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The Trials and Tribulations of Matisyahu

Strap on your tie-dye shorts, Matisyahu is back.

Jonathan Peltz

For a good part of the last decade, Matisyahu was everywhere—a cool, public face of Hasidic Judaism, a religious denomination that doesn't get much attention in popular culture. There's a good chance you listened to Matisyahu if you were part of the following demographics at any point during the mid-2000s: regular Jews, Orthodox Jews, college bros, white frat boys, hippies, or wealthy burnouts. There's an equally good chance that you wouldn't recognize Matisyahu as you knew him then if you saw him now.

Initially brought up in White Plains, New York, as a reconstructionist Jew—a more modern, chill branch of the religion—Matthew Paul Miller eventually drifted into heavy acid and drug use and became a Phish head. After a long journey through spiritual rehab centers, he adopted Matisyahu as his Hebrew name and performance handle. He spent ten years living in a Hasidic Jewish conclave, studying reggae and playing in various bands before emerging as the country’s most successful (and likely only) Hasidic reggae artist and rapper.

A branch of Orthodox Judaism, Hasidic Judaism differs from mainstream American Judaism in that its practitioners are far more intensely pious and observant of the ancient texts of the Jewish faith. Their belief system is heavily tied with Jewish mysticism, and they wear black or dark-colored suits to resemble old-school Eastern European noblemen. Matisyahu followed a very popular section of Orthodox Judaism called Chabad—a group many people may know for their heavy presence and recruitment on college campuses—for a period of time, though he later distanced himself from it. He later switched to another sect called Karlin.

Matisyahu's music fused white boy reggae, hip-hop, beat-boxing, biblical lyrics, and a hint of indie soft rock. In 2006, two years after he released his hit song “King Without a Crown,” he broke into the top of the charts with the track. The secular world was at peak Matisyahu. He was headlining festivals, topping charts, bringing back reggae, getting himself on movie soundtracks, and serving as an icon for nervous, self-deprecating Jews everywhere. He was so committed to the Orthodox Jewish identity that he refused to play concerts on Friday nights, the Sabbath. This public piousness had a highly positive effect. He had gold singles and albums, multiple appearances atop the reggae charts and in the Billboard 200, and a placement on the NBA 2K soundtrack.

In recent years, though, that's changed. Matisyahu grew tired of Orthodox Judaism; he removed his beard and stopped wearing his yarmulke. In a 2011 Twitter post that showed a picture of him beardless, he wrote: “No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me...no alias.” Matisyahu’s fan base has always been comprised of more religious fans and more secular ones, and the religious ones attacked Miller for abandoning his post as an Orthodox leader. He was decried for turning his back on the people who had helped make him such a phenomenon. “Although the beard cut was more shocking, these latest pictures [of him without a yarmulke] are a clear and outright rejection of his values, and also as his position as a leader and role model for us religious Jews who still want to be a part of secular culture,” one Huffington Post blogger wrote in 2012. As one fairly depressing profile noted, “Religious rules had given him “a certain structure” when he was younger, and now that he was a grown man some of those arbitrary laws seemed kind of silly, he said, so he didn’t follow them.”

On top of his social media religious controversies, he's starred in The Possession, a movie as an Orthodox Jew trying to exorcise a girl possessed by a Jewish demon. Oh yeah, and he also went through a divorce. It’s been a twisty, depressing period for him, but it's also been one filled with rebirth. You can hear this on his latest album, Akeda, which is more yearning and somber than his previous works, and in his soft-spoken, slightly defeated voice. In an interview with High Times, he said he refused to smoke weed during the writing of Akeda because he wanted to get in touch with his emotions and feel “the good and the bad.” When a Jewish reggae artist is no longer smoking weed, you know something’s got to be up.

So is Matisyahu someone who took the mantle of a Jewish leader only to later betray his following? I think not. He just wanted to do something else with his life, and the hardcore religious approach was keeping him down. And the truth is that the guy, regardless of his musical content, was always going to be criticized. Here’s a take in 2006, from a Jewish blogger who is upset that Matisyahu had left a more religious record label to head in a different musical direction: “Little did I know then that that he would sell his truest lovers and supporters down the river for what he probably sees as an opportunity to shill for Chabad to an even wider audience.” If he remained the religious reggae dude forever, he would only be known as a gimmick. And if he moved on to a different style, he was a religious traitor. An artist is only responsible to himself and the music that comes out of him.

He has found himself in the unenviable position of paradoxically trying to defend himself from attacks from any number of fans he is upsetting, while simultaneously trying to move on with his life. I’ve rarely seen an artist whose entire fan base seems so poised to be pissed off.

Noisey: You’ve said yourself that your new album is a bit of a change for you. How has the reception been?
Matisyahu: It’s been great. It’s sort of another side of what I do. I think that every record I’ve put out has been different than the previous. So my audience has grown in different ways. Maybe it’s pissed people off. I’m interested in a lot of music, and I’ve always tried to bring different types of music together. I think this record is more serious and dark rather than being inspirational. I guess a lot of people listen to my music to feel better—I suppose that’s why people listen to music—so this is definitely for the more serious fans. Not the ones who want to party. People who are more going through something and can relate to it.

