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Matisyahu wasn’t always “Matisyahu.”
Born Matthew Paul Miller, the Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter who successfully fused a talent for beat-boxing, reggae rhythm and passionate performances saw his career take off in the early 2000s — during a phase of his life when he was affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Six years ago, the alternative-rock musician, 38, famously shaved his beard and stopped wearing a yarmulke in public. His religious transformation, divorce and struggle with addiction led to his well-received Akeda album.
Matisyahu’s latest album, Undercurrents, is the first he’s produced by himself. In this candid interview, the artist, who brings his Broken Crowns Tour to St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit on Dec. 12, opens up about his religious journey and shaving his iconic beard. He also, for the first time, addresses the controversial concert at the Maccabi Games this past summer, in which he pushed Jewish teens off the stage during the show.
JN: Back when you were dressing as a chasid, were you concerned people focused more on your religious outlook than on your music?
M: When I started, my focus was completely on just myself. My thought wasn’t that I was going to get boxed in as this thing. I just said, “This is what I’m into.” I’m into reggae music, I got really into Judaism. I’ve been on this journey, and I put it into my music. It’s all very real to me. And I knew there would be a surprise element that would catch people and they would be like, “Oh, shit, I didn’t realize that ‘this’ could do ‘this,’” and I knew that would work to my benefit, but it was all very real to me. I was coming right out of yeshivah and studying Tanya on the plane to L.A. and going right to the rabbi’s house.
It wasn’t until later on when I shaved and the internet was more of a thing that I began to read comments and I was like, “Wow, this whole thing became the beard itself.” The reason I grew the beard was to get away from this whole materialistic way of being, and then I realized my whole identity had formed around the beard and it was the idol — and, therefore, I realized I needed to get rid of it.
JN: How has your music changed as your religious observance has changed? When you were more observant, religious Jews looked at you as somewhat of an icon. Do you think that as your observance has changed you’ve become an icon for those who are more progressive about their religion?
M: My music has connected to people going through all different types of things. I think there are people who have been boxed in or thought they were trapped in something — religion or some other aspect of their life — and my Akeda album was about breaking out. It seems like people connected to that in a big way. At some point, it’s about how deep it connects rather than how widely it connects.
JN: Your song “One Day” became an anthem for Jewish summer camps and Birthright Israel groups. Do you consider yourself a Jewish leader?
M: I don’t think of myself in those terms. I think about just living my life and what I’m going through and trying to put it into my music as purely and authentically as possible. Everything else, in terms of politics and being a leader — or not being a leader — is not really something I have too much control over, so I don’t really think about it.
JN: In “One Day,” you sing about what the world could become in a very hopeful, optimistic message of peace. Is that your theology coming through? Is that a song about the messianic hope?
M