Initially, it's easy to dismiss Matisyahu as a novelty, or worse, a gimmick or contrived marketing effort. Many have jumped to such conclusions. However, the Brooklyn Hasidic reggae singer is indeed a profoundly engaging artist whose chosen path makes perfect sense after one scratches the surface. The initial shock value of the religious young man jumping and kicking and chanting with a distinctly Yiddish accent coupled with a Jamaican patois diminishes to reveal an honest, complicated, endearing artist. Matisyahu is no fake, and in his world it all makes sense.
After seeing the man in concert three times, and later speaking with him, it's clear he embodies a humble, everyman quality. As he traced the origins of his musical and personal evolution, the similarities became clear - in essence and in life - between Matisyahu and many others who grew up Jewish in upper-middle class, suburban areas with the world at our fingertips and a bong in our hand.
Before he was a member of the ultra-Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community in Crown Heights, Matthew Miller [Matisyahu's real name] was an average kinda guy. Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, he moved to White Plains, New York, and was raised in typical American suburbia fashion. His parents were mildly practicing Reconstructionist Jews, and Miller went through adolescence deeply affected by music, where a spiritual bond developed early on when he bought a drum and began to rhyme to friends. Living so close to New York City - the epicenter of hip-hop - the seeds of his style were sewn in his teens. Miller joined the black choir at school, deeply feeling the spirituality in the songs despite the different religious roots.
As a teenager living in a reform Jewish home in White Plains, Miller was like most Americanized teenage boys - nearly completely secularized and immersed in the culture of New York. As a pre-teen during summer breaks he attended a Festival for Performing Arts where his primitive attraction to beats, rhythms, and melody was born in the fertile breeding ground of summer camp.
Matisyahu by Jake Krolick
Dressed in his finest hippie-gear and listening extensively to Bob Marley and The Grateful Dead, he stuck out like a sore thumb in his hometown. The young "Head" was nearly thrown out of Hebrew School, but ironically, had his Bar Mitzvah reception at a fancy Italian restaurant. He wrote rhymes, played drums, and later picked up the guitar and began to learn the basic reggae riddim strokes. Several times during our conversation he reflected on the impact of the Bob Marley nyabingi drum anthem "Rastaman Chant," explaining how the meditative trance-like effect coupled with the vibrant, sweet singing would take him to the outer realms of consciousness.
The similarities between Matisyahu and many of his followers are now clear. It's easy to imagine ourselves in his shoes, at this fundamental time in all of our lives - the adolescent entrance into adulthood with the changes we undergo but do not necessarily understand at the time. Summer camp, nights in the city, trips to shows, copious amounts of herb, these were the rites of passage for a '90s teenage suburbanite.
Most of us who journeyed to Israel during our formative years can speak to the profound effect of traveling to such a Biblically historical place. I myself was a Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem - a magnanimous endeavor that remains a lifetime highlight and out of body experience. Although he was in touch with his spirituality, it was not until a trip to Israel that a 16-year old Miller first felt connected to a Higher Power.
"I wasn't really into being Jewish as a kid," he says. "I understood the fact that I was Jewish, and that we were a people with an important history. But, I was more immersed in music, my life, my rebellion, and what was going on with my parents, my teachers, authority figures. I took a trip to Israel, and I was overwhelmed. The life, the culture, the history, it belonged to me! I was just distraught by the life I lived back home when I saw this sheer beauty - a Promised Land, the primitive beauty of Kibbutz, the Holy City of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv. I felt alive, and more so then I ever had been. Of course, just as I was feeling these incredible things it was time to return home, go back to high school, and just sort of end this vacation from reality."
He pauses, as if to reconnect with the time period he is revisiting, and then reenters the tale: "The constant refrain of 'Babylon must come down come down' rang through my brain, and soon I began to search for the spirit, the holiness, that Bob [Marley] sang so joyfully about. After I returned from Israel, I fell back into my former ways, but I was even more detached."
Most people familiar with Matisyahu know where the story goes from here. He dropped out of high school and did a few runs on Phish tour. Today, the situation is different. Touring with Trey Anastasio means opening for him on stage, not negotiating Shakedown amidst a flurry of veggie burrito merchants, drug slingers and mini-boutiques of art, glass and clothing.
Matisyahu by Trevor Pour
He experimented with psychedelics, and became rather thin, natty dreads and all. He speaks fondly of this era in his life, praising the community and devotion of Phish fans and the band's dedication to their throngs of followers. From show to show, Miller philosophized and searched for truth. He says, "The questions became deeper, and their answers were still far from reach." Still, Matis looks at this time - though far from the intense spirituality he currently embraces - as a formative era in the man he has become.
Miller haunted the dark, dank streets of Burlington, Vermont, squatting with a crew of African drummers living communally in a large Victorian house on Isham Street in the burgeoning college town. He played his drum, learned chants, walked around Lake Champlain, smoking herb and meditating headie thoughts. Music and spirituality filled his mind like reggae's bouncing beats. Weathered from hard living, music became a vehicle to greater things for him where he developed an emcee rhyme style and cadence to compliment his unique rhythms.