Matisyahu, the 29-year old Hassidic Jew MC, is an artist who thrives on innovation. He sprang into American consciousness in 2004 with his debut album Shake off the Dust … Arise, an intriguing blend of spirituality and raw power.
His Torah-inspired lyrics have mainstreamed Reggae while giving audiences exposure to the dynamism of the Jewish faith. With each performance, Matisyahu is recasting how the public receives both Reggae and Judaism.
“Most of the Jewish community is very embracing and very supportive and excited with me,” Matisyahu says. “I think especially the young kids feel like the music is a voice of their generation and there hasn’t been that really in the past so much.”
Part of the reason Matisyahu is so well received by the Jewish community is because he believes he represents something new in Jewish life: a successful Jewish figure who has Matisyahu retained his beliefs in the face of stardom.
“The Jews have been trying to figure out ‘What does it mean to be Jewish in America?’ probably since they came to America,” he says. “The majority of Jews have become assimilated. … Their ‘Jewishness’ doesn’t resonate within them unless, for example, they’re watching Schindler’s List or a movie about the Holocaust.”
For Matisyahu, Reggae and spirituality are naturally complimentary.
“I started listening when I was maybe 14 years old,” he says. “I certainly wasn’t religious or Hassidic by any means.”
During his teen exposure to the Reggae genre, the heavy drug associations that stigmatized much of the music didn’t put him off. The music and the message were inextricably connected.
“It wasn’t until later in my life that I started to separate between what is good for me spiritually and bad for me spiritually,” he says. “At first it’s more of trying to open up completely to all of it.”
But the love for the genre never faded, even after he became Hassidic and the drug references conflicted with his beliefs.
“The time in my life when I got the most focused was when I became religious,” Matisyahu said. “I really got into Judaism for that purpose. I realized that I needed some kind of backbone or some kind of focus in order to move through the (music industry).
“I guess from that point on is when I really started to figure what is OK, what’s not. But music for me was always pure.”
During early performances in his career, for instance, Matisyahu didn’t wear his glasses onstage so as not to be able to see immodestly dressed women in the audience.
That approach highlights an important aspect of Matistayu’s career. Both religious and secular audiences positively receive his music, even with its rich Judaic themes.
“My earlier stuff like Shake off the Dust … Arise, those were inspired by very straightforward verses from Psalms (from King David) that were inspiring to me,” he says. “That would be something that would be straightforward Torah.”
He describes his latest effort, Shattered, as an indepth study of the philosophical and deeply spiritual aspects of the Hassidic movement, highlighting some core themes about God and this world existentially, though not as heavily based on scripture.
These uplifting themes obviously resonate with many kinds of listeners. In 2006, Esquire magazine called him “the most intriguing Reggae artist in the world.”
But he deftly avoids some of the pitfalls that plague other religiously-themed music, which might be the reason behind his popularity.
“My whole thing is that I’m not trying to be pedantic or to convert people,” he says. “I’m not trying to further them amongst others. It’s certainly not a Jewish concept … and it’s not who I am. What I’ve found is that a lot of kids out there, they feel the music speaks to them even if there’s no connection really.”
Ultimately, Matisyahu isn’t a crusader. He isn’t a cleverly disguised Pat Boone figure in traditional Jewish dress.
He’s a poet. He’s a musician. And he just happens to sing about God sometimes. But God isn’t in all the details.
“The reason why I’m doing what I’m doing is just because it’s what I do,” he says. “It’s not like I’m trying to make a good name for the Jewish people. (But) that is an outcome, hopefully, of what I do.”
MATISYAHU plays Bogart's Thursday with K'naan and Trevor Hall. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.