How has your lifestyle changed over this tumultuous period of time—a divorce, cutting the beard, etc. Are you still religious, but just less so than before? Explain that a little bit.
Time changes. My lifestyle is a lot different. I feel like the ten years of Judaism I did—[laughs] that kind of sounds like the ten years I did in penitentiary—I learned a lot about myself throughout that process. I think that all took place internally, even though I don’t externally show. I am still connected to it. Judaism is a practice. You can fall in and out of it very easily just like you can fall in or out of a diet. Ideologically I feel a lot different in terms of my relationship to the rules and all that. In terms of the practice, I move in and out of it like I do everything else.

I like having my own house. And I can drive my car when I want to drive. And now it’s just me and my boys. There’s no one telling me how I should father them. I used to go to Synagogue, and I wouldn’t wear my hat, and people would come down on me. “You should have your hat on!” You’re influenced, you know? It’s definitely nicer to be anonymous and to just live my life and just do the things that I want to do.

So what do you think of that guy, Hashem (God), right now?
I think that that freedom of choice thing he gave us is a big deal. He really put this world in our hands. That’s kind of an amazing thing to create the world. Which I still believe—that God created the world. I still have a personal relationship with and connect to God. That’s why I became religious in the first place. And I still feel like I have that.

Is it annoying that people kind of used you as a symbol for something because of your religious public image? Especially now that you stand for something else and those people might be turning their backs on you.
There was definitely an upside and a downside to coming out so strong with religion. The upside is that it turned a lot of heads. I feel like it also taught me a valuable lesson. People not judging or thinking differently than the way you think—everything’s connected. It’s all perspective. The downside was on two levels. One is that the people initially feel like I gave up something. And some of them aren’t Jewish or religious or any of that and they’re just like, “Man, I miss your beard.” Because it was just a strong part of my image. I guess you just have to get behind that. Either you’re a fan of the music or you’re not. Also, when I came out I was at a place in my life where I felt I had figured a lot of things out. I thought that was going to be an ongoing journey. I was very dedicated and disciplined. So people thought: “Oh here’s a normal guy who overcame something and got it figured out. And I’ve been trying to tell everyone for these last seven or eight years that I don’t have it figured out. And people still get pissed off when they figure out I don’t have my shit together. That’s kind of where I’m at. I kind of went backwards, but at the same time I’ve opened up a lot of doors. And explored more, for better or worse.

I guess that’s what happens when you have a religious image. People hold you to a different standard than they would other artists.
Or they just see you as a religious person and less as an artist. Artists get a lot of freedom to do what they want.

OK, on to a very important question: Is beat-boxing a dying art?
It’s funny because if you go on YouTube you’ll see there’s beat-boxing championships, and they’re all Europeans or kids from Italy. They’re all like 14 years-old and doing ridiculous things with their voices that none of us are doing. It’s an interesting artform. It’s never been very popular, and only a handful of people are into it. For me, it’s awesome because my way of making music is kind of through my body. I wasn’t able to learn how to play an instrument. So when I discovered that aside from rapping, writing a song and lyrics, I could play from within just using my body and mouth and breathing... that was super awesome for me growing. So I’d get a PA system and run different effects through it and try to get my voice interesting. It really gave me a way to play with sound.

When I was in college, I got pressured on the street by a Chabad to come to one of their events. I went and it was really weird and creepy and everyone was getting wasted and they were trying to get me wasted too. Do you ever get any weird requests like that?
That was pretty much my life for like two years when I started getting into it. I drank the juice and listened to them. I would get trashed. I was in New York and I was living with a Rabbi in his apartment. It was kind of a crazy scene. I was living on his couch and babysitting his kids, and then when Shabbos came I would get trashed. I would find myself walking five miles to the Mikvah. It was kind of a funny time.

On the internet over the past few years, there’s been a huge backlash against jammy music. And like people might say, “Oh if you listen to Phish or Matisyahu or Sublime you’re a rich white college bro.” It’s become almost this kind of class thing. What do you think of that?
The reggae thing is kind of interesting. It’s split into two different directions. There’s like the West Indian, Caribbean dancehall stuff, and then there’s this massive influx of Southern California white boy reggae. And that started with bands like Sublime and 311. And then there was kind of a lull for 20 years. And then I came in and kind of filled that gap for a little bit. And now there’s just tons of these bands and they’re doing great. They’re selling over five thousand tickets a night. Bands like Tribal Seed. And I got kind of lumped in with all of them. And it’s not the kind of music that I listen to, even though I know them all, and they’re all great guys. I don’t know. There’s smarter music and there’s stupid music, there’s no question about it. And it’s been a challenge for me. There’s always been people around me telling me to try to make my music more accessible and have more upbeat kind of stuff. And you see these people come to the shows and there’s definitely a temptation to do that. So I try not to sacrifice my artistic integrity.

What happens after we die?
I believe the soul lives on, for sure. I believe in reincarnation. Pretty much the Jewish take on it. I believe in the purification of the soul and its potential beyond this point. It seems like this world is kind of the point, though.

Do you believe in Dybbuks (Jewish demons)?
In some ways, yeah. Metaphysically, there’s spirits and ghosts, demons and all that shit. I’ve done way too much acid to not believe in that stuff [laughs].

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