A new era requires a new voice, one that speaks the truth, speaks it from the heart, and has the magic to appeal to the masses. If you haven’t heard of Matisyahu, it’s time that you did.
Twenty-five-year-old Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu is emerging as an important new voice on the Jewish scene. Performing in full Hasidic garb—black hat, black suit, and flying tzitzis —Matisyahu wears his Judaism on his sleeve, and instead of turning people off, this has proven the ultimate turn on. His music—a unique combination of profound spiritual poetry and a wild reggae beat—is drawing audiences of all ages and religious backgrounds. Couple his authenticity with repeat performances on national TV, lengthy write-ups in the world’s most prestigious papers, musical collaborations with some of the biggest names, countless sold-out performances, and a booking rate that is climbing into the tens of thousands of dollars, and you have the makings of, well, a bona fide Hasidic reggae superstar.
You’re a warrior fighting for your soul
Taken from the world above
And brought down to the world below
I started performing as “Matisyahu” about two years ago. I had recently become religious and was in yeshiva when I got the initial request to perform. I asked a real Crown Heights rabbi, and he gave me permission.
That first time my rabbi heard me play, I remember doing what I do, with my eyes closed, not because I was envisioning the music, but because I was really afraid to see what his reaction was going to be. When I opened my eyes at the end, Rabbi Goldberg had a glimmer in his eye that said “Ah, Matisyahu!” He had seen I wasn’t just some yeshiva kid who wanted to go to a club but understood that I have some kind of talent.
From the forest itself comes the hand for the ax
Split this wilderness listen up this ain’t where it’s at
Clear a path so that you could find your way back
Chop ‘em down, chop ‘em down; chop ‘em down,
chop ‘em down
My secular name is Matthew Paul Miller. My parents gave me a bris and a Jewish name but forgot the name. In Hebrew school they improvised with Matisyahu because my name was Matthew. Much later, my parents found the original certificate from the bris. I consulted a rabbi: “What’s my Jewish name? My parents found my bris certificate, and the name on there is Feivish Hershel. I’ve been called Matisyahu for the last few years; I have been called to the Torah as Matisyahu.”
The Rabbi said, “Nobody knows you as anything but Matisyahu, your name is Matisyahu.”
Patterns engraved not so easily erased, still wandering trying to find your place
Playing the game I see pain on your face
nowadays the yiddin like children sold as slaves
Strange ways running through the maze,
strange ways always
Lost in the desert trying to find your place, lost in the desert trying to find your place
Five years ago, I had a band, and we were playing in college bars in Eugene, Oregon. I remember playing music and looking around. No one was really listening to what we were saying. One guy was talking to his girl in the corner, these other guys were getting drunk over there, and I’m jumping around on the stage like some kind of clown. It was hard to imagine that what I was doing had any meaning.
Then I went to college, at New School University in New York City. By then, I knew I believed in G-d, and I felt some kind of connection to my Judaism. I just wanted to explore ways of getting closer to G-d and was not sure how. I was taking classes on spirituality; I got a prayer book from a synagogue and started sneaking up to the roof of the building after school with a tallit (prayer shawl) and prayer book. I prayed that G-d should show me what’s real and what’s true. I was willing to do anything that He showed me, if He showed it to me clearly enough. Then the whole path just opened up for me.
I started going to the Carlebach Shul and really loved it. They have music there and a nice atmosphere, so it made sense to me to go to services. But afterwards, I didn’t want to sit with anyone at the Shabbat table because it sounded boring.
Strip away the layers and reveal your soul
Got to give yourself up
and then you become whole
Finding Hasidic philosophy––
the soul of his music
I met some Chabad people, and I started learning Hasidic philosophy, and a lot of it rang true to me—like the ideas about G-d and the soul. I also connected to the idea in Hasidic thought that in order to get outside of yourself you have to do something that doesn’t necessarily feel right; but once you jump out of your comfort zone and try something else, then you can make a more honest decision. It’s like you have your own way of seeing, and in order to see differently sometimes you have to just try something out, and then it just grows on you.
Shift my trust to You it’s like a crystal clear night
Expand in all directions get the sections to unite
Hashem’s rays fire blaze light my way
light of my life
And these days we’ll wait no longer night.
I said I know its hard, inside is empty
galus (exile) cuts like a knife
Internalize Torah vibes bound to feel alright
On Judaism and music
In the secular world, many musicians and artists almost replace their soul with music and the arts. Before I was religious, to me music was soul. I always had headphones everywhere I went, and I looked at the world through the lens of whatever CD I was listening to. In Judaism, there’s another type of food for the soul, another type of spiritual sustenance that comes through the mitzvahs and Torah learning. In Judaism, praying and learning what you love to learn changes the lens that you have without using something external.
Like an ancient memory
Remember how it used to be
Close your eyes and breathe in
That’s the scent of freedom
Ringing across the sea
I think part of the reason for the success is just the music itself. It’s good music! Before I was religious, I used to go to an “open mike” and do my thing, and people were really into it. But the Hasidic thing definitely adds something and makes it even better. Hasidic reggae—I never planned it this way, but it works really well.
Aish tamid eternally
A fire burns continuously
Wondering where you been
Won’t you come on home to me?
On looking “Jewish”
The first time I wore a yarmulke in public was one of the greatest feelings. I felt for the first time I was wearing my own clothes; I felt like I was representing something true. That felt so good! The next day I bought tzitzis, and two days after that I stopped shaving.
There were times that I’d walk down the street and I’d just feel negative vibes from the people around me. I would look at the person next to me and I could see that they were anti-Semitic, and I would think to myself, “You must not like Jews because obviously I am Jewish.”
What I did notice a lot more was a feeling of respect that I got from people. I think it’s because they see that you’re doing your thing. You’re really “doing you,” like a hip hop phrase “do you do you.” It’s really doing you. I’m not trying to be something that I’m not. Being religious and coming across as a Jew—I’m not lost and assimilated into the culture. I feel that a lot of times people really respect that.
You’re a warrior fighting for your soul
Taken from a world above and brought down
to a world below
Re-united, re-united return the princess to the king,
Re-united, re-united she’s been taken for so long
Re-united, re-united and then she’ll be filled with joy
Re-united, re-united like the days of her youth.