Interview: Matisyahu

Why the shtetl reggae star lost his black hat


Critics might have initially dismissed him as a novelty act, but five years after Chasidic pop star Matisyahu emerged on the scene, he has proved he is not just grabbing attention because of his peyot and black hat.

Popular with the music press, he has picked up thousands of devoted fans across the world, making huge sales and regularly topping the Billboard charts in the United States. This success cannot be just because he does not conform with the usual swaggering rock and reggae stars that normally grace the stage and MTV screen.

“The Jewish world is becoming fully integrated with the ideas of the normal world. They feed off each other,” Matisyahu (born Matthew Miller) explains of his cross-over appeal. “In the past, people from a religious persuasion wouldn’t be exposed to current music. Also, you didn’t have so many people becoming religious. You have got a lot more people who didn’t used to be religious who have been exposed to other things.”

Unlike his previous records which are pure reggae, his new album, Light, draws from a wider range of influences, taking in pop, hip hop and rock. One Day, the catchy single taken from it, is as accessible as anything by the Black Eyed Peas or Wyclef Jean. “It’s kind of all over the place stylistically. It’s the way I wanted to make a record for a long time. I have always been into different styles,” says Matisyahu, who made the album in Jamaica with his close friend, acoustic rock artist Trevor Hall.

Meanwhile, the 30-year-old singer has become less puritanical in terms of his appearance over the past two years. Gone are the black hat, suit and neat beard, and instead he seems more comfortable in hoodies, trainers and a shaggy haircut (although he still has a beard).

This could be to do with his disassociation from the Chabad Lubavitch movement which, he has said, was a result of a desire to broaden his horizons. He now davens with the Karlin Chasidic sect — but still lives in the Chabad community of Crown Heights, New York, with his wife Tahlia and their two sons. Being an entertainer who happens to be strictly Orthodox is not as incongruous at it first sounds. In fact, Matisyahu, who was brought up as a secular Jew in posh New York suburb White Plains by a social worker mother and housing office father, developed his musical career in tandem with becoming frum at the age of 21. While attending the Carlebach Synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan he was also beatboxing at open mic nights in the Lower East Side.

“I was really searching for some meaning. I was trying to figure out where I was going to find that,” he explains over the phone from New York. “I decided to investigate my heritage and this spiritual tradition I’m born out of. I started to find things that I really appreciated. Certainly, when I became religious and when I found all this teaching, it started to become a wealth of artillery for me to draw from.

“It was hard for my parents to understand, though. There was a certain amount of angst. But now they are pretty great.”

He has admitted to dabbling in psychedelic drugs that seem to go with the music scene (although not since 2001, when he became Baal Teshuva — an Orthodox Jew) and insists they helped him to access his spirituality. He even argues that despite its grass-smoking, Rastafarian associations, reggae music, rather than being at odds with Judaism, actually suits it.

“One of the first places where I started to respond to song lyrics was in reggae music,” he says. “A lot of what I was responding to were references to the Old Testament. It was not that I had to adapt the lyrics to the sound. Reggae and the Old Testament are bound up together. There wasn’t anything that I had to do.”

He says the traditional Jewish melodies do not chime with his musical style, but Chasidic and Kabbalistic wisdom are all over his lyrics. “I found certain lines that really lent themselves to the reggae music that I was writing,” he says. “The themes are universal.”

Despite his genuine commitment to Judaism, Matisyahu is happy to admit that being in the music industry allows him a certain freedom that his Crown Heights neighbours would not necessarily enjoy. “It’s a blessing to have my independence and make music and travel,” he says. “It’s more creative. And then to come home and spend time with my kids, and hang with them, is perfect. On the one hand, if you live in a tight-knit community you can get sucked into the insularity of the shtetl. Having the lifestyle of travelling, trying to be creative and making music helps you to see more of the big picture. The religious lifestyle keeps you focused. It’s helpful when trying to manoeuvre through the music scene.”

And is the strictly Orthodox community mistrustful of an outwardly Charedi Jew who is so unconventional? Matisyahu says they are “mostly supportive. If there is criticism I just don’t pay attention to it. I have the option to stay away from it if I choose to. I guess people have all kinds of crazy beliefs. My music is really about people connecting with their identities, even if they aren’t Jewish.”

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