On stage in Jerusalem, Matisyahu is all about the music
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On stage in Jerusalem, Matisyahu is all about the music

Two weeks after BDS brouhaha in Spain, the Jewish-American singer inspires the audience at Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

American Jewish singer Matisyahu performs at the Sacred Music Festival in the Old City of Jerusalem, September 4, 2015. (Eric Cortellessa)
American Jewish singer Matisyahu performs at the Sacred Music Festival in the Old City of Jerusalem, September 4, 2015. (Eric Cortellessa)

In a brief but passionate performance on Friday night, closing the final night of the week-long Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival, Matisyahu thrilled in the city he’s sworn in song never to forget.

Taking the stage not long before the start of Shabbat, the Jewish-American reggae singer performed two songs at an event dedicated to bringing together local and international musicians to celebrate themes of faith and humanity. It was almost two weeks after he sang his hit song “Jerusalem” at a Spanish music festival, defying the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement’s push to scrub his performance.

Matisyahu touched upon the ethereal in Jerusalem as he sang “Watch the Walls Melt Down” and his famed “One Day,” which calls for an end to violence and a future of peace and understanding. He once termed it “an anthem of hope.”

Such a message certainly resonated with Israelis recovering from a tumultuous, bloodstained summer, and the politics that have recently engulfed Matisyahu’s public image were nowhere to be found inside the white stone walls of the ancient Tower of David citadel.

Fans watch American Jewish singer Matisyahu perform at the Sacred Music Festival in the Old City of Jerusalem, September 4, 2015. (Eric Cortellessa)
Fans watch American Jewish singer Matisyahu perform at the Sacred Music Festival in the Old City of Jerusalem, September 4, 2015. (Eric Cortellessa)

“The real feeling of this concert was one of connection,” Nura Yechieli, a 32-year-old from Pardes Hanna, told The Times of Israel. “The artists today were from Israel, Jamaica, Ethiopia and America, and the music was about what connects us and not what separates us. It was a celebration of our common humanity.”

The concert began at 12:30 p.m., and included the artists Haim Laroz, Alon Amano Campino and Max Romeo, along with the Ethiopian reggae band Ethiocolor.

By the time Matisyahu walked on stage at 5 p.m., the crowd had already spent hours dancing shoulder to shoulder, absorbed in what Yechieli called “the liberation of spirit that music evokes.”

But Matisyahu’s performance was also a special reminder of how music “exemplifies some of humanity’s deepest values,” said 34-year-old Gal Karni from Tel Aviv, who came to the concert with his wife.

“Not only is he a wonderful artist, but it is inspiring how he responded to a painful situation with such grace and vision,” he told The Times of Israel.

American Jewish singer Matisyahu smiles as he performs at the Sacred Music Festival in the Old City of Jerusalem, September 4, 2015. (Eric Cortellessa)
American Jewish singer Matisyahu smiles as he performs at the Sacred Music Festival in the Old City of Jerusalem, September 4, 2015. (Eric Cortellessa)

Last month, Matisyahu’s scheduled performance at the Rototom Sunsplash Music Festival in Valencia, Spain was pulled after a local branch of the BDS movement accused him of being a “Zionist” who supported “apartheid and ethnic cleansing.”

The BDS activists demanded that the 36-year-old artist publicly announce support for Palestinian statehood. When he refused to respond, festival organizers cancelled his appearance. Rototom later backtracked – amid public outrage – and apologized to the singer, re-inviting him to one of Europe’s largest reggae festivals.

“Honestly it was appalling and offensive that as the one publicly Jewish-American artist scheduled for the festival they were trying to coerce me into political statements,” Matisyahu said at the time.

Nevertheless, he performed his show, amid some heckling from pro-Palestinian activists who waved Palestinian flags throughout his time on stage.

“It was courageous of him to still perform there and to face that kind of pressure without losing sight of what he was really there to do, which was to sing music and share his art with others,” Karni said. “And to not give in to an attempt to make him politicize what he does, that required great strength… It was a triumph of character.”

The audience watches American Jewish singer Matisyahu perform at the Sacred Music Festival in the Old City of Jerusalem, September 4, 2015. (Eric Cortellessa)
The audience watches American Jewish singer Matisyahu perform at the Sacred Music Festival in the Old City of Jerusalem, September 4, 2015. (Eric Cortellessa)

The concept of music as a unifier, for which Matisyahu has long expressed support, is what the show ultimately typified for both Yechieli and Karni. Both noted the carefree manner in which the audience was dancing during Matisyahu’s time onstage. “There was a real sense of togetherness,” Karni said.

Before leaving the festival, with the sun starting to descend, Yechieli noted that that “sense of togetherness” is what gave the occasion meaning.

“There were people here of such various races and ethnicities, ages and sexual orientation,” Yechieli said. “I really don’t know much about Matisyahu personally. But after everything that has happened with him recently, for him to come to Jerusalem and enable us all to share in that kind of experience, that is something to really celebrate.”

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