The blizzard was dying down outside Harvard’s Chabad House last Sunday, February 12, as about 40 students converged for a glatt kosher Chinese dinner and some wise words from the rabbi. But the biggest draw was the black-suited, full-bearded MTV star down the table: Matisyahu, a 26-year-old Hassidic Jew who expresses his devout messianic faith through slow-burning roots-reggae jam sessions.
It was Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish Arbor Day, so he nibbled on a date before opening a Q&A. With the Epic-reissued Live at Stubb’s cracking the Billboard Top 40, a video in heavy rotation, and a new studio album due on March 7, Matisyahu is making waves in the secular world. But he knows who to thank for his success: “There’s God helping it, there’s the barucha, the blessing, and then there’s the music.” The students listened attentively as he explained his Old (Testament)–school philosophy. “People feel abandoned by God, they feel alone. You see by the number of love songs there are, it’s a proof of that,” he suggested softly.
On stage at Avalon 90 minutes later, he spit allegorical fire over the thunderous riddims provided by his live backing trio. “I want Moshiach now!” he cried, invoking the Jewish messiah in the insistent patois tones of a dancehall toaster. The crowd, though not obviously religious, roared back as enthusiastically as the average American Marley fan sings along in praise of Jah Rastafari. Intertwining jammy solos from the band stoked them on to a nondenominational fervor that might have reminded Matisyahu of his youthful days following Phish. And though he exalted the Almighty in every language, from Hebrew psalms to Sublime SoCal flows, over the course of the night the joyful, wordless keen he kept sliding into showed that sometimes pure melody is all it takes to transcend earthly chains.
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