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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Matisyahu interview

Matisyahu interview

Matisyahuarticle by georgiana cohen photos by george zahora

For Matthew Miller, the road to becoming Matisyahu ran from Colorado all the way to Crown Heights. After a teenage life spent slacking in Birkenstocks, listening to Bob Marley and Phish but not really having a sense of direction or purpose (would you believe he almost got kicked out of Hebrew school?), he found himself humbled by the Rocky Mountains, seeing God carved in the ancient rock face.

Today, Matisyahu's smooth, melodic rap style captivates fans of all ethnicities, religions and musical proclivities. While some of his lyrics focus on decidedly Jewish topics such as returning to Jerusalem and waiting for the Messiah, his overall message is simply one of spiritual uplifting and hope, conveniently encased in slick rhymes and frenzied beats. And while the moniker of "that Hasidic reggae rapper guy" may seem contrived, it's readily apparent upon talking to Matisyahu that he's anything but a shtick.

After rediscovering his spirituality, he eventually relocated, via Israel and Oregon, to New York City, where he continued to explore his musical interests while studying at the New School (also once an academic rest stop for fellow wordsmiths Mike Doughty and Ani DiFranco). The two paths eventually converged when he became immersed in the deeply religious Chabad Lubavitch branch of Judaism, which places a special emphasis on the value of music. He began not only adopting the attire of Hasidic Jews ­- yes, even on stage, Matisyahu is all decked out in the black, wide-brimmed hat, traditional fringes called tzitzit, and long beard ­- but sincerely adhering to the lifestyle and pursuit of religious studies, as well.

In just a couple of years, Matisyahu's popularity has exploded (when you appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live, you know things are getting big). With two albums (one studio, one live) under his belt and a fanbase that has spread far beyond the comfortable boundaries of Brooklyn, his website's self-anointing description of Matisyahu as a "superstar" may soon not be far from the truth.

Trying to connect with the 25-year-old proved challenging. After getting his voicemail ("Moshiach now" -­ Messiah now ­- he concludes the message) the first time, we volleyed back and forth for a good half hour. He apologized, explaining he had been immersed in deep discussion with a close friend. I could overhear him saying many goodbyes, good nights and sleep wells. It's easy to see that a young man who was once lost is busy finding himself, and in good company. Recently returned from Israel, he took me along ­- virtually, anyhow ­- for a cab ride from Manhattan back to Brooklyn.


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Splendid: How did you go from having a spiritual transformation, to blend that with an interest in music and start performing and releasing albums?
Matisyahu: Basically, when I was in yeshiva I stopped performing. And then after about a year and a half or two (in 2003), some rabbis asked me to perform. There was a youth movement group in Crown Heights, and some different people there asked me to perform. And I called up this guitar player I knew from school and I told him I'd pay him $100 to do it with me and I asked him if he knew any musicians.

Splendid: Have you had any trouble balancing your faith and your music career?
Matisyahu: Good question. I'm trying to think of what the main conflict is. I guess the main conflict is, being a musician or an artist means you have to have a certain level of self-intensity, I think. When I was 17 years old, I was hitchhiking around the country playing my drum in a parking lot. There was a lot to sing about, a lot of emotion, intensity and rawness to it. And being religious is sort of like, you tame that a little bit. And that's been the biggest struggle. No drugs, you're living a life that's very structured and very organized and so you kind of get rid of that side a little bit. Performing songs and keeping everything fresh and intense, that's the main struggle for an artist.

Splendid: When I saw you at SXSW, one of the things that really struck me was that everyone seemed to know who you were, and that group was very diverse. In the audience, there was this group of 18-year-old Latina girls, and on the other far side of the crowd there was some guy in a Polo shirt wearing a kippah going nuts. How do you feel about this wide range of people responding to your music?
Matisyahu: I think it's great. That's the proof that it's interesting and not a shtick, you know? When all types of people relate to the music and it goes beyond the boundary of a certain genre and everyone can relate to it -- mothers and their kids in every different culture can feel the truth that's in it. The idea that truth crosses all boundaries. Something that's totally true goes from beginning to end, there's no break in it. If someone can't relate to it, it's a sign there's something unreal about it on a certain level.

MatisyahuAUDIO: Chop 'Em Down

Splendid: What has the reaction been like from the Jewish community?
Matisyahu: It's been very positive. I think that most Jews, there's never been a voice really for Jews in America. Of course there've been famous Jews, musicians and athletes and everything, but someone who really represented Judaism, not the Americanism. So I think for Jews it's like healing, almost -- the mesh between their heritage and their culture and their Judaism, their religion, God, and also their Americanism and their American side.

