Matisyahu - world's first Hasidic reggae superstar
Meet the man dubbed world's first Hasidic reggae superstarby Jonathan Brown (The Independent)
Music fans for whom the words Jewish and singer conjure images of Barry Manilow, Barbra Streisand or even Theodore Bikel, may be in for a shock. A young man by the name of Matisyahu is being hailed by the likes of Madonna and Rolling Stone magazine as the world's first "Hasidic reggae superstar".
British audiences will be able to experience the curious blend of rabbi and rap when the singer arrives in the UK next month to promote his third album.
Matisyahu, who changed his name from Matthew Miller when he discovered the strict Lubavitch Hasidic tradition of Orthodox Judaism, has built up a fervent following among fans of New York's live music scene. But alongside the pounding vocals - sometimes in Yiddish - and foot-stomping rhythms, he maintains a lifestyle devoutly at odds with those in the music business around him. He refuses to play on the Jewish Sabbath, eat non-kosher food, or compromise his religious ideals by playing alongside female artists.
He has already turned down the chance to tour with Shakira, declined to advertise Burger King and refused to appear on shock- jock Howard Stern's show. Yet he has signed a major deal with Sony Records and is to embark on an international tour taking in London and Manchester as well as an appearance on the BBC's Later With Jools Holland.
Supporters of the crowd-surfing beatboxer in the black fedora and Talmudic beard insist it is wrong to characterise him as the "rapping rabbi" and say he has earned the accolades being heaped on him by a music press where critics routinely compare him to a young Bob Marley. Quiet, thoughtful and profoundly serious, Matisyahu, 26, who is married with a child, somewhat unfashionably puts his success down to his devotion to God. Currently declining media interviews because of the Jewish Passover, he recently told The Washington Post: "It's an amazing thing, a phenomenon, when a person is willing to give themselves over to something else. That's what real passion is."
While uncomfortable with undue emphasis being placed on his religious beliefs, he accepts it is an occupational hazard. Growing up in a non-religious, middle-class Jewish household in the New York suburbs, today Matisyahu lives among the religious community in the Orthodox enclave of Crown Heights.
He turned his back on his upbringing, but not his parents, after an adolescence that involved large amounts of drug taking, snowboarding and music. His religious awakening followed an encounter with a radical rabbi in Washington Square Park. It provided the "glue" for him to put "all the pieces of my life together in one common focus". He says: "I was looking for something more."
Such a positive role model is eagerly awaited by young British Jews, according to Samantha Paerse, a music writer with the web site Totally-Jewish.com. "There is a big need here for something a bit cool and Jewish. At the moment the only Jewish star we have is Rachel Stevens," she said.
Some see the singer's success as part of a larger revival in overtly Jewish musical acts. Matisyahu's New York management team JDub Records, promotes bands such as the LeeVees - "two nice young Jewish guys" who have just completed an album entitled Hanukkah Rocks. Another of its clients, Golem, has been earning rave reviews for highly charged interpretations of traditional Eastern European Jewish folk tunes.
As one famous Jewish singer, who changed his name to the all- together more Gentile-sounding Dylan, once observed: "the times they are a changin".
"Young man, control in your hand
Slam your fist on the table and make your demand
Take a stand...
Got the freedom to choose
Better make the right move" (Youth)
"You're all that I have and you're all that I need
Each and every day I pray to get to know you please
I want to be close to you, yes
I'm so hungry
You're like water for my soul when it gets thirsty
Sometimes the world is dark and I just can't see
But I believe, yes, I believe, I said I believe" (King Without a Crown)
Copyright: Sony BMG Music Entertainment