MATISYAHU By Melissa Bobbitt
By Melissa Bobbitt
The original reggae star Bob Marley can claim a pretty prolific family. Son Ziggy and three of his siblings have spread their fathers empowering messages since the early '80s as the Melody Makers and Damian Jr. Gong is tearing up the charts with his recent release Welcome to Jamrock.
Still, there's an unlikely reggae star carrying on the Jamaican artists legacy today. Most everyone's heard the buoyant radio hit "King Without a Crown" by Matisyahu, with its rapid-fire wordplay and dreamy groove. But what you may not know is that the heir to Marleys throne isnt a dreadlocked Rasta; he's a bearded gent in a yarmulke.
Welcome to Jewrock.
Matisyahu (real name: Matthew Miller) grew up Jewish in New York City but didn't feel a true attachment to the faith until he found himself through reggae at the age of 14.
"I think as searching for identity as a teenager and hearing reggae music and hearing a really strong message and feeling myself in that music, I was also seeing lots of Jewish imagery, lots of Jewish ideas that allowed me to connect to it in a deeper way," he says.
Matisyahu, which roughly translates from Hebrew as a "gift from God", practices Hasidic Judaism, a sect he describes as one that celebrates "joy, through music and singing and dancing, [and] through philosophy. [Hasidism has] all the laws and the rules with still somewhat of an openness to being in the world and trying to effect the worldnot assimilate into the world, but influence the world in a positive way."
On Youth, his follow-up to the mega-popular Live at Stubbs, the singer praises his people's homeland (Jerusalem), offers his own acoustic "Redemption Song" (What I'm Fighting For) and gives a shout-out to future generations (the albums hard-rocking title track). The track culls its lyrics from the New York Times bestseller Towards a Meaningful Life, a potent book on Judaism written by Matisyahu's associate Rabbi Simon Jacobson.
In [the book] there's a chapter on youth, and I knew that I wanted to do something about that," Matis says. "Its basically the idea that theres a certain power the youth has, like a certain energy, which is really special when its channeled in the right way. And the youth senses the falseness of the world around him, so then they react...Kids from every religion and culture can relate."
The artist takes a universal approach to his albums. A Sufi Muslim musician provides a beautiful harp accompaniment to Matis' beatboxing on "Shalom/Salaam (Interlude)". And though words such as "Burn the sacrifice of pride and ride out to Zion" (Fire of Heaven/ Altar of Earth) refer to the teachings found in the Torah, Judaism's sacred text, Matisyahu isn't about proselytizing.
"Some people consider that to be watering it down, selling out to be more connected to the mainstream, but I think its the opposite," he says. "I think the more that a mainstream audience is able to connect to you, the more you're doing the right thing, the deeper youre getting into the details of who you are."
The influence of a Chabad rabbi while in college, as well as a life-changing visit to Israel at age 19, inspired Miller to adopt his Hebrew name and devote himself to Hasidic Judaism while filtering his message through his first love, reggae.
The connection isnt so far-fetched. Crown Heights, an NYC neighborhood where Matis' now dwells, boasts a unified community of Jews and Caribbeans. Judaism and Rastafarianism heavily mention the promised land of Zion, a refuge for Jews and African slaves from the perils of the world.
The 26-year-old is an exemplary link between those two cultures and with the mainstream. Last year, he and his backing band (drummer Jonah David, guitarist Aaron Dugan and bassist/keyboardist Josh Werner) made high-profile appearances on the Jimmy Kimmel Show, CNN and Good Morning America. He also scored opening slots on a recent tour with O.A.R. and the career-making New York Carifest in July, where he and his band were virtually the only non-Caribbean faces on the bill for the massive arena show. Shaking apprehension aside, the positivity of the music won the audience over and won Matisyahu heaps of critical kudos.
With Youths release, Matis' star is slated to ascend even higher. Produced by Bill Laswell, whos manned the helm for everyone from Iggy Pop to Herbie Hancock, the LP delivers more lush instrumentation and more fine-tuned melodies than those found on 2004's Shake Off the DustARISE.
"I think I had more of a footing, a hand in it, in this album than the original albumI think its more real, more our sound," Matisyahu says.