Matisyahu: No Chasid Where There’s No Chesed

by Brian on April 26, 2007

in In the News,Jewish Holidays and Culture

Nothing upsets me quite as much as when someone deliberately goes out of their way to harm one of my friends. That’s apparently what happened with Hasidic reggae superstar Matisyahu who I wrote about previously in this blog. I recently had a chance to catch up with pal Aaron Bisman, Matisyahu’s longtime manager and the man who’s credited with discovering the Jewish rapper five years ago at New York University and molding his initial career

What happened is that a year ago, in March 2006, Matisyahu abruptly dumped Bisman, 27, in favor of big shot manager Gary Gersh, the former president of Capitol Records and the force behind Nirvana’s success. Gersh currently also manages the Foo Fighters. Matisyahu had another three years to go on his contract and the surprise switch has done a not insignificant amount of damage to Bisman’s management company, the not-for-profit JDub Records, which was counting on Matisyahu to provide a substantial chunk of its $1 million annual operating budget.

Now, switching managers and weaseling out of contracts is standard operating procedure in Hollywood and Matisyahu, whose first major label studio release on Sony, “Youth” (jointly produced with JDub) debuted on the Billboard 200 at number 4, selling nearly 120,000 copies in its first week, might have been expected to seek new management when his contract expired, or even to approach his former managers with an equitable deal. Matisyahu may even have had some legitimate concerns when he told his former management team, “I don’t know if you guys are old enough or have enough experience” to take me to the next level.

But Matisyahu is not Paris Hilton (God forbid). He has built his fame on his religious convictions. When I wrote about Matisyahu last year, I questioned whether he was the “real deal.” Could the whole religious shtick be just that – a gimmick to help promote yet another beat-boxing white rapper who wouldn’t have seen nary a penny without donning a black hat and a bushy beard? Bisman assured me that Matisyahu was a true believer, as righteous a reggae rocker as they come.  

Now I’m not so sure. An article in Billboard Magazine quotes unnamed sources who say that JDub had lost Matisyahu “thousands” from bad deals. Bisman says he has no idea what Matisyahu is talking about, but he’s not surprised by the nasty turn: Matisyahu’s new manager Gersh is notorious for breaking contracts, Bisman said, and concocted an elaborate tale of misdeeds by Matisyahu’s former management.

To Bisman, it all seems not a little bit disingenuous. It was Bisman, for example, who convinced Matisyahu to play clubs and not synagogues and got talk show host Jimmy Kimmel to let Matisyahu perform, not just appear as a guest, on a 2005 TV slot that resulted in a highly successful viral marketing campaign. Matisyahu’s first CD, “Live at Stubb’s,” sold more than 500,000 copies and Matisyahu has opened for the likes of Sting (during a performance in Israel) and has been featured on a host of top live gigs such as the Lolapalooza festivals. If there were thousands lost, as the Billboard article claimed, there were also many more thousands made.

I’m not alone in my outrage. Blogger Mobius, who claims to have been the first to have written about Matisyahu and leaked his first MP3s, called Matisyahu a “false prophet of our own making, who traded in his most devout ‘true believers’ merely to maximize his cashflow potential.” Writing on the Jewschool blog, Mobius (who also designed and built Matisyahu’s website), says “there’s 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.

“His breach of contract is a clear violation of halacha” (Jewish law), Mobius continues. “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 chupah (wedding canopy) I once watched him sing.”

JDub issued a statement after Matisyahu informed his former management last year that its management services were no longer needed. “Matisyahu’s sudden decision to sever ties with JDub came as a complete shock to our organization. From the beginning, our relationship was forged on the same ideals, beliefs and long-term vision: to promote proud, authentic Jewish voices in popular culture. Matisyahu preaches spirituality, unity, and honesty without letting ego or other desires interfere. We believe his rash termination of his relationship with JDub demonstrates that success has clouded his judgment and core ideals.”

JDub promptly hired a legal team which added that “JDub will take whatever steps are necessary to recover its damages from Matisyahu and anyone else who may be liable to JDub in connection with his conduct.”

Matisyahu’s behavior is, frankly, bad business and bad for the Jews to boot. Matisyahu traded on religion and Jewish identity in building a career. He convinced skeptics he was not just in it for a quick buck. He made people believe that a religious Jew could have a successful Hollywood career. Now that all looks like bad Hanukah gelt. I feel used. Matisyahu’s most recent release is, ironically, called “No Place to Be.” A prophetic title? It certainly has no place in our CD players at home anymore.

Bisman’s JDub and Matisyahu recently settled for an undisclosed amount out of court. “Although they have decided to terminate their business relationship, they wish each other well in the future,” the parties said in the statement. For his part, Bisman told me he is pleased to be able to move on, though certainly not with the actions that prompted the drama. “Needless to say we aren’t speaking as there is nothing to say,” Bisman said.

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