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Matisyahu Combines Judaism & Pop Music

Despite rainy skies Saturday evening, Yale students gathered under the warm and smoky lights of the First and Summerfield United Methodist Church, swaying in time with the songs of Jewish reggae artist Matisyahu.

The free Saturday night concert, during which Matisyahu played for just over an hour, was hosted by the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life, and attracted around 350 students. Matisyahu, whose birth name is Matthew Paul Miller but who goes by his Hebrew stage name, is known for combining reggae and rap music with themes of Orthodox Judaism. His hit song ”King Without a Crown” made it to number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2006, and he has produced five studio albums along with several live albums, compilations and remixes.

Before the concert, Matisyahu attended a meet-and-greet at the Slifka center, leading attendees in the traditional Jewish Havdalah prayer, which marks the end of the Sabbath. Both students who attended the concert and those involved with Slifka praised Matisyahu’s ability to combine spiritualism with mass appeal.

“I thought it was really cool to see someone bringing Jewish values to popular culture in a really accessible way that I, as a young, really involved Jewish person, could identify with, but also my non-Jewish friends could jam out with me to his music,” said Leah Salovey ’17, who is co-president of the Young Israel House at Yale. “I think that he is really an incredible, incredible talent. I love listening to his music. I think his messages about survival and finding joy in the world are really applicable and really Jewish.”

Matisyahu opened the concert with his song “Surrender,” and concluded with a cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” Clad in a blue hoodie, he often sang with his eyes closed, and he rarely addressed the audience except to introduce the members of his band. The concert’s set list also included hits such as “King Without a Crown” and “One Day,” the latter of which the crowd demanded through cheers after Matisyahu first left the stage.

Yonatan Millo, the Jewish Agency Israel fellow at Slifka and one of the concert’s primary organizers, emphasized Matisyahu’s background in Orthodox Judaism and musical variety as a way to showcase the diversity of the Jewish faith. Millo was inspired by Matisyahu’s songs, which often focus on bringing people together and emphasizing the positive over the negative. Seeing these messages as important to the Yale community and students who are heavily influenced by music, he worked with Vice President of Operations for Yale Friends of Israel Hannah LaBovick ’18 to organize the concert.

According to LaBovick, Matisyahu appeals to the Jewish community because he gives those within the faith someone to identify with, especially in light of his mainstream appeal. Still, she emphasized that the primary aim of the concert was not to advance any particular religious ideology, but rather simply to create “another amazing night at Yale.”

In an interview with the News prior to the show, Matisyahu described his inspiration to combine music and spirituality.

“Music for me is a piece and a part of my life for as far back as I remember. I don’t have one specific thing which inspires the music, it’s more of just something that’s part of me,” he said. “A lot of the lyrics and content for the songs have come out of my experience in studying Jewish ideas. I hope to create an experience of music I can stand behind.”

For Matisyahu, the concert was an opportunity to “explore other musical worlds” given that his tour’s guitarist — Aaron Dugan — was hospitalized due to sickness and was unable to perform. Having never performed live without a guitarist before, Matisyahu said that he did not know what to expect going into the show but was looking forward to the chance to “do something different” with only keyboard, bass and drums.

Students interviewed after the show praised the performance for its intimacy of venue and good music, and even those who had not previously been familiar with his songs said that they found it interesting and enjoyable. Hillary Lutkus ’18 called the concert a “treat,” and praised Yale’s ability to bring diverse artists such as Matisyahu to the University.

“[Matisyahu] himself is an unexpected combination of things,” Salovey said. “Mixing reggae with spiritual Judaism is not a combination you think should go together, but he integrates it so beautifully, and I think that’s a great way for Yale students to see the way that we can integrate different values as we try to explore ourselves as young intellectual thinkers.”

Matisyahu continues his tour in Florida on Thursday.

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