With his hands resting on his legs while sitting onstage in a high-set chair, Matisyahu commanded his quietly captivated listeners Thursday with the performance of three serenely delivered acoustic songs in a blend of words, hums, beatboxing and other sounds.
At times his legs were slightly crossed, rocking to the rhythm; his hands may have moved to grasp the edge of his seat. But one thing remained constant: He kept his eyes closed throughout the performance.
He was accompanied on guitar by Adam Weinberg, the Washington University graduate who first introduced the campus to the Jewish artist more than six years ago.
The first song he performed on Thursday does not appear on any album and is inspired by the Jewish day of observance called Tisha B’Av, commemorating the fall of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem.
That the song’s religious context likely escaped most of the listeners who filled Graham Chapel did not prevent them from appreciating Matisyahu’s music.
“Matisyahu is an artist I respect for his integration of his personal values and talent in the mainstream industry,” sophomore Anthonia Ojo said. “His songs have great lyrics, and even though they come from his religion, they can be applied to everybody.”
Ojo’s comment points to a universal quality that many have come to attach to Matisyahu’s music.
“Some of the music is clearly based on biblical or Hasidic liturgy or values, but he has the unique ability to translate that into substantive messages that resonate with a large population of areligious people,” said Hershey Novack, rabbi for Chabad on Campus. “Even as a cultural interpreter, he is unique and successful.”
Assaf Shelleg, a visiting Israeli scholar in the Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies program, also finds Matisyahu’s image unique. Shelleg provided the program’s introduction.
“Seeing him creates some sort of cognitive dissonance, because you don’t expect such an image performing this type of music,” he said.
According to Shelleg, Matisyahu is well received among religious communities in Israel—especially younger generations.
“It gives them the legitimacy of listening to something very modern and is not limited by something that they know is Jewish from the music their parents heard,” he said. “It breaches something in Judaism and kosherizes the fact that we can listen to Jamaican music or hip-hop music with kosher texts.”
Though Matisyahu is an artist with widespread international appeal, students in the audience still found him personable and took the opportunity to ask him questions during the question-and-answer part of the program.
When asked if he has ever struggled with his beliefs, Matisyahu replied, “I struggle with believing in God, because God, honestly, is invisible. It’s kind of like having a relationship with an invisible friend.”
One student also asked about his past experiences with using acid, amid much laughter from the rest of the audience. Matisyahu seemed to share their humor and told stories of his high school days and experimentation with psychedelic drugs.
“The first time I did mushrooms with my friends was 16,” he said. “I remember one experience when we were lying on this field and looking up at the sky, and I remember all of a sudden everything feeling really clear, lucid. I think it depends on the person. For me, it changed a lot of things.”
But he also pointed out the less-pleasant experiences that can come with drug experimentation, to which the student responded with a “yeah.”
“You know, obviously,” Matisyahu joked.
The atmosphere ranged from the more serious to the jovial, which surprised some students like Ojo.
“I did not expect him to have such a great sense of humor and great stories,” she said. “During his question and answer session, he was very open and honest, which I really respected and loved.”
Sophomore Josh Yudkin echoed Ojo’s impression of Matisyahu’s honesty.
“I thought it was really good,” he said. “I found it to be a very candid but…provoking performance and talk,” he said.
For Novack, Matisyahu is an example of an individual who is able to bridge religious and cultural barriers and bring people together.
“Some of his songs resonate deeply with me,” Novack said. “I think his music is incredibly potent and has a very positive effect on many, many people. That is something that can never be taken away from him.”
Check out video of his appearance here.