A Second Look at Matisyahu – An Interview with the Reggae Rapper

05/26/2014

Matisyahu reflected on his answers and changed his mind.

After sending follow up questions to his original response via email, the American reggae singer provided rewritten answers. Likely concerned with the reception of his initial responses, he replied saying “Being judged and feeling misunderstood has been a recurrent theme in my life.” His image has been a focal point of his career. An Orthodox Jew from White Plains, New York, Matisyahu, born Matthew Paul Miller, captivated the world with his 2006 performance at Stubb’s in Austin. His long beard, payos (sidelocks), and unusual blend of Old Testament storytelling with reggae melodies was a complete anomaly as Americans looked internationally for new styles like Shakira and Sean Paul that took top spots on the Billboard Chart.

At the end of 2011, Matisyahu shared a photo of himself clean shaven, declaring that he was “reclaiming himself” and ready to move forward with his career. But as much as any artist wishes to be creatively pure, no one operates within a vacuum unaware of critics and fans alike. On June 3rd, he will release his fifth studio album, Akeda, which is Hebrew for “binding” and a reference to the story of Isaac, where G-d tests Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice his child. The story parallels where the artist stands today: his creative decisions decided, awaiting to see if his fans will follow.

This upcoming Friday Matisyahu will perform at Bottlerock Music Festival in Napa. In a series of emails, SFCritic spoke with Matisyahu about his upcoming album, his image and religious outlook.

SFCritic (SFC): How did the limelight affect your Jewish identity and personal beliefs? 

Matisyahu (M): Entering into limelight as a newly religious young man in my early 20’s was exciting and difficult. It made me feel I could represent something I believed in deeply and take a leadership role, which was something I always wanted. I never had felt that I had found my place and, after discovering Chassidus* and Orthodox Judaism, I now felt I had something to represent, something true and ancient and wise, something which was a part of my own culture. It was the cannon from where I would draw inspiration. At first I enjoyed it. It felt good to be recognized and loved by my community. After some time, I began to feel very alone in my life. I began to feel there was a lack of care or understanding for what I did, especially from those in my community. I felt very isolated even in my immediate relationships. It seemed things weren’t so clear cut. As I began to emerge with my own beliefs about myself, my life, and my music, I was rubbing some people the wrong way. I began to expand and explore and there was a huge tension between me and the community. There needed to be a break. I needed to reclaim the self and be a leader for those who connect with what I do, make music, write songs and words and melodies, as opposed to trying to be a leader for a group of people or set of beliefs. This eased the tension, but it has still been hard for me. Being judged and feeling misunderstood has been a recurrent theme in my life. We swim in the same circles for much of our whole lives. Recreating our fears and struggles wherever we end up. I have a tendency of getting taken over and having to break away in order to rediscover the self.

SFC: Almost three years ago, when you changed your physical appearance it started an outcry from the Jewish community about your continued faith. Looking back on that point in time now, why did you feel the need to change your image, and what do you feel the effect has had now on your creative experiences? 

M: It was time. Things had shifted for me in terms of my religious outlook. While I still felt a very deep connection to the existential ideas about god and our relationship in Chassidut, I no longer felt myself to be a Chassid in the same way I once looked at it. It was more complex, less black and white, I had to discover it creatively now on my own and shaving the beard was the physical representation of that. I wanted to “see my face.” To discover myself all over. There was no reason I could see to not shave other than fear. My beard had become an idol of sorts in its own way. “From the forest itself comes the handle for the ax, chop’m down chop’m down.”

SFC: Your new album, entitled Akeda, as I understand references the story of Isaac. In this story, G-d tests Abraham’s faith–or at least that is one of the interpretation. What is the significance of this title to the story of the album? 

M: Abraham willing to let go of everything. Complete surrender. Total love. Sacrifice.  Balls.

SFC: Forgetting your image, artistically, you haven’t shied away from being rather adventurous (e.g. making an acoustic album). Do you ever feel limited by fans and critics expectations of your style? If not, what pushes you to try new things? If so, how do you try and overcome these constructed walls?

M: When creating, I work from with in. At the end, as the music is being shared, I am of course affected by opinions of others. I am working to let it affect me less, and I try my best to never let it sway my creative decisions. Holy, Holy, Holy. The music that is. It must be untouched by judgment. It can only be entrusted to those who keep it pure, who are strong enough to follow the voice as did Abraham and sacrifice the human desire to please.

SFC: Is there a story or a theme in the Old Testament that guides you most at this point in your life as an artist and a father? 

M: So many on this record. One theme is the burning bush. The fire that won’t consume its fuel. That burns and quenches at the same time. The one who saw the fire was drawn from the water. Moshe. A prayer:  Lord where is my fire and when I find it how can I hold it?

*EDITOR’S NOTE: Chassidus (aka Chassidut, Hassidism) is a specific practice of Judaism that essentially defines a way of living and being – “Chassidut strives for consciousness of one’s inner essence and simplicity, in relation to Torah, man and divinity.” [http://steinsaltz.org/Chassidut_Philosophy.php). Also, in the original version the second question asked by SFCritic about “Isaac’s faith,” was incorrect, and was changed to “Abraham’s faith.” 

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Listen to Matisyahu’s single off of Akeda entitled “Watch The Walls Melt Down.”