By choosing to call himself Joseph Israel, the reggae-loving singer-songwriter born Joseph Montgomery Fennel seems to be sending a clear message about the belief system he favors. But, as he concedes, "it's more complex than that. I was raised a Baptist, and as I continued to grow, Bob Marley's music took me into looking at Rasta and other religions -- and after reading everything, I understood that there is multi in God's purpose. So even though I keep the Passover and love the Torah, I also believe that Yeshua, or Jesus, is the Messiah."
Contradictory? Seems like it -- but Israel doesn't see things that way. "I strive to be a true Jew," he declares. "It's like what the Apostle Paul said: To be a true Jew is to be one inwardly, inside your heart -- to circumcise your heart, you know?"
This painful-sounding image, which references a biblical passage, has little in common with the language preferred by today's popsters, or even most contemporary reggae practitioners. Israel, however, is accustomed to going against the grain. He was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma -- not exactly a reggae hotbed -- before moving as an infant to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he still lives. Although his childhood peers dug Green Day, Smashing Pumpkins, etc., the stuff that truly moved him was reggae -- not just the music, which he heard thanks to his father, a local club owner, but even the intros. According to Israel, "Babylon by Bus, the live Marley album, blew my mind from the time I was, like, one year old. I loved the part where he came on stage and said, 'Greetings in the name of his imperial majesty, Jah Rastafari!' I used to be like, 'Replay that! Replay that!'"
By the time he was seventeen, Israel was rocking bright-red dreads -- and in ensuing years, he put together a couple of reggae bands, Kepha and the Lions of Israel, that opened for several notable touring acts. These connections paid off in late 2004 and early 2005, when he recorded the material for his most recent album, Gone Are the Days, with cohorts of Ziggy Marley and Luciano, as well as reggae veterans headed by guitarist Earl "Chinna" Smith. Tunes like "Jah Kingdom" closely echo the sound associated with reggae's '70s glory days -- very closely. But Israel swears he wasn't trying to mimic his heroes. "I'm definitely inspired by other great musicians," he allows, "but I'm just doing what I'm doing."
His timing was good; the success of Matisyahu, who's both an Orthodox Jew and a reggae star, likely spurred Universal to re-release Gone on the just-launched New Door imprint. "I'm looking forward to it reaching the people," he says. "And I mean all the people. I love everybody."
Whether their heart's been circumcised or not.
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