Should Matisyahu play at a peace festival?

Matisyahu’s BDS moment at Rototom Reggae Sunsplash in Spain.

Matisyahu at the Rototon Sunplash Festival
Matisyahu performing on stage at Rototom Sunsplash Festival in Benicassim, eastern Spain [EPA]

This is not the vibe you want at a Reggae festival.

Several days ago, Rototom Reggae Sunsplash, one of Europe’s largest festivals, cancelled the performance of the Jewish-American reggae artist Matisyahu after accusation by a local BDS (boycotts, divestment, and sanctions) group, BDS Pais Valencia , that he supports the Israeli occupation and is anti-Palestinian. After a global storm of protest, organisers reversed their position and reinvited him. Matisyahu performed on Sunday without incident, but with many fans waving Palestinian flags and chanting “out, out” when he first appeared on stage.

The Matisyahu affair raises several issues about the BDS movement and artistic freedom that are far more complex than they’re being portrayed in the mainstream media narrative. The first is whether artists should ever be subject to a litmus test as a condition for engaging in their art; the second, whether or not Matisyahu was unfairly singled out for his views and faith.

Pro-Palestinian groups during Matisyahu performance at Rototom Sunsplash Festival in Spain [EPA]
Pro-Palestinian groups during Matisyahu performance at Rototom Sunsplash Festival in Spain [EPA]

Music festivals like South by Southwest, Coachella or Glastonbury that have no guiding political message or platform clearly have no business asking artists about their politics or personal views. But there are also a myriad of festivals that have specific agendas or ideological orientations.

Not just music

No one would blame Amnesty International or Greenpeace for not inviting artists who support torture or drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to their festivals. Nor would anyone expect AIPAC to invite the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM to perform at its next gala.

“Rototom is not just music,” the first item on the festival’s Facebook page declares. For 22 years, the festival has supported issues related to “peace, equality, human rights and social justice”, including support for Palestinians, Africa, anti-imperialism and LGBT rights. The banner on top of its homepage even features a giant peace sign composed of festival goers.

Indeed, as the festival organisers also pointed out immediately after cancelling Matisyahu’s performance, his was not the first performance they’ve cancelled. Other artists, such as Jamaican reggae legend Beenie Man, have been cancelled. In Beenie Man’s case, it was because of his homophobic views. Beenie Man ultimately performed at Rototom in 2012 after making a video explicitly disavowing his previous homophobic statements and attitudes – precisely what the organisers asked Matisyahu to do.

Should Matisyahu play at a peace festival?

Among his views, as detailed by the BDS Pais Valencia, Matisyahu has defended the murder of international activists by IDF forces in the infamous 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla...


Suppose that instead of Matisyahu the Israel-supporter, we were discussing Mahmoud or Mohamed, the Palestinian-American rapper who’d expressed public support for Hamas suicide bombings or rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. Would anyone complain about Rototom’s cancelling his appearance if he refused to disavow these positions? Would he be invited to any festival anywhere in the Western world? Not very likely.

If we return to the present situation, Matisyahu has described himself as “support[ing] peace and compassion for all people. My music speaks for itself, and I do not insert politics into my music”. 

Media accounts have generally accepted his self-depiction, declaring that, at most, he has a “vague sympathy for Israel, but it’s clear that his overwhelming view is… apolitical”.

The reality of Palestinian history

The reality, however, is not at all as Matisyahu and his supporters are presenting it. Among his views, as detailed by the BDS Pais Valencia, Matisyahu has defended the murder of international activists by IDF forces in the infamous 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla, has denied the reality of Palestinian history, has supported Israeli settlers and their organisations (and took as a spiritual mentor a leader of the Hebron settlers), and most importantly, has performed for the IDF and for AIPAC.

According to the progressive Jewish website Jewschool (which provided a similar list of highly political, anti-peace actions and opinions), at one festival Matisyahu literally pulled the plug on another Jewish artist during the performance of a song he felt was “pro-Arab”.

Taken together, Matisyahu’s public positions led another progressive Jewish blog, The Magnes Zionist, to declare that “boycotting Matisyahu is reasonable, even if you don’t agree with it”. And indeed, it’s pretty clear that you can’t play for the IDF and AIPAC and then claim you’re apolitical and pro-peace and compassion. Matisyahu has no place appearing at a peace festival.

German Muslim singer Adel Tawil and Matisyahu perform in Berlin [AFP]
German Muslim singer Adel Tawil and Matisyahu perform in Berlin [AFP]

Even if one might agree that Matisyahu’s politics don’t belong at a progressive peace festival, was he unfairly singled out for his views? If so, was this because of his religion? He put it directly: “Were any of the other artists scheduled to perform asked to make political statements in order to perform?”

In this regard, this year, another artist, Jamaican reggae singer Capleton, is headlining the festival despite his record of obnoxious homophobia that’s so bad, he’s had entire tours cancelled because of them. As the Spain-based Uruguayan singer Jorge Drexler tweeted, Rototom has a problem with Matisyahu, but “they do want homophobes like Capleton. Please, someone explain that to me”.

Is the problem really that Matisyahu is Jewish – the most oft-repeated anti-BDS accusation?

Matisyahu’s Jewishness

A look at the full range of comments by people associated with the festival and, more importantly, of the BDS Pais Valencia’s various social media sites demonstrates that no one focused on Matisyahu’s Jewishness as a reason for boycotting him, and in fact, made explicit declarations that his religion had nothing to do with their actions.

What is clear, however, is that BDS Pais Valencia put early and significant pressure on festival organisers, while the local LGBT activist community was uninterested or unprepared to make a similar fuss over Capleton.

Ultimately, the problem is not with BDS Pais Valencia or with Rototom Sunsplash’s core principles. It’s with the management of the festival’s failure to do due diligence in selecting artists this year. But their incompetence was aggravated by cowardice once pressure from the mainstream international and Spanish media, the local Jewish community and Israeli government all hit at once.

And so, as suddenly as they cancelled him, festival organisers “publicly apologised” to Matisyahu and reinvited him to play in his original spot, declaring that they’d “made a mistake due to the boycott and the campaign of pressure, coercion and threats employed by the BDS Pais Valencia, because it was perceived that the normal functioning of the festival could be threatened – all of which prevented the organisation from reasoning clearly as to how to deal with the situation properly”.

It turns out that both Matisyahu and Rototom Sunsplash are the victims of a mean-spirited conspiracy by anti-Jewish activists looking to stifle free speech and attack Jews. Who would have thought?

Bob Marley and Peter Tosh must be turning in their graves.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.