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December 17, 2014 5:25 pm

EXCLUSIVE: Matisyahu Provides Most Extensive Analysis Yet of His Religious, Musical Evolution (INTERVIEW)

avatar by Shiryn Solny

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Matisyahu. Photo: Twitter.

Matisyahu got candid in an exclusive interview with The Algemeiner on Monday about his religious and musical journey – after shedding his Chassidic skin, yarmulke, long beard and all – from the start of his career in 2005 when he became a reggae superstar with hits King Without a Crown and Jerusalem.

The singer-songwriter embarks on his Festival of Light tour this month, an annual Hanukkah event that stops in Montreal, New York, and other cities before ending in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Jan 31. He has recently been touring North America to promote his latest album Akeda. The artist said he usually does a fall and summer tour, takes a break and then goes back on the road for the Festival of Light. Performing during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah holds a special significance for the musician.

“When I started out performing the first shows I ever did were on Purim and Hanukkah. And I started doing these Hanukkah shows in New York and people started coming before anyone really knew who I was. So Hanukkah was a stepping stone for me performance-wise,” he said. “And also my name Matisyahu is connected with the story of Hanukkah cuz he was the father of Judah the Maccabee and the Maccabees, so I’ve always felt a spiritual connection to the story and this time of year.”

“I love doing this run of shows and we have our ‘disco ball dreidel.’ That’s probably my favorite thing about Hanukkah,” he added.

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Matisyahu remembers going from his yeshiva in Crown Heights, Brooklyn to perform at clubs and then returning back to the school right after. Elaborating on his connection to Hanukkah he said the idea of hope and light in the time of darkness is something he can relate to.

With no yarmulke, his beard shaved, and his hair cropped, Matisyahu’s change in appearance drew criticism from fans. He admits it was painful to hear and made him pessimistic about people and what he called “their opinionated judgmental selves.”

“It was really hard for me because it turns out these people were not really fans of my music,” he said. “Those people that made the comments, they were just I guess followers or fans of me representing them or making Judaism cool or whatever it was. So it was kind of an eye opener and it kind of make me realize, as an artist, you can kind of create your fan base to some extend and choose who are the people.”

“There’s a lot of pressure when you go to perform, for me at least, to play different things; to do different things. People are fans of different things. Some people are just a fan of a guy with a beard. Some people will just go to the show because their girlfriend took them and some people are just going because they want to hear Jerusalem and King Without a Crown,” he added. “But I keep performing, I keep playing, I keep following my creative toll, whatever that is, and that kind of weeds out the so-called fans.”

Born Matthew Miller, Matisyahu grew up outside of New York City in White Plains, Westchester County. He moved to Brooklyn when he was 19 and attended yeshiva in Crown Heights. Now based in Los Angeles, Matisyahu is not shy about his religious evolution from the start of his career until now. He said nothing in particular sparked the change in his beliefs but that it was a “natural progression” taking place in his life.

“I find myself at times surrendering to things and totally giving myself over to different things,” he explained. “Certainly when I was 20 I gave myself over to religion and to orthodox Judaism and specifically Chasidism. And over time I felt it just run its course. I felt myself sort of start to feel really creativity cut off. So I was sort of gradually making changes in my life; in my world.”

The major turning point for Matisyahu was shaving off his beard. He said the facial hair represented an “adherence to the law” and when he cut it off, it was as if he was taking back control of his life and listening to his own voice in terms of what he thinks is right and wrong. Defining his current relationship with Judaism, the artist said it fluctuates: sometimes it consumes all the different aspects of his life and sometimes “it’s kind of somewhere inside or in the background.” He added, “sometimes I get lost from it.” He then said the following about the role of Chassidim in his life:

“The Chasidism and everything that I learned and the time that I spent that far into the culture, and lifestyle, and ideology, and philosophy and all that, is a really strong part of it. And it never goes away. It’s the kind of thing that you can kind of tap back into in terms of the practice of Judaism. The spiritual practice of it.”

Matisyahu’s religious journey is reflected in Akeda, which was produced by bassist Stu Brooks and released on June 3. The album highlights different styles and its tracks include the upbeat reggae hybrid Champion and the soft piano ballad Reservoir. The latter features a backdrop of Judaism with biblical references and a Hebrew prayer to close off the song.

