Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Reflecting on a year of Jewish-related hip-hop on Yom Kippur

Posted By on 09.26.12 at 02:00 PM

The old version of Matisyahu
  • The old version of Matisyahu
Today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, and for me this holiest day of the year is a time to reflect. To kick off my weekly series of hip-hop posts—which will hit the Bleader every Wednesday—I've decided to reflect upon a year of Judaism in hip-hop, with a particular focus on a particular song by self-proclaimed "Hasidic reggae superstar" Matisyahu, "Tel Aviv'n."

Matisyahu is hardly the only Jewish person in rap today. Several fellow Jews have made pretty good showings too, or offered reminders of their influence on the sound and culture of rap. A 19-year-old Jewish rapper from Pittsburgh named Mac Miller hit big with Blue Slide Park, the first independently released album to take the top spot on the Billboard 200 in nearly two decades. Polarizing doe-eyed rapper-singer Drake held a "re-bar mitzvah" in his video for "HYFR," which takes the party-fication of the bar mitzvah ritual to an extreme that can only be accomplished by involving Weezy dressed in a checkered sports coat and panda ski mask. And music mogul Lyor Cohen announced on Monday that he'd be resigning as chairman and CEO of Warner Music Group, prompting me to remember his role in guiding a number of hip-hop acts into the limelight.

None of these people, though, represents popular notions about Judaism quite like Matisyahu—his beard and yarmulke have been integral to his public image and also contributed to his popularity. Last December he rid himself of those sartorial trademarks as part of his latest Jewish spiritual rebirth, a reinvention that's all over his dance-centric new Spark Seeker, which I've already called "schmaltzy."

That brings us to today. One of the many things Jewish people traditionally do on Yom Kippur is apologize for their misdeeds from the past year, and I feel like I need to make a confession. No, I'm not rescinding my earlier review—I want to make an apology on behalf of the state of Israel for the 11th song on the album, "Tel Aviv'n." I'm reminded of Todd Martens writing for the Los Angeles Times, apologizing on behalf of the state of California for the Offspring's disastrous "Cruising California (Bumpin' in My Trunk)." "Tel Aviv'n" is also a shoddy attempt to capture trends in pop music, right down to Matisyahu's weak raps, whose lyrics seem to be cobbled together from corny cliches and stereotypes about Israel. ("On a camel with my shades / Head wrapped to the max / Burning tracks, all day / Hill tops, won't stop / Til Moshiach's on his way.") It's been nearly a decade since I've been in Israel, but I doubt it's changed enough since then for "Tel Aviv'n" to be saying anything remotely true or useful about the country.

But that's not what I'm apologizing for, at least not entirely. My motive is personal, because part of me kind of likes a few small things about "Tel Aviv'n." It's a terrible song, but somehow that surging hook still gets me every time—and I've listened to it quite a bit in the process of writing this post. I feel guilty for appreciating anything about a song in which Matisyahu plays with idiotic stereotypes and worn-out pop tropes in an effort to achieve some grand musical moment. And then of course I feel guilty for not simply allowing myself to like "Tel Aviv'n" for the shallow fluff that it is—it's a vicious cycle, I must admit.

I'm not sure this confession will resolve my conflicted feelings about "Tel Aviv'n," but it's a part of an introspective process that's integral to my understanding of Yom Kippur. It's a time for personal spiritual growth. That's something at the root of a lot of Matisyahu songs, and I've also found it in the work of an iconic rapper who passed away earlier this year: Beastie Boys cofounder Adam "MCA" Yauch. An outspoken Buddhist raised by a Jewish mother, Yauch had a way of combining the peaceful ideals of Buddhism with a thoroughly Jewish sensibility. His music was a big part of my cultural diet growing up, not least because every bar and bat mitzvah I attended in seventh grade was apparently required to play three to five songs from Hello Nasty. I'll miss you, MCA.

Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.

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