by Rachel Reeves
When Matisyahu, born Matthew Paul Miller, rose to fame as a singer, he was freshly out of a long stint in yeshiva, a Jewish academy where he devoted six days of his week to intensive scriptural study. Onstage he wore a yarmulke, sidecurls, and a beard. He didn’t perform on the Sabbath.
As people began to take notice of the way he used his voice to create new sounds, from beatboxing to widely ranging tones in his reggae, Esquire Magazine ran a story that began: “The most intriguing reggae artist in the world is a Hasidic Jew. Weird, huh?”
For Matisyahu – Miller’s Hebrew name, which translates to “Gift of God” – being a Jewish reggae singer wasn’t that weird. In fact, reggae had been his entry point into the spiritual tradition of his ancestors. He wasn’t raised in a rigidly religious home but in a home of music lovers. His parents were hippies; he once told a reporter he was conceived at a Grateful Dead show. He grew up listening to jam bands, the hip-hop all around him in New York at that time, and the dancehall his cousins from Barbados brought with them when they visited.
It was the music of Bob Marley that motivated his spiritual search, which began around the age of 14.
“It was like wow, why is Bob Marley singing, taking all these quotes from the Psalms?” Matisyahu told PBS. “I know that I’m Jewish, that I have some kind of connection with that, Psalms and Old Testament, and it made me intrigued to start to get interested in my heritage.”
Phish was another pivotal influence. Seeing Phish on acid when he was in high school opened him to “a whole other dimension of life,” he said. He became a veritable Phish-head, fascinated by the jam-band’s improvisational, collective, and participatory approach to music.
At the age of 22, Matisyahu chose the path of serious religious study. In the process, he nearly gave up his musical dreams. One of his religious teachers emphasized to him the parts of the Torah that portrayed people worshiping sounds as idols. He grappled with what he then perceived as a divide between his spiritual calling and his musical ambitions.
Matisyahu recorded his first album – a fusion of reggae, beatboxing, and indie-rock – at a friend’s studio on Fridays, the only day of the week he wasn’t in yeshiva. Shake Off the Dust…Arise came out in 2004. Quickly its reggae-rock track “King Without a Crown” soared to No. 7 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart and made the Billboard Top 40.
The world began to wonder about Matisyahu.
A year later, he released Live at Stubb’s – a live version of Shake Off the Dust…Arise, recorded at a barbecue joint, which revealed how adept he was at improvising musically. Several months after the Live album came out, Matisyahu found himself onstage at a festival with Phish’s frontman, Trey Anastasio. For many devoted Phish followers, that show was a turning point. It proved Matisyahu was worth his salt on the improvisational jam-band scene.
The Live album and Youth, an album he released in 2005, both went Gold. Youth debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, sold more than 500,000 copies within a month, and was nominated for a Grammy.
Light, an album released in 2009, represents his transition from Matisyahu to Matisyahu and the band. “One Day,” a track on that album he described as “an anthem of hope with a big beat,” became the official song of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Throughout Light, which also went Gold, the band experimented a lot more with with syntheziers and electronic sounds.
As Matisyahu evolved musically, he evolved spiritually too, which makes sense considering he conceptualizes music as an inherently spiritual practice.
In 2011, he posted a picture of himself on social media. He was beardless. Parts of his fan base erupted. A Huffington Post blogger wrote: “He wasn’t just a role model, the way a president is, or anyone else. He was a brother. … Words cannot describe what it is like when your brother, the person you looked up to and admired for so long, rejects everything you hold dear.”
Matisyahu said that he’d grown his beard as a means towards “a higher level of religiosity” but had come to realize that this was not necessary. “I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules – lots of them – or else I would somehow fall apart,” he wrote on his website. “I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.”
“For all those who are confused: today I went to the Mikva and Shul just like yesterday,” he tweeted.
Matisyahu continues to view his live shows as “conversations,” he told Slant Magazine, in the ancient tradition of communal music-making, popularized in the modern era by jam bands. He allows the music to become whatever it wants to be. No two performances are the same.
His intention, he said, is to “be there in the the music with everyone else as a listener, creator, and participant.” This is also the approach he takes to his spirituality, which has broadened since his youth but remains central to his life and ethos.
His goal, in music and in life, he said, is to “let the ship steer itself.”
Matisyahu performs at BeachLife Festival on Saturday, May 14.