Canceled Concert Sparks Attention

Questions remain after Meow Wolf drops Matisyahu show under pressure from anti-war protesters and employees

In the week since Santa Fe arts corporation Meow Wolf canceled Jewish reggae artist Matisyahu’s Feb. 14 concert, ire, criticism and support has erupted from across the political spectrum, as well as a deluge of international coverage from outlets such as NBC, TMZ, Fox News, Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post and others.

Local anti-war protesters who decried Matisyahu’s stance on the Israel-Gaza conflict were quick to claim credit for the sudden change of direction, but the Meow Wolf Workers Collective workers’ union now says its actions weren’t linked to politics.

According to the company’s official stament, a number of staffers called out of work for the night of the would-be Valentine’s Day show featuring the American musician (real name Matthew Paul Miller): “Due to general safety concerns that have come to light in recent hours, we’ve made the difficult decision to cancel tonight’s show. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.”

The following day, the company notified ticket-holders it would issue refunds.

The Rialto Theatre in Tucson, Arizona also canceled Matisyahu’s appearance slated for Feb. 15, though that show ultimately moved to neighboring venue The Rock.

The artist addressed the cancellations himself via X (formerly Twitter), writing, “the staff at these venues refused to come to work, forcing cancellations. Without our permission or approval, the venue in Santa Fe misinformed our fans canceling the show due to ‘security concerns’ when the only concern was a group of staff unwilling to work my show.”

A coalition of Santa Fe organizations including Santa Feans for Justice in Palestine, New Mexico Jews for a Free Palestine, Stand Up For Racial Justice New Mexico and the Santa Fe Democratic Socialists of America claimed victory in the Santa Fe cancellation, saying in a joint statement that “Matisyahu has been an outspoken supporter of the genocidal campaign against Palestinians in Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

That coalition publicized an overnight plan to demonstrate at Meow Wolf, but learned the show had been canceled before the action took place. About a dozen people briefly protested outside Matisayahu’s tour bus.

“In addition to local pro-Palestinian activists,” the coalition statement continues, “Meow Wolf Workers Collective Members and leadership also advocated for the show to be canceled.”

A few days later, the union clarified its official position wasn’t about the message of the show, but about the potential for conflict.

“Meow Wolf leadership has said that their decision to cancel the concert has nothing to do with politics, culture or religion and was an operational decision based on safety concerns. We agree with the decision,” reads a statement issued by the Meow Wolf Workers Collective on Saturday, Feb. 17. “MWWC did not have time to democratically take an official stance on the concert or take any action, though we defend staff for choosing to defend personal safety. Meow Wolf Workers Collective believes in free expression, however we do not tolerate hate, discrimination, violence or violent rhetoric.”

One Meow Wolf worker who didn’t want to be identified out of fear of retaliation, however, said some employees objected to comments Matisayahu has made, including in a Newsweek feature in January where he was quoted as saying, “I would like to see any terrorist, Hamas, or person who believes Israel has no right to exist or the Jews have no right to it, I would like Israel to destroy those people.”

The Santa Fe Democratic Socialists of America’s William Whiteman, a co-signatory of the statement from the coalition of activists who protested the show, tells SFR the message from his and the other organizations was careful to note it was “members of the Meow Wolf Workers Collective rather than the entity itself.”

Others, Matisyahu included, have intimated antisemitism fueled the show’s cancellations in Tucson and Santa Fe.

Mayor Alan Webber, for example, released a statement Feb. 15 saying, “There is a significant difference between protesting against the policies of the Netanyahu government in Gaza and shutting down the performance of a Jewish-American artist in Santa Fe. There’s no excuse for antisemitism, Islamophobia, bigotry, bias, racism or intolerance, not here, not now, not ever. The war in Israel and Gaza is a humanitarian tragedy, and we should all join in the call for the safe return of all hostages and an end to the killing. We need to see peace in the Middle East.”

The New Mexico Jewish Community Relations Coalition did not mince words in a letter to both Webber and Meow Wolf CEO Jose Tolosa, reading in part: “Matisyahu became a target only because of his identity as a Jew with an affinity toward Israel.”

“This is troubling to us,” coalition spokesman Zachary Benjamin told SFR the day after the canceled show. “We believe it sets a dangerous precedent; we’re talking about what we perceive as a potential act of bias, so this is something that, as a Jewish community, is of concern to us—and as New Mexicans.”

Whiteman denies the accusation of antisemitism. For example, the Democratic Socialists of America helped organize the recent Klezmer for Palestine concert at Santa Fe DIY venue Baby Grand, “at which we had Jewish performers singing in Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino,” he tells SFR. “We upheld sacred Jewish traditions as a group—that is us platforming Jewish performers.”

Online conversations have also, perhaps inevitably, dipped into dialogue surrounding cancel culture and censorship. Santa Fe lawyer Talia Kosh, who formerly counted Meow Wolf among her clients, says the company acted within its rights.

“Artistic expression through the spoken or written word, particularly in the form or political protest or satirical speech or writing such as plays or songs, is akin to ‘pure speech,’ and is entitled to comprehensive protection under the First Amendment,” Kosh tells SFR. “However, since Meow Wolf is a private company, it can censor artistic expression as they so choose. As a private company, Meow Wolf also has freedom of speech to select and decide not to feature certain artists.”

Matisyahu continues to tweet about the cancellations. A video posted on Feb. 16, for example, features a caption that reads in part, “The Rock [in Tucson] was happy to have us. No security issues. If a venue has a staff who’s afraid to stand up to these fools, I will find a venue who supports me and my beautiful fans…we will keep playing and singing and dancing.”

His next scheduled tour stops are in California, Nevada and Oregon.

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