Cigarette in one hand and cup of tea in the other, Matisyahu sat down with JTA in his closet-sized dressing room during his European tour to talk about his life, his music, how he’s raising his kids, and the recent changes in his religious outlook and physical appearance.
The beatboxing reggae star once known for his signature beard and hasidic garb has left his yarmulke by the wayside, dyed his hair blond and moved to Los Angeles from the hasidic stronghold of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Matisyahu (aka Matthew Miller) says he felt locked in by the hasidic life and at some point thought his look no longer represented who he was. Orthodox Judaism does not have a monopoly on the truth in life, Matisyahu says; each person must discover his own truth. The 33-year-old singer, now dressed in a blue zip-up hoodie, says he still looks to the Torah and Judaism for inspiration, but his view of Jewish law – halachah – has changed.
Matisyahu talked about his ongoing evolution with JTA shortly before a performance at Le Bataclan in Paris.
A year ago you released the single “Sunshine,” probably one of your happiest songs. In what context did you write it?
I was in California with my son, who has blond hair. It was “golden sunshine.” There was a really good feeling. Part of that is because of the connection between me and the producer and the way we approached the music – dealing with real topics, but in a positive light. I made certain changes in my life. I feel more open, more free. It’s like springtime coming out of a hibernation.
Let’s talk about these changes. A lot of your fans were shocked when you decided in December 2011 to shave your beard. Not long afterward, you posted pictures of yourself online without a yarmulke. Now you have dyed your hair blond. Can you explain the different steps leading to these changes?
When I was in my early 20s, I became interested in Jewish identity and history. I went to Israel and had a strong feeling about being Jewish. I started to think about how to incorporate my spiritual search into reggae music. And I decided to make the leap to express myself as a Jew. I started to wear a yarmulke, grew a beard and changed my clothes. It was very much like the blending of the old mystical tradition and spirituality with who I am in America as a 21-year-old musician. Then I decided that I would go the next level with it all and that I would take on the ideology of Orthodox Judaism, even though I didn’t necessarily understand it logically. I figured that I was going to submit myself to it. And I accepted it. It became a part of my worldview. At the same time, I was traveling a lot, meeting different hasidim, and I really got a good understanding of what it means to be Jewish. But at some point I felt locked in to that vision of the world. I needed to go back to my choices and make decisions about my life. I still believe there is a lot of truth in Orthodox Judaism, but not the whole truth. Each person has his truth that he has to discover. You don’t necessarily have to mold yourself to another idea of who you are.