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3 Things The Christian Music Industry Could Learn From Matisyahu

June 11, 2013

Lately I’ve been jamming out to reggae/hip-hop performer Matisyahu and his album Youth, which I found for a cool 5 bucks at Best Buy. Matisyahu is not only a talented musician, but is (or was) a Hasidic Jew who incorporated his faith into his music and lyrics. Despite (or perhaps because of) his religious faith, he has become quite a popular performer in certain circles.

     Listening to Matisyahu, I wondered why, if a Hasidic Jew can make good reggae music, then why can’t Christians make good music. I realized that the Christian music industry had been missing some key ingredients that Matisyahu included in his work. When I say “Christian music,” I don’t refer to artists like Sufjan Stevens or the Welcome Wagon who work outside of the mainstream Christian industry; Nor do I refer to worship music like Hillsong or Christ Tomlin. I speak of Christian pop and rock, the kind of music played on AirOne, sold at Christian chain stores, and marketed towards youth group kids. Here are the three lessons that the Christian music industry could learn from Matisyahu.

1. Know Your Roots: Matisyahu is a good singer/MC, but he would be nowhere if his backing band wasn’t good as well. The key to a good reggae song is a funky, danceable beat, and Matisyahu delivers. It is obvious from listening to his records that he has studied reggae masters like Bob Marley, and allowed himself to become influenced by them.

Christian music, on the other hand, hasn’t been good in this area. Instead of seriously trying to study the best work that has been done in a good genre (reggae, blues-rock, etc.), instead we’ve tended to blatantly rip off the most commercialized and “poppy” genres out there–singer-based pop, pop-punk, hardcore. Worse yet, when we’ve ripped off pop artists, we haven’t even ripped off the right things. When I was in high school, there were a million Christian pop-punk bands that tried to sound like sanitized versions of blink-182 and Green Day. They had the palm mutes, the choruses, the song structure, the bad hair. They were able to come up with a carbon copy of secular pop-punk music. But, to use the words of Doug Wilson, they knew everything about the song except for what it was about. The biggest selling points for blink-182 and Green Day weren’t their musical style or song structure (both bands are fairly unskilled), but blink-182’s energy and humour, and Green Day’s politics-fueled rage. But instead of trying to look at what actually made these bands popular, we Christians just came up with a relatively family-friendly knockoff and called it a day.

Christian Music encapsulated into one picture.

2. Allow Your Faith To Influence Your Music Holistically. Matisyahu’s Jewish faith influences his lyrics, but it doesn’t feel “preachy” or forced. In the Christian music industry, there’s a term called “Jesus’-per-minute”–a song or album needs to have a certain number of “Jesus’-per-minute.” There is no Jewish equivalent to this in Matisyahu’s music. Listening to his lyrics, it is obvious where he comes from, but he feels free to sing/rap about whatever he wants, letting his beliefs color his lyrics without trying to force it upon them.

Christian music has not been good about this. Most of the artists who write Christian songs holistically–U2, Sufjan Stevens, Derek Webb–are either not part of the industry, or have had struggles with it. Musicians within the industry usually fall into two pitfalls. Either they make a song explicitly Christian and it sounds incredibly cheesy (“Me and Jesus” by Stellar Kart), or they try to avoid explicit Christian references altogether–and still sound cheesy (See much of Relient K’s discography). Few artists have a holistic vision for their music, where their faith is implicit in all of their work. An artist with this holistic vision will be able to sing about whatever he or she wants without feeling constrained to be more “pious” in their art.

3. Be Bold About Your Faith. Despite how uncool religion is, especially among young urban people who listen to all the cool bands,  Matisyahu is incredibly popular. He sings about his faith–the ultra-uncool Hasidic Judaism–and is still incredibly popular. Evidently, atheists, Jews, Muslims and Christians are able to come together to appreciate Matisyahu’s music.

“We’re not really a Christian band.” How many times have we heard this. We’ve heard it from Switchfoot. We’ve heard it from Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou [Granted, his relationship to religion is a lot more complex than most “Christian rockers’.”] We’ve heard it from Anberlin. We’ve heard it from half of all the Christian hardcore bands. Heck, we’ve even heard it from those bands that people for some strange reason thought were Christian in the first place (The Fray, Creed, etc.)

I understand the reluctance to have a label put onto you that doesn’t describe your music. Derek Webb says, “Whenever you see Christian applied to anything that’s not a person, it’s a marketing term,” and he’s right. Musicians of the Christian faith who don’t fit into the “Christian Industry Box” (No swearing, no songs about drinking or having sex) have been wrongly marginalized and maligned. But sometimes the declaration “We’re not really a Christian band/artist/whatever,” sounds like cowardice. It sounds like an attempt to try to please both sides without committing to either one. It sounds wimpy, limp-wristed, and compromising, which just means it could be a symbol of American Evangelicalism as a whole.  It’s a way of giving up while trying to sound sophisticated.

Secular music has Black Flag; Christian music has White Flag

Aside from a few village atheists, most music people will not hate your music if it’s Christian. They will hate your music if it stinks. Most young people today value authenticity very highly. Christian or atheist, they will not be very impressed by a declaration of being “sorta Christian, but not really.” Look at Sufjan Stevens. Look at the Welcome Wagon. Look at U2. Look at Page Francis. Mentioning Jesus explicitly in your songs won’t be a liability if you write good songs and you’re not a jerk who makes Christians look bad. And, in the context of Christian faith, losing a few fans because you mentioned your faith in a song should be part of counting the cost of discipleship. Getting your CD put in the “Gospel” section is not a huge price to pay.

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