by HAP MANSFIELD
A little over a year ago, the Chassidic Jewish reggae/hip hop superstar Matisyahu stunned his legions of fans by cutting his beard and side curls, emerging with the cinematic good looks of a hip pop star. While it would seem to be old news, some fans are still confused about his faith and sincerity as a religious man.
If you go …
What: Matisyahu acoustic performance
Born Matthew Paul Miller, Matisyahu had what is often referred to a “troubled youth” growing up in White Plains, New York. He dropped out of high school, took drugs and was a Phish-head for a time. Hoping to connect more deeply with his Jewish heritage, he enrolled in a two-month program at Alexander Muss High School in Israel, where he was almost kicked out before seriously settling into his faith. He later found a spiritual home for a time with the Lubavitch Hasidic sect in New York City. He took his Hebrew name Matisyahu (“Gift of God”) when starting out in the music business as a teenager.
By 2004, Matisyahu had a release under his belt, “Shake Off The Dust…Arise,” firing an opening salvo in what would be the thematic thread of his work — faith, love and hope. Even the album’s title is taken from the song to welcome the sabbath, “Lekhah Dodi.” The album featured his mega-hit, “King Without A Crown,” and charted for weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, Modern Rock Tracks Chart and Billboard Pop Songs. His career has been exploding ever since.
His next album, Live at Stubb’s, recorded in Austin, soared though the charts and went gold in the U.S. His album, “Youth,” charted worldwide, also going gold. In 2009 his song “One Day” was used by NBC for their promos for the 2010 Olympics. He’s had nine releases, counting studio, live and remixes and Matisyahu’s current release, 2012’s Spark Seeker, continues to chart and garner fans. His songs from that album, “Live Like A Warrior” and “Sunshine,” are certified hits. His spirited, soulful, jazzy style is massively popular with hip-hoppers, beat boxers, dance hall reggae fans and folks who just plain like music with a lively rhythm and a loving message.
We talked with Matisyahu about his work, his faith, his youth, his family (he is married with two sons) and hockey. The Halakhah we are talking about is the collection of written Jewish law and is translated as “the path that one walks.” Matisyahu will be at the Texas Music Theater for an acoustic gig on Jan. 29.
San Marcos Mercury: I suppose it has to be asked since there are still a few confused fans when one reads the comments on YouTube. Your physical image change does not mean that you have given up your religious views as much as it signals your comfort with having a certain peace about how to conduct yourself, is that right? Isn’t one bound to Halakhah (the path that one walks- what a good name for laws) through voluntary consent? Can you talk a bit about that? I know this gets asked a lot.
Matisyahu: Like you said, “the path that one walks, the laws they choose to live by”. At some point in my life I decided to let go of my own sense of self. To serve God in truth one must nullify the self and submit to a higher law than their own sense of right and wrong. I believe in some ways I benefited greatly from this experience; however, it is a very dangerous line to walk. At this latest stage of my life, I choose that to re-integrate my own sense of self, of right and wrong back into the picture. Trust in self does not mean pride or ego.
Mercury: Your songs are socially aware but contain positive messages. Do you think music has a place in social change and if so, how?
Matisyahu: Sure, but for the most part I sing from a more personal place.
Mercury: You said on ShalomTV.com’s L’Chaim that you loved music and hockey when you were younger. Do you still follow hockey?
Matisyahu: Once the season starts up. After I finish this interview I am going to bed so I can be up at 5:45 to take my boys to the rink and skate with them before school.
Mercury: I get the hip-hop and the rap but what attracted a boy from White Plains to Reggae music?
Matisyahu: Mainly Bob Marley, it’s not a chidush (new idea) many kids from all over the world have been introduced to reggae via Bob Marley.
Mercury: What do you think the power of music is all about? What does music mean to you?
Matisyahu: Music has power to make people feel. To hear a song, to write or sing a song. To feel understood, loved, to cure loneliness, to dance, to sing to God, to make people feel good, to empower oneself and others.
Mercury: Is the little girl in the “Sunshine” video the same girl on the “Spark Seeker” album cover? Who is she?
Matisyahu: It in actuality is not but it was meant to be. She is a bedoiun girl we ran into in the desert on our trip to Israel while recording there. She represents something to me.
Mercury: Explain what Israel means to you.
Matisyahu: Israel is a holy place. It is a struggling place. One day when I am on the level I will be ready for her.
Mercury: What do you wish you could say to people?
Matisyahu: I am saying it via my songs.
Mercury: There are certainly parallels in your career to Bob Dylan and your experiences in Israel when you were 16 sort of hinged on a simple twist of fate, didn’t it? Weren’t you almost kicked out of the program your were in in Israel?
Matisyahu: Yes, I was almost kicked out of many programs. I’m at the crossroads most of my life. “I have put both life and death before you, choose life!” [quote from Deuteronomy 30:15 or in Hebrew Devarim]
Mercury: What influences your song writing?
Matisyahu: Anything I let in which is everything.