come as a surprise. Additionally, to imply that all Reggae artists are or should be politically active would be ahistorical. Ziggy Marley, for example, has voiced reactionary views on Palestine, but to claim that the music can exist outside of it’s historical context is equally ahistorical. Reggae was and is a rallying point for anti-imperial struggles across the world. Liberation is not fulfilled until all are liberated, there can be no peace until every person is free. Tosh summarizes this internationalist sentiment in the closing lines of “Equal Rights,” standing in solidarity with the oppressed nationalities of the world, even acknowledging the struggle of the oft-forgotten Palestinians, singing:

“Everyone is fighting for

Equal rights and justice

Palestine is fighting for

Equal rights and justice

Down in Angola

Equal rights and justice

Down in Botswana

Equal rights and justice

Down in Zimbabwe

Equal rights and justice

Down in Rhodesia

Equal rights and justice

Right here in Jamaica

Equal rights and justice”

– Peter Tosh, “Equal Rights”

Bibliography

Abunimah, Ali. “It is not anti-Semitic to boycott Matisyahu.” The Electronic Intifada. 2015. Accessed December 13, 2016. https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/it-not-anti-semitic-boycott-matisyahu.

Kaplan, Louis. “Yahweh Rastafari! Matisyahu and the Aporias of Hasidic Reggae Superstardom.” CR: The New Centennial Review 7, no. 1 (2007): 15-44. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed December 13, 2016).

Matisyahu. Youth. JDub/Epic, 2006. Spotify.

Psalms. In New Revised Standard Version. Accessed December 13, 2016. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm%20137.

Tosh, Peter. Equal Rights. Columbia Records, 1977. Spotify.

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