Midway through Matisyahu’s set, I realized I was witnessing something new. The show, last Christmas Eve, was packed; it was part of the “Jewltide” festival sponsored by Heeb Magazine and Matisyahu’s label, JDub Records, and, indeed, the Heebsters came out in droves. As the crowd bounced along to reggae, dancehall and ska rhythms, Matisyahu pulled off the alchemy I’d seen him produce before: He converted the skeptics into believers. The 24-year-old “Hasidic Reggae Superstar” was not a novelty after all. The band was tight, the voice was solid — if you didn’t dance, that was your own damn fault.
But when I listened more closely, that’s when I really started to get it. A lot of reggae stars rap between songs, preaching messages of love or social justice. Matisyahu was preaching pantheism. He was quoting from the Tanya, ur-text of Chabad chasidism. And he was practicing what he preached — bringing together heaven and earth, spirit and song, the teaching of Moses and the dancing of Miriam.
I remember a huge scandal breaking when singer Debbie Boone revealed that “You Light Up My Life” was really a love song to God. A lot of us don’t want music to mix with religion, especially if it’s someone else’s religion. And very often this sort of thing turns into polemic, or pablum. But in the tradition of George Harrison (“My Sweet Lord”) as much as Bob Marley or Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Matisyahu is singing for the Lord not out of a milquetoast, goody-goody sentiment, but because it’s what motivates his heart. That, to me, is the difference between good religious music and bad: The good kind has both originality of composition and a burning fire of the heart. After all, there is plenty of treacly feel-good religious music out there, and plenty of simcha music that sounds just like other simcha music. There are also plenty of Jewish novelty acts (2 Live Jews, Shlock Rock) trading on camp and kitsch. But Matisyahu is an original, and he’s for real. Try to hum these lyrics on the chasidic doctrine of bittul ha yesh (annihilation of the ego) to a reggae beat:
I could write a whole peirush, a classical commentary, on Matisyahu’s lyrics. Other songs include metaphors from the Tanya (“Nullified to the One like sunlight in a ray”) and Kabbalistic imagery (“Return the princess to the King”). But perhaps most importantly, like Carlebach, Harrison and King David himself, he sets it to infectious music that gets people moving, and hopefully listening.
“I get into a lot of spaces that would not have anything like this going on,” Matisyahu told the Forward. “I try to tap into a wellspring. Sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. But when it’s there, endless waters are flowing.”
How does he get the waters to flow? Matisyahu answered with a parable. “Two major composers debated this point, how they write music. One said that he channeled his music by emptying himself, and the other said that he got in touch with a deep place inside himself. I think I’m more about getting in touch with something deep inside. Then again, maybe it’s really the same thing.”
Born Matthew Miller, Mattisyahu became a follower of Chabad-Lubavitch chasidism in his late teens. He started making music, he said, purely as a means of self-expression. As he told it, “I worked at Borders, and saved up money, and bought a P.A. system. I would come home from school and put on these dancehall songs — instrumentals — blare them out of the speakers and rap. I did that for two years. No audience and no other reason but to express myself. That’s how I picked up the style.”
And now he’s traveling around the country, performing to packed houses on reputation alone. He is slated to perform on Saturday, April 17, as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Jewish Beat festival. His debut album, “Shake off the Dust… Arise” drops on May 9. Yet he still studies the Gemara every day, and his band’s van is a setting for “heated discussions” of God and religion. Not your typical “Bus to Babylon.”
Of course, there will be some for whom a chasid who raps and plays reggae is intrinsically something of a joke. But King David wrote songs about God too, didn’t he? Anyway, go ahead and laugh if you want. In the Talmud, when the Jews fulfill their Divine mission to wrestle with texts and create new interpretations of Torah, God laughs too.