Text by Jed Oelbaum
To hear him talk about it, you’d think it was no big deal, but the long, strange trip that has been Matisyahu’s career has been stupefying haters and baffling critics—many of whom have dismissed his schtick out of hand—for more than five years now. You’d have to have to be living under a rock in the middle of the Gobi desert not to have, at one point, gawked at the sight of the oversized Chassid, jumping around to, of all things, reggae music, and wailing away earnestly in his faux Jamaican patois. “You know, there’s that initial moment of one plus one doesn’t equal three,” he tells me thoughtfully, twirling his graying beard. “Where does this come from? So there’s that initial interest, and then there’s the music, which is what it’s really about…And the fact that it was a head-turner to people obviously could have helped in my career, you know, as far as generating attention, initially.” Indeed. His surprising success, while garnering huge sales, picking up thousands of devoted fans and repeatedly topping billboard charts, was often viewed suspiciously by the music press, with a range of criticism and speculation as conceptually weird as the artist himself. Was he a white artist, cashing in on Black culture? Jewish Chicken Soup for the Jamaican Soul? Some Kabbalah-age religious freak, trying to sell us one more offbeat faith in an already crowded marketplace? The word “novelty” was thrown around a lot. But indie-rock hipsters, the jam-band crowd and a small but vocal cross-section of reggae enthusiasts formed a coalition of fans that would propel him into the mainstream. Three years ago, his album Youth was the number-one reggae album in the country, and his recent Shattered EP also touched the top spot. Light, his just-released, long-anticipated full-length album, features a host of top-tier producers and collaborators, and was partially recorded in Jamaica. Three years is the longest Matisyahu had taken to record an album, and its release had been postponed several times.
I talked to Matisyahu in Brooklyn, first in a small coffee shop and then in the back of a car service Black Lincoln. We also talked at his humble abode in the bustling Lubavitch stronghold of Crown Heights, and later on the phone, as he made his way down to Virginia to catch Phish’s reunion. That weekend, he would be taking an RV and camping out in the lot for the duration of the three-day event. He had borrowed a Torah from a local Shul—the better to keep up with Shabbos services—and was pretty excited to see the band, which has been broken up since 2004. I ask him if drugs and the psychedelic nature of the tour scene had opened him up to the idea of God. “It most definitely did,” he tells me. “It definitely opened me up to music, to spirituality. I had a yearning, you know, for God, before I did any of that stuff, but once I did that, it opened me up to perceiving a whole other dimension of reality which has always been a fascinating thing for me.” Matisyahu claims to have not used any drugs since about 2001, when he first became religious, but when I ask him, in light of his positive experiences, if he would experiment again in the future, he doesn’t draw too hard of a line. “I don’t know,” he says seriously. “It’s possible. You never know.”
Matisyahu’s early musical career developed in tandem with his religious transformation, a process that he still seems to be continuously undergoing. His long beard, peyes and Kippah have all remained constant, although when we met, he was wearing a white hoodie, jeans and bright green sneakers—a notable change from the traditional Hasidic long black suit/white shirt uniform that used to be a hallmark of his appearance. I ask him whether, as an artist, the restraints of the Chabad community had ever made him feel claustrophobic. “I wouldn’t necessarily blame Lubavitch for that, but I was boxed in, in my life. In some of the decisions I had made. I just didn’t feel it was necessary any more to be a spokesperson or a representative of one particular group. Especially one that I wasn’t born into, you know…I’m not necessarily the most authentic perspective,” Matisyahu says. He stares a bit, moves slowly, but easily, and might give a first impression of being slightly humorless or morose. We talk about the conflicts between the strict piety of the Hasidic faith and the life of a touring musician. I ask him if he has a guru, a Rebbe, someone that signs off on the aspects of what he does. He tells me that he used to. “I would say I just have a couple of people whose advice I trust about certain things. Pretty much I find myself stuck having to make my own decisions, being that I feel it’s a difficult situation for a lot of rabbis to understand what it is that I’m doing. I’m left having to make a lot of those decisions myself.” It’s a strange, lonely answer, and I’m surprised. As someone who had grown up religious, it seems pretty out there to me for a person of faith to decry the idea of Rabbinic authority, especially when one is living such an unusual life. I start to tell him this, but he stops me. “Well, wait, I wouldn’t say that,” he says. “I’m an Orthodox Jew. I keep Shabbos. I keep Kosher. I pray three times a day. I accept the tenets of Halachic Judaism. There’s certain things that come up that are difficult, but I just try to maneuver my way through them in a way where I try to…sort of have my cake and eat it too.” He lightens up a little, rolls his eyes. “There are certainly a lot of Jews out there who would say that what I do is not Kosher…. I come across all kinds of crap.”
Throughout the interview, I bring up themes of identity and legitimacy repeatedly. Matisyahu has surprisingly little to say on the matter. He doesn’t seem like he’s trying to avoid these issues— he claims he has never encountered them at all. And maybe, in a way, that’s what makes him so attractive as an artist—that freewheeling naivetÃ©, that hippie optimism, a refusal to be handicapped or pigeonholed by whatever kind of oddball one might be. I invoke the worst of white rap, the most scathing of his reviews. He shakes his head at me like I’m retarded. “Now, I don’t know about the reviewers, or what people have said. The artists I’ve worked with and met— reggae artists, Jamaican artists, hip-hop artists—they’ve always had open arms to me.”
It’s been a while since Matis and I spoke—that Phish concert is long over and his newest disc is now in the hot hands of many a fan. And, it seems, the rapper’s identity had taken another turn in the form of new album Light. “More Jersey than Jamaica” (according to the Associated Press), the disc is replete with poppy fare informed by electronica and rock as well as reggae. (And, apparently, Matisyahu has been taking singing lessons.) "It’s not really any longer about me being the Hasidic reggae guy," he told the AP. "I’m informed by Hassidism and Judaism and reggae music, but it’s not that black and white, and it’s not that simple.”
Pick up Matisyahu’s new album, Light, here.