Splendid: What have some of the specific reactions been like from non-Jews? What have they come up to you and said?
Matisyahu: All kinds of things. I've had people from MA and AA come up to me and totally relate to it or homeless people come up to me or Christians come up to me and totally relate to it. People relating to the universal aspects of the music; again, obviously it's for everybody, not just for Jews. I've had Jamaicans come over to me and be totally into it.

Splendid: What have your parents' reactions been to all of this?
Matisyahu: Right now, they're super-happy about it. Last night I did for them a benefit concert for their synagogue to benefit their social action committee that works with the Midnight Run, works with a program that gives clothing to homeless people on the street in Manhattan, and this other learning center. So we did a concert and tons of people went and paid a lot of money to this charity, so they're like really into it. Both my parents are really socially conscious people, they're both social workers. They both believe very much in helping people, helping the world. The fact that they see that you can be religious and you can be a musician and you can really help people with that and help the world, they see how people write on the message boards what the music has done for them. My dad sees that you can make money and give it to charity. I think they're really proud. That's really what it's all about, is helping people. In a lot of ways, even though we're different, we're similar. The whole basis for being religious is to get away from selfishness. And even though they're not what you would call religious, they're whole thing is helping other people and getting away from selfishness. I think right now we kind of see eye to eye in a lot of ways.

Splendid: Do you view your music at all as a ministry?
Matisyahu: I'm not trying to preach at people. Preaching is a dangerous thing. It tends to be like a person feels they found the truth and everyone else has nothing, and therefore they have to go out and convert the world and tell everyone. I think my music is coming from more of an honest place than that. I don't know if honest is the right world, but just an acknowledgment that "This is what I've found, this is what I've come to" and I'm just offering it.


AUDIO: Lord Raise Me Up

Splendid: What have been the strongest influences on your style?
Matisyahu: Probably Bob Marley, Phish, the Allman Brothers, Sizla, Nas, OutKast, Common.

Splendid: What is it about music for you that makes it the right way for you to express your feelings about God and religion and spirituality?
Matisyahu: It just always was that way. I always loved listening to music. I loved relating to music in a deep place. In Hasidism, it says "music is the pen of the soul." So, if music is coming out from a person's soul and it enters into a person's soul and saturates the person, there are so many beneficial things about music. It can take a person out of one place entirely and put them in another place. I've always just felt a deep connection to music, so when I've wanted to express myself in a deep way it's always the way I've chosen to express myself.

Splendid: The theme of thirst is repeated quite often in your songs. Do you think the thirst of which you're speaking can be quenched, or is it always there?
Matisyahu: I think, ultimately, that it's always there. I think it can be quenched to a degree. But I think our souls are thirsty. There's definitely the concept that our souls are thirsty for the revelation of God. As long as we're living in this world, there's not that revelation. This particular world doesn't lend itself to that. There is a concept in Judaism of the Messiah coming. In Lubavitch, that concept is very prevalent. It's talked about as being in our generation. You'll have both. You'll have the world, you'll have physicality, you'll have the revelation of God and the two will exist at the same time completely. And when that happens, our thirst will be quenched. But until that happens, there's glimmers and glimpses.
Splendid: Some of the longing expressed in your songs is for the Messiah, is for Israel. Have you performed there? Has there been any reaction there to your music?
Matisyahu: I was just there, but not performing. I performed there a year ago, just sort of as things were starting to get going. I did one concert and the reaction was wonderful. Mostly non-religious people were there. It's interesting because in Israel, there's a lot of separation between religious and non-religious. There is in America, too, but in Israel...

Splendid: It's pretty stark in Israel
Matisyahu: Yeah, it's pretty pronounced. And the concert that I did, both groups were there. So it was pretty special. And the non-religious kids that were there were totally digging it. But it was mostly non-religious.