“Can’t give up and won’t give in/I am the blood of Jacob/and I’ll keep struggling like Joseph,” he sings in Reservoir. “My brothers wanna sell me out.”

Akeda maintains Jewish references and ideas like those in Matisyahu’s past albums but the content and songwriting is different this time around, according to the artist. In comparison to his past albums, Matisyahu said Akeda is more personal and less ideologically influenced.

“It’s more about my own changes and struggles and things that I went through and real relationships. It feels more human,” he explained. “More of like a real glimpse of a person’s life. Not just shiny upbeat music to make people feel better or feel stronger.”

“I think its takes people on a little bit of a journey into my world as I was going through this massive change in my life. I would say that it just feels like a real shot, a glimpse of that period of my life.”

The album’s name Akeda was inspired by the biblical story of the binding of Isaac. Matisyahu said he felt a connection to the tale and that there are multiple layers of meaning for him in the story, which is reflected throughout his album. He added that, as a parent himself to three sons and a daughter, he associated with Isaac and even Abraham. He said the biblical tale was a good story to represent where he’s at in life.

“The whole thing: the journey, standing at the bottom of the mountain, Isaac wondering the whole time what he’s doing there and then figuring it out and what that must have been like. I feel a real personal connection to the stories and I spent a lot of time studying them in yeshiva, and on this record I really tried to make them come alive and humanize them, the characters and the stories.”

Matisyhau calls music “an artistic extension of what’s happening in my life.” He said his personal evolution started the day he started listening to and creating music. His religious journey has affected his music and the way he expresses himself. He described his past style of music as “really reggae, kind of fast with a lot of words [and a] high-paced kind of melodic rapping with a reggae accent.” Now he likes to emote and take his time with his lyrics. He is more patient and to get his point across he uses less words but ones that are more impactful or personal to him, he said.

When asked if his family is supportive of the path he chose in life, he began by saying, “Well I’m divorced now so that answers part of your question.” He added that his parents, Reconstructionist Jews, have had their “moments of support.” Matisyahu believes they had a hard time understanding the decisions he made, just as he would if his child did the same. However, he noted that he has a closer relationship with them now than he did when he was Chassidic.

The release of King Without a Crown and Jerusalem catapulted Matisyahu’s career giving him celebrity status as somewhat of a Chassidic star. He became famous not just for his music but also for his religious ties. He said he didn’t mind it because he never really separated the two and always felt his music was one with his identity and spirituality.

“When I got into Judaism that was such a part of who I was and even my own creative expression so I didn’t expect to come out and be like, oh, here’s a reggae singer and he just happens to be Chasidic. That was a totally originally thing. That never happened before.”

“What bothered me more was when I shed the identity,” he concluded. “People weren’t able to see, some people weren’t able to see, past that. But there’s nothing you can do about that. That’s just close mindedness.”

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  • Mark

    So much judgment….makes me so sad. We each have our own walk….mine is not yours….neither is his. G-D will judge, kindly keep your judgement to yourself or become a goat.

  • Annie N

    If you liked the music before and he is no longer so religious what changes the music? Nothing but your judgement of who,You think he should be. We are all expanding. He’s got great talent and music to offer. we are not to judge anyone. So basically most of you believe if I chant and meditate in Hindi that I lost my Judiasm How wrong you are cause it made me closer to my roots and spirit. Stop judging others. Be joyous and enjoy the music. that is a big problem molding people to how we think they should be instead of letting them be who they are.
    why dont you be you and I ll be me!

  • dear people. I AM CHID CHAI CHAI NOACHIDE NAVISHEM MEHSIVAN. YOU ALL I CHIDE WITH. HE THE ONE WHO IS IS AND I CAN PERSONALLY SAY MEHSHAYAH THINKS WE ARE TO BE A UNIFIED PEOPLE WITHOUT RELIGION SO YOU SEE NOW? EVERY JEWISH RABBI HAS A BIG PROBLEM AND ITS NOT MATISYAHU. IF U ARE JEWISH YOU NEED TO WAKE UP. APPRECIATE UNIVERSAL LAW AND RID YOURSELVES OF HAVING HATE.

