Why the shtetl reg­gae star lost his black hat

Charedi singer Matisyahu has ditched his Lubav­itch links and ac­quired a new sound. But, as he tells Alex Kas­riel, he needs Ju­daism in or­der to sur­vive in show­busi­ness

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment -

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.”


Matisyahu plays the Is­ling­ton O2 Academy on Oc­to­ber 13. (www.tick­etweb. co.uk). ‘Light’ is avail­able on iTunes on Epic Records Matisyahu’s new al­bum ex­plores pop, rock and hip hop. He says tra­di­tional Jewish mu­sic doesn’t suit him and he wants to avoid “the in­su­lar­ity of the shtetl”

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