Splendid: A lot of your songs talk about feeling empowered and enlivened by God. In "Refuge" you sing, "With my God, I leap over a wall." When you realized what God was and what God meant for you -- can you describe that transformation and how your outlook evolved?
Matisyahu: As a teenager I felt that there was something missing, so I started searching and in the lyrics of Bob Marley and the experiences I was having at concerts and the conversation I was having with friends while we were listening to the Allman Bros. and stuff like that. Our minds were forming and we were forming as people, and our vision of the world was forming. Growing up in the suburbs and having parents who were social workers with that socially conscious vision, and then wanting to live life in a little more dangerous situation by going on the road and hitchhiking around the country, searching for that truth that I found in the music. So I wanted to that experience. For me, hearing a Phish song and feeling something so truthful in it and beautiful in it, I wasn't able to put it in the back of my mind; I thought, "This is what I want. This is the realest thing that I feel so I'm going to go for it," following Phish around the country. Coming to a place and realizing that there was something wrong with it, there was something missing there, and becoming religious. But the whole way, going to Israel, the whole way I felt like there was a father or something with me there that wouldn't let anything too bad happen to me or would save my tuchus a few times and was there for me, like some kind of God that was there for me and with me. And that relationship just became cultivated. And I went from seeing it personally to seeing it in a Jewish way, and there's all these different concepts that made sense to me, and eventually it all kind of culminated into learning about religious Judaism. All those years of learning those different lessons so that when I saw them in Judaism, I was able to see the truth in it and accept it.

AUDIO: Refuge

Splendid: Which biblical character or story would you say you identify with the most?
Matisyahu: I think there's an idea that I'm kind of relating to now with Yosef. You know, Joseph, with the colored coat?

Splendid: Yup. I'm Jewish, so I know most of what you're talking about.
Matisyahu: Oh, that's cool. So you know that for whatever reason, his brothers sold him as a slave in Egypt. And when he went into Egypt he basically worked his way into power. He was very charismatic and he was not Egyptian, but the Egyptian world respected him and he had a huge influence on that world. I kind of relate to that at this point -- I'm feeling that way, coming as a Hasid and someone that's kind of separate from the world, coming into the world. And Egypt was a world of impurity with a lot going on, a lot of negativity happening. Not to say that our world is a disgusting place, because there's a lot of beauty, but for sure, the music industry and everything and the music that kids listen to and the things people are attracted to, teenagers especially, a lot of it is not so positive. And going in there in the way that I am, I relate to that story.

Splendid: What aspect of Judaism would you say you still struggle with?
Matisyahu: I was just having a heated discussion with a close friend of mine, and the argument was basically like, Judaism is a religion that accepts an absolute truth, whereas most people would not do that in our times. The liberal and typical way is to say, whatever works for this person, whatever works for that person, God can be this, God can be that, whatever it is. Judaism in essence has strong concepts. So we were talking about doing mitzvahs (good deeds) and reading Torah and there's a way where you can do it as being inspired, trying to achieve your potential, and then there's a way of doing it just like a soldier. It's an argument that goes back all the way, the whole split in the kingdom years ago. I guess the point is like, this whole concept of doing things, accepting them as the word of the king and just being like a soldier and delving into the real who you are and what's real to you, I guess that's the struggle. There are certain concepts in Judaism that are pretty deep. The concept of difference, like Jews being different from non-Jews -- that's an intense concept to grapple with. Not necessarily thinking the Jews are better, but Jews are different and have a different type of soul than non-Jews. That's definitely a concept that I struggle with.

Splendid: Same question, different topic -- what aspect of being a musician and a performer do you still struggle with? Especially with your growing fame, what are you still coming to terms with?
Matisyahu: That's not too bad, you know. I don't see a real issue there.
Splendid: Oh, okay.
Matisyahu: Feel free to probe it. Maybe I'm just not aware of it.

Splendid: I know we talked a little bit earlier about balancing your faith and your career. But since you said it was just a couple of years that you've been recording and performing widely, I was wondering if there are still any things for you that you're grappling with. But if not, that's fine.
Matisyahu: Being a professional musician, it's work. Late hours, putting a lot of energy out there. It's a wonderful thing. I'm so happy with it. There's not too much of a struggle.

Splendid: You mentioned attending yeshiva. Do you have any plans to become a rabbi?
Matisyahu: No, I don't.
Splendid: So what are your plans for the future, both in terms of music and otherwise?
Matisyahu: Having a family. In Hasidism we have pretty large families because we don't believe in birth control, so that takes up a lot of time and energy. And having the career grow and take off and being able to make good music that influences people and helps people, that's what's in my sights for right now. I see it as being a career.

Splendid: In terms of cantors in synagogues, do you ever think there'll be one doing things the way you do them?
Matisyahu: I don't think so. It's two different things. One's about making music, and when people are praying... There was a rabbi called Shlomo Carlebach, and he was a beautiful musician, he was a little bit of a hippie; a lot the tunes he set in are the majority of the tunes that Orthodox Jews pray with. At shul, you see a lot of Orthodox Jews who are hippie-esque, people playing guitars and drums, singing psalms, stuff like that. That definitely is a venue. I don't know if I'll ever set prayers to my music. I take lines from the prayers, but I don't know, I guess it could happen.

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