Matisyahu preaches peace through music in Lower Sproul performance

Mark Squires/Courtesy

Last Sunday at Lower Sproul Plaza, reggae-rap musician Matisyahu aimed to bring harmony between student groups on opposite sides of political conflict.  The show, co-sponsored by Berkeley Hillel, was part of Matisyahu’s nationwide university tour that sought to promote unity and empathy through music.

The tour was inspired by the artist’s experience in Spain last fall, when organizers of the Rototom Sunsplash Reggae Festival asked the Jewish-American singer to take part in a video endorsing Palestine, following protests by members of the Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions movement, or BDS.  The artist refused to comply, concerned that he was being singled out as a Jewish artist and forced to push a particular political agenda.  

The festival then boycotted him but re-invited him when the Spanish government condemned the organizers for their actions.  During his Rototom Sunsplash performance, he was met by hundreds of festival goers yielding Palestine flags, shouting violent accusations of the singer being a Zionist.

Despite this backlash, the artist saw the incident as an opportunity to draw attention to the Israel-Palestine conflict in a way that promoted critical dialogue moving toward peace.

“That was an interesting experience,” Matisyahu said. “It was basically my interaction with the BDS that made me want do some kind of event that would bring together the opposing groups on campus. Do this and make some music, you know?”

Matisyahu selected Arab-American acoustic hip-hop rapper and singer/songwriter Nadim Azzam as his supporting act for the tour. Born to an Egyptian-Palestinian father and a Jewish-American mother, Azzam’s background provides him with familiarity and understanding of both cultures.  Azzam opened the show and, later in the evening, joined Matisyahu on stage for a song, showcasing the harmonious relationships the tour intended to promote through music.

The tour was brought specifically to college campuses because Matisyahu and his team felt that student activism at colleges and universities is at the forefront of social justice movements.

During the show at UC Berkeley, where protests surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict have previously taken place, two groups stood behind the windows of Eshleman, visible from the performance on Lower Sproul — one group holding a Palestinian flag and the other an Israeli flag.

Tensions within the audience mirrored that of the conflict behind the windows. Still, Matisyahu continued to sing, “Muster up the strength to make a connection. … We will fight with our heart / And all that we know / We will fight ‘til the love grows.”

The artist, using his music as a platform for messages that promote love and unity, chose not to take a stance on either side of the conflict.

“We’re not always gonna agree on politics,” he said. “We might have different views, but when it gets to a point where people aren’t interacting and they’re just stuck in their own viewpoint and they’re not willing to even really converse or talk, it doesn’t really serve anyone.”

The best way Matisyahu knows how to serve people is through his music.  And the concert went on, filling the campus with Matisyahu’s soothing vocals and pulse-like beatboxing. The tone of the show departed from his high-energy pop melodies, such as those in crowd favorites “Sunshine” and “Live Like A Warrior.” Instead, his performance took on new levels of tranquility and spontaneity through gently sung verses and extended improvisation by his live band, similar to the sounds on his last record, Akeda.

“By doing this kind of event, not just an event, but some kind of art form like music, you can share, potentially, an experience together and then relate to each other from a human place where you might be more willing to hear the other side’s perspective.”

Contact Rayanne Piaña at [email protected].