Reggae artist Matisyahu will touch on several themes relevant to current campus discourse in his performance April 4 at Hill Auditorium, themed around peace and unity.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Matisyahu said he began to conceptualize the theme of his campus tour of 12 universities after being implored to make anti-Israel comments at a music festival in Spain last summer.
Matisyahu said after he declined to make the comments, he was thrown off of the festival, which caused significant uproar both in and outside of Spain from his supporters and fans. Despite the controversy, he said he was invited to perform in Spain again, though Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement protesters heckled him throughout the performance. BDS advocates for the end of United States public funding to Israel and boycotts institutions that financially support Israel, in protest of what they say is Israel’s ongoing restriction of Palestinian rights.
“They wanted me to make a political statement basically denouncing Israel and promoting Palestine," he said. "They did it specifically because I’m Jewish and because they had gotten pressure from the BDS movement.”
He said he initially felt angry toward the protesters and wanted to fight back against them, but as he continued performing throughout the night, his anger turned to compassion.
“I realized what these people, regardless what they think or what they’ve been taught or what they feel, they are right now susceptible to the sounds, to the actual waves that are coming forth and there was no escaping that,” he said. “I thought if I can somehow sing from a place and make music from a place of compassion some kind of human place from within, whether it be about struggle or whatever it is, people can relate to that, and they can feel we’re all sort of connected in some way.”
That experience of a BDS protest, he said, is what prompted him to focus on unity in the U.S.
“I went back and I performed and I performed in front of a bunch of BDS boycotters with signs that said things like ‘Naziyahu’ and they were throwing stuff on stage and screaming at me and cursing at me and it was pretty intense,” he said. “So I have this direct involvement with interacting with the BDS and I got to see sort of how it resonates in people and I felt like the same things were happening in the states.”
Rap artist Nadim Azzam will be also be a part of Matisyahu's college tour, and will also perform at Michigan's tour stop, which is sponsored by University of Michigan Hillel and planned by MUSIC Matters. It will be exclusively for faculty, students and staff, with attendees required to present valid Mcards in order to purchase tickets.
Members of the MUSIC Matters executive board said Hillel contacted their organization in January with the opportunity to host Matisyahu’s Michigan tour stop. Business senior Jibran Ahmed, president of MUSIC Matters, said the group saw the concert as an opportunity to further their mission of uniting communities on campus.
“We saw this as an opportunity to build community and to strengthen community and really, that’s what our organization is all about,” Ahmed said. “That’s why we put on SpringFest, that’s why we have the concerts, that’s why we have large-scale philanthropic efforts, in order to build community. This was just an incredible opportunity to work on.”
According to a press release, both Matisyahu and Azzam hope through their performance, attendees are able to find mutual respect for each other and the acknowledgement of human similarities will be strengthened.
Business junior Kaitlin Smith, MUSIC Matters communications chair, said she thinks Matisyahu has a reputation for holding performances in front of distinctively diverse audiences.
“This is a theme for Matisyahu,” Smith said. “He has played at festivals that are known for being culturally and religiously diverse, so he’s kind of taken his message and is applying it to this U.S. college tour.”
Matisyahu said this concert series is focused on getting attendees to reevaluate their views on current issues.
“This concert series and these shows is really not about politics,” he said. “One of the main points that I’m trying to come at is it’s not about choosing sides, but it’s about being honest with yourself and trying to learn about all the different sides and trying to connect to something human.”
Further emphasizing that the concert will not take a political stance on any issue, he said it instead aims to promote peace and love through music.
“You can talk about love, you can talk about politics, you can speak about right and wrong, but when it comes to art and to music, it bypasses all of it and resonates inside of you and makes you feel a certain way,” he said.
Azzam echoed Matisyahu’s remarks in an interview with the Daily last week. Speaking specifically to conflicts in Israel and Palestine, Azzam said he hopes the concert helps attendees find connections with people of different cultural backgrounds.
"In regards to the sociopolitical context of Palestine and Israel, things are much more complex and intense than a campus concert series can address,” Azzam said. “But before we can, as a society, reconcile differences in belief and opinion between Palestinians and Israelis, we have to first find common ground as human beings. And music is one powerful way to do that."
The concert’s theme has resonated deeply with some students at the University, such as LSA senior Daniel Pearlman. In an interview, Pearlman said he met Matisyahu at a performance at The Blind Pig in Ann Arbor when he was a freshman, and was struck by his inviting demeanor.
He added that he believes the symbolism of Jewish-American Matisyahu performing alongside Arab-American Azzam will have a significant impact on the University.
“Both of their music really speaks volumes to me,” Pearlman said. “The message of peace and coexistence is inspiring and especially having a Jewish artist and a Palestinian artist perform together on campus and spreading the message of peace and coexistence can really speak volumes. I’m really excited for this concert.”
Matisyahu said he hopes students who attend the concert are able to treat it as a learning experience.
“I feel that when people come to see the show they may have an expectation of something, and I hope they are able to lose that expectation and jump into an unknown experience,” he said. “I hope they lose themselves in it and experience something greater than themselves, and I know music has the capacity to do that.”
Ahmed said he believes the rich history of individuals who have performed or spoken at Hill Auditorium makes it the perfect venue for Matisyahu and Azzam’s performance.
Many social activists and renowned musicians have come to Hill in past years. Most recently, Naomi Tutu, daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, delivered the annual Martin Luther King Jr. keynote lecture at the auditorium in January.
“There’s been so many amazing engaging speakers at Hill Auditorium,” Ahmed said. “Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Hill Auditorium. I had the privilege to see Nelson Mandela’s grandson on the stage. Hill is such a historic venue that bringing Matisyahu and promoting dialogue on that stage is the perfect venue.”
LSA junior Matt Fisher, MUSIC Matters fundraising chair, said a key focus of the event is to inspire further discussion about peace and unity at the University. Both Matisyahu and Azzam will hold events to interact with University community members the day of the concert.
Organizations such as the Muslim Student Association and the Black Student Union have recently held forums and dialogues at the University to address topics such as Islamophobia and intersectionality within the Muslim community. The University is also in the middle of a campus-wide diversity initiative aimed at addressing issues regarding racial climate and inclusivity on campus. In March 2014 campus also grappled with divestment when a group of over 100 students, alumni and community members held a sit-in in response to Central Student Government postponing a vote on whether the University should divest. In March 2015 CSG voted against divestment.
“It’s all about community building and bringing together as many different communities on campus as possible, creating dialogue on campus and encouraging students to speak with each other in a peaceful way,” Fisher said.
Ahmed added that MUSIC Matters has reached out to various organizations on campus and wants students of different identities to know they are welcome to attend the concert.
“With reaching out to student groups, we want to stress that not only are all groups welcome, but are encouraged to come to the show,” Ahmed said. “We really think that the dialogue the show will create will be very valuable to every student on campus.”
Aside from promoting unity at the University, Ahmed said the concert also serves as an extension of MUSIC Matters’ overall goal of inspiring the community through music.
“The idea on Matisyahu’s end on our perspective is to show how powerful music can be,” Ahmed said. “Music creates these dialogues, music has the opportunity to build these communities, really to show music can be used to enact positive social change.”
Tickets for the concert can be purchased for $5 at the Michigan Union Ticket Office with the presentation of a valid Mcard. Proceeds from the concert will go toward MUSIC Matters’ Big Thinker Scholarship, the first scholarship at the University to be completely endowed by students.