  • BWall

    It’s not close-mindedness. His message and his music changed and people that started out listening to him for his connection to Judaism and what his music represented stopped connecting.

    In addition, he sold himself as the Chassidic Reggae Superstar, as evidenced by his initial webiste (www.chassidicreggae.com). He knew that the schtik was something new and different and it would catch and give himself a chance to break through. And he did. And he used a lot of religious, Chabad in particular, families along the way, for kosher food, housing, Shabbat accommodations, etc.

    People were not turned off that he stopped being religious. This happens all the time. What turned people off is that in shaving his beard and deciding to live a religiously less observant life, he did a series of interviews where he openly disparaged the religious community and called religious philosophy and practice close minded and antiquated, etc.

    Let’s be real. He is a different person than he was before. And that’s okay. He is free to live however he wants. But he has no right to cry about how religious people don’t like him anymore and attempt to blame it on their close-mindedness. That is the epitome of being close-minded.

    • Ben

      You said it better than I did. I would just add that with great [fill in blank] comes great responsibility. What made me a supporter was the kiddush Hashem I thought he was creating. He was a champion carrying OUR baton or torch. A mutual support team.

      Then it turned out that in his mind it is everybody’s job to be ‘fans’ and join a cult supporting him and his music unconditionally. Doh! Making a good living is evidently not enough. We could live with that disappointment. Hasta la vista. Happy Trails. Each to his own.

      What is not forgivable is the chillul Hashem. He is a bright guy, and should know enough to be embarrassed by the way he talks.

      Yo! Leave us out of it. Don’t go away mad – just go away.

      • Jacob R

        Ben, Wow… Listen to your words…… Now ask yourself “What would god say?” I’m pretty sure it would be something about Unconditional Love, and Non- Judgement. Let’s just send Love out into the world! Everyones Journey Has a Beautiful Purpose. Even Bad in the World has a purpose. His new Album unexpectedly Shattered my outer shell. I now live with God’s light in the most Beautiful way. He is a vessel of Gods light. When you read Torah/Bible It tells stories about overcoming life’s adversities. It’s life’s struggles that bring us closer to god. Blessings and Lot’s of LOVE to you. -R

      • Ben Gruder

        “. He is a bright guy, and should know enough to be embarrassed by the way he talks.”

        What in particular did he say in this article that he should be embarrassed about?

    • I don’t care who he is as a Musician. I still buy any songs of his that personally appeal.
      But as a fellow Jew, it hurts to see someone with so much potential get lost. It is his life, his choice… but it’s still sad to see.

  • CWinokoor

    What is undeniable is that his previous band was very, very good. tight and punchy, hotcha.

  • Ben

    I was certainly a fan of Matisyahu, but more strictly I was a fan of his message, not of him or his music per se. He was originally quite humble and sincere and respectful. When he started to whine and complain that Jewish practice was too this and that, and that people were not properly supportive of him and his ‘journey’, it was over. We all have our journeys, and his split off from ours. If you ask me, the proximate cause was using drugs with his new bandmates. I saw an interview of his (still with beard) in which he was completely wasted. ‘A warrior fighting for your soul’ indeed. A fallen warrior. I wish him well, but I would no longer trust him.

    • BEEL

      “To strengthen the heart, there is no better exercise to bend down to lift up those who are down.”

      Give back and trust him, if don’t, then who will trust you? may you not be the fallen warrior you are talking about.

      Regards.

  • I was his voice teacher in Crown Heights…when he came to me, his band ws in an uproar that he could not even stay on pitch…I put him together, with my work he made his first gold – I accompanied him, voclized him before shows, set him up in every way to face the audience – Hs ego is 10 times his size – but he knows how to perform and use what he then had to devise his plan – he has a great voice but a character that refuses to even let this real instrument live. He did not want to study with me anymore because I connected him too much to his roots, because ith me I felt too much and I demanded too much honesty from him vocally…vocally and spiritually and for someone who refuses both, he used what he could get and of he went…so also with the community…all and everything were simply stepping stones in his inflsted ego…there were moments when many people in the community felt that I should not be teaching him because he was ‘unworthy’ of my teaching and they felt him to be ‘insincere’ – I felt he had a mission and I wanted to help him, I was wrong – they were right –

  • michel

    poor wife and kids……..the guy is a selfish narcassist

    • Jacob R

      NO you were not wrong. Know NO Judgement. Only then will you truly understand Gods Love. All Has Beautiful Purpose!! Blessings and Love to You. -R

  • I think it is a shame the Matisyahu left Orthodox Judaism. From what I can see he did not protect himself enough from the influences of the outside world which pull a man down little by little without his awareness . The verse says “And the children of Israel carried Yaakov their father. Why are the children called children of Israel and their father is called Yaakov? Rav Dessler explains that Yaakov passed away in Egypt but the children had to continue to live in Egypt. In order for them to survive spiritually they need to go by the highest standards of Judaism which are represented by the name Israel who won the battle against the nations. As Jews we can be open to everything the world has to offer but we must limit our time in such worldly endeavors and focus on our service the the Creator. If not, down we go…

    • Rabbi Menashe Bovit

      Why is it a shame. Shivim panim l’Torah. There are many paths for one to be a Jew. Today more an dmore people are escaping from the suffocating fundamentalism of Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is actually a modern creation, a reaction to the excesses of the early Reform movement. Today a version of Judaism that denies evolution, believes in Adam and Eve and talking snakes and imprisons women in the get process while denying them access to the Torah is repellent to many who seek to escape this oppressive,idealized medieval styled expression of Judaism. Many who become “baalea t’shuva”, who were at first enchanted by the apparent fervor of Orthodoxy later abandonment when the infatuation is ruined by the reality. Hatzlacha rabah, Mattisyahu.

      • M. Friedman

        “rabbi” Menashe,
        Not sure what religion you are a rabbi of, but you surely know that shivim paniml latorah has nothing to do with paths of being a Jew. The last word is Torah not Judaism. Secondly, there are always people abandoning their heritage but far less than there was in the past. Read the Pew report. It would be more correct to say that more are leaving non-orthodox circles than orthodox,mthough that fact does not support your agenda. Thirdly, orthodox Judaism is the least modErn invention. When did orthodox actually become orthodox anyway? It’s not a movement, it’s just the Judaism that isn’t reform or conservative. It is a shame that you feel so bitter and resort to name-calling and completely distorting Torah Judaism. I assume you know full well the dishonesty of your accusations and the absurdity of them.
        hatzlacha Rabba

    • BEEL

      “Praise God alone, judge just yourself.”

    • Jacob R

      Let’s Not Cast stones. Sin is Sin. I’m sure you sin everyday. I know I do. Love and blessings to you. -R

  • Times have changed. When I was growing up in America, even most Orthodox pulpit rabbis were ‘beardless’. We associated beards with foreigners. We Litvish yeshivah bachurim used English names partly because Conservative rabbis and secular Zionists tended to use Hebrew names. Most of us used the lenient view of ‘daled amos’ and went bareheaded inside public buildings. We would have had no problem with Mattisyahu.

  • evan

    the question is did he use Judaism for fame, or did Judaism use him…I’d say probably both. everyone profited, everyone lost

    • Queen Deleona

      He used reggae for fame, although he is neither Black nor a Rasta. Reggae is a religious, cultural, and political music not a schtick. Does this make him a usurper or an icon??? If Shabba or Snoop Dogg started singing klezmer would you consider them “Chassidic music superstars”?!?

      • Rabbi Menashe Bovit

        Mattisyuhu was warmly embraced by the reggae community. Many reggae artists openly talked about how the inspiration for reggae comes from the Jewish holy scriptures. Bob Marley was a supporter of the State of Israel as is his son Ziggy who has an Israeli wife, Jewish children and lives part of the year in Israel. Music though is a universal expression and is to be shared by everyone regardless of where they are born or what their skin color is. If Snoop had the ability to perform klezmer (which I would love to hear) he would be quickly accepted by the comminity of klezmer musicians.

        • Jacob R

          Blessings to you Rabbi Menashe Bovit
          ! -R

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