Practicing What He Preaches, Reggae Singer Reveals His Soul

By Jay Michaelson

Published April 09, 2004, issue of April 09, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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:

Strip away the layers and reveal your soul Got to give yourself up and then you become whole You’re a slave to yourself and you don’t even know You want to live the fast life but your brain moves slow, If you’re trying to stay high then you’re bound to stay low, You want G-d but you can’t deflate your ego, If you’re already there then there’s nowhere to go…

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.






Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.