Honor Not A False Messiah
The New York Times is reporting today that Matisyahu has, without any forewarning, breached his contract with JDub Records (with a term of three years remaining), and dropped the non-profit independent label which shaped his image, cultivated his talent, and propelled him to stardom. What they haven’t reported is that he’s signed a management deal with a major Hollywood talent agent — Gary Gersh, the man who “discovered” Nirvana and presently manages the Foo Fighters.
Indeed, for well over a week now, I’ve been sitting on the knowledge that the men who broke their backs to make him a star, Aaron Bisman and Jacob Harris, have been hung out to dry by a man I now recognize to be a false prophet of our own making, who traded in his most devout “true believers” merely to maximize his cashflow potential.
His motivations are summed up succinctly in a recent Billboard magazine profile:
[W]hile the 26-year-old artist is devoutly religious, he is not letting that stand in the way of getting his music heard. “Who doesn’t want success?” he asks. “There’s some artists that say they don’t, and they’re not looking for it, but I’m not one of those artists.”
So much for “I owe it all to G-d.”
I do not say lightly, that there is no chasid where there is no chesed, and to those of us who have been Matisyahu’s most committed supporters, this is a turn most unkind. The news was delivered to JDub with no more than a curt and unexpected phonecall. As The Times reports, “He said, ‘I don’t know if you guys are old enough or have enough experience.'” I struggle to ascertain what more success he could envision, beyond what JDub has already delivered.
As some of you may know, I am the first to have ever written about Matisyahu. I designed his first fliers, leaked his first MP3, built and managed his website, and both followed and promoted his career every step of the way via Jewschool and other online forae, helping to craft the myth surrounding a man I once believed to be our generation’s musical Moshe Rabbeinu, destined to lead us to The Promised Land. In that time I have withheld all criticism, defended him from naysayers, and perpetuated his hagiography for the sake of his success alone.
I stand before you today a remorseful Dr. Frankenstein.
To be honest, I sometimes agree with Matisyahu’s critics, and for a while now his performances have left me wanting. But I have held my tongue. Because there are times — times when Matis draws down all the fury of heaven and delivers a performance with such clarity, such focus, such kavanah, that I am moved to tears. It was only days before I learned this tragic news, that I wistfully posted to Orthodox Anarchist lyrics which tug upon my every heartstring.
When Matis came to Jerusalem this past summer, I said in a video interview just after his Saturday night performance, “He is like a grand rebbe, and his fans, his chassidim, who climb on top of one another for the shrayim from his dinnerplate.” That night I davened maariv with Matisyahu, and gave him a brocha that he “should be a shaliach of the Moshiach himself.”
Little did I know then that he’d take that to mean Menacham Mendel Schneerson, and that he would sell his truest lovers and supporters down the river for what he probably sees as an opportunity to shill for Chabad to an even wider audience. His breach of contract is a clear violation of halakha, but it would be no surprise to me if he had been given a heter from his rav for the sake of spreading Chabad chassidus.
The last three years for Matisyahu have been nothing less than miraculous. He has gone from playing half-empty nightclubs in New York City to playing for sold-out crowds at Madison Square Garden, and headlining with his own musical heroes like Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Bob Marley’s backup band, The Wailers. JDub parlayed his success into a major label deal with Epic and Matis now reigns atop Billboard’s rock and reggae charts, with his video currently in MTV’s rotation, and his latest release, Youth, expected to enter the charts this week in the Top 10.
While I marvel at his success, and wish to be proud that I had some part in making it happen, I can only watch in horror and disappointment as he presses a knife firmly into the back of the man squarely responsible for his stardom — the man under whose chuppah I once watched him sing: Aaron Bisman. What should be a time of simcha and pure joy is now overcast by the shadow of gut-wrenching heartbreak.
Matisyahu sings beneath Aaron Bisman’s wedding canopy.
Now I can no longer listen to his music without being overcome with illness. His lyrics, which I have memorized from countless listening hours, spontaneously burst into my head, and I now shed tears unlike those which I shed before — tears of sadness and betrayal — as I prepare to watch this callous industry eviscerate the soul from his music and turn his sweet chassidishe melodies into nothing more than shallow corporate commodities, with my musical Messiah a willing participant.
As Morpheus declares, in The Matrix Reloaded, upon the breach of Zion’s walls — which tumble down along with his hopes of Messianic redemption — “I have dreamed a dream, and now that dream is gone from me.”