Joseph Israel is perhaps the most rastafied white dude you’ll ever see. Although he was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas, for Jah’s sake, he’s got the scruffy beard (in fiery reds), natty dreads, and natural threads of a Rasta prop’a. The twist is that like Matisyahu (the Hasidic reggae/hip-hop crossover star), he spins traditional reggae messages on a Jewish axis. In fact, in light of their common position, Israel and Matisyahu recently joined forces on stage, and are rumored to be recording a new song together.
It may sound strange, but the Jamaican-Jew fusion is wholly appropriate. Both peoples have a long history of displacement and oppression overcome in part by a strong ethnic identity. Both embrace the idea of the promised land—Ethiopia for the Rastafarians and Israel for the Jews—as well as that of the spiritual leader—Jah for the Rastas and Yahweh for the Jews. Early Jamaican reggae artists even appropriated the word Babylon from Jewish history to stand for oppression and corruption in their own lives.
For the strength of his spiritual vision and his straight-ahead approach to roots reggae, Joseph Israel is admired in Jamaica. He’s been endorsed by Ziggy Marley and Luciano, two of Jamaica’s most well respected reggae ambassadors, and has been warmly received at major reggae festivals in Kingston and beyond. Members of both Marley’s and Luciano’s bands, as well as Luciano himself, appear on Joseph Israel’s debut, Gone Are the Days. Ever since the album’s initial release last year, people in the reggae community have been buzzing about this American kid who earned the favor of Luciano and Ziggy Marley. Although the ensuing collaborations did result in some righteous roots reggae, there’s an irksome lack of spirit in Israel’s singing. His messages sound more borrowed than bought.
This isn’t enough to ruin Gone Are the Days, but it does dilute the album from high point in modern American roots reggae to mere refreshing pleasure. Despite the lackluster vocal delivery, its strongest facets are still its traditional sound and devout lyrics. “‘Cause the law came from Zion, Word from Jerusalem / The lion ago lay down with the lamb”, sings Israel in the opening track, “Jerusalem”. In “King of Kings”, he references Judaism more directly: “Revelation tells the story about the King of Glory / The tribulation that is at hand, the destruction of all nations”. It’s easy to see how he took traditional Rastafarian themes and infused them with Judaism, which is a double-edged sword: on one side it speaks to the universality and strength of reggae music, and on the other it shows Israel’s personal creativity to be wanting. Yet as he looks to reggae’s past for direction, by nature of his very identity he also represents its future.
This is Joseph Israel’s first official release, and it’s clear his goal was not to advance reggae but to make a legit old-school roots reggae record. At that, for the most part, he succeeded. On only a couple occasions—the scorching guitar solo in “Hotta Fiyah”, the jazz piano and sax in “Jah Kingdom”, the lovers rock of “Perfect Love” —does Israel stray from the formula perfected by Bob Marley, Delroy Wilson, and Peter Tosh. What he (or rather, his musicians) do consistently well is lock into a tight groove with plenty of flair. Without a doubt, that goes a long way in reggae. But it doesn’t go all the way.