Matisyahu beatboxes at The UC Theatre Taube Family Music Hall in Berkeley on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Matisyahu beatboxes at The UC Theatre Taube Family Music Hall in Berkeley on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Matisyahu vibes in Berkeley despite pro-Palestinian protest outside theater

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Jewish reggae singer and rapper Matisyahu enthralled a packed house Thursday night at UC Theatre in Berkeley, a week after two concerts on his current U.S. tour were canceled due to pressure from pro-Palestinian activists.

Before the show began, as concert-goers made their way inside the theater, a group of about 20 protesters wearing masks or keffiyehs covering their faces held signs with anti-Israel messages and yelled through bullhorns. They marched in a circle on the sidewalk and chanted, “Free, free Palestine” and “You’re supporting genocide.”

Inside, the atmosphere was overwhelmingly supportive of Israel and Matisyahu. A woman who did not want to be identified handed out square stickers reading “FCK HMS,” meaning “F— Hamas.” Hundreds of concert-goers let out a loud cheer when Matisyahu took the stage after the opening act, alternative band Cydeways, finished its set.

The 44-year-old performer walked with a cane after suffering an injury earlier in the tour. Sporting curly, gray, chin-length hair, he mostly sat on a stool, next to an empty chair with posters of the hostages taken by Hamas taped to it.

Some members of the audience held up and waved Israeli flags and reacted ecstactically whenever the artist said something pro-Israel.

“Shout out to the warriors of Israel for protecting us,” Matisyahu said at the end of one song.

Since Oct. 7, Matisyahu has expressed unwavering support for Israel on social media. In one video on his Instagram account, he sings for soldiers in the Golan Heights while draped in an Israeli flag.

Earlier this month, a group called Yalla Berkeley started a social media pressure campaign against UC Theatre to try to shut down Thursday’s concert. “Hey UC Theatre, we do NOT want to listen to or support Zionists,” the group wrote on Instagram. It encouraged people to email and call the venue and offered a script to follow.

Similar pressure campaigns led to the cancellation of Matisyahu’s shows in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Tucson, Arizona, earlier this month.

In a statement to J., UC Theatre said that it had coordinated with the Berkeley mayor’s office and police department to ensure the security of the event.

David Draiman, lead singer of the heavy metal band Disturbed, posted to X on Thursday that he had started a GoFundMe page to raise money for extra security for Matisyahu, noting that the singer “and his family have been relentlessly harassed during his current tour.” By Friday afternoon, the “Matisyahu Defense Fund” had raised more than $18,000 toward its $25,000 goal.

As she waited in line at the UC Theatre on Thursday, one concert-goer said she was excited to see Matisyahu live for the first time but also felt uneasy because of the demonstration.

“I’m a big supporter of peace, and this guy’s singing all about it,” Karen, who didn’t want to give her last name, told J. One of Matisyahu’s best-known songs, “One Day,” is a peace anthem about a time in the future when “there’ll be no more wars, and our children will play.”

The demonstrators’ messages were “hard to digest because I am an Israeli,” Karen said. “For me it’s very pride-swallowing to have to even look at it. But OK, my eyes are open — others have their perception and their views — and I think a lot of it is misconstrued. I hope that the truth will eventually come out.”

Another concert-goer, Idan Berman, wore a “Bring Them Home Now” dog tag to support the hostages still held in Gaza. He said he supports free speech but felt the protesters were misinformed.

“There’s a problem with education and understanding of reality in this country amongst our young,” Berman said inside the venue before the show. “I don’t think they understand the world they live in, and I don’t think anybody’s ever forced them to face reality and accountability for their actions. Certainly what they’re saying and what they’re chanting is not based in fact.”

Matisyahu’s U.S tour for his new EP, “Hold the Fire,” continues with another 20 shows through late March.

Aaron Levy-Wolins
Aaron Levy-Wolins

Aaron Levy-Wolins is J.'s photographer. See more of his work on Instagram @aaron_levywolins and @jewishnews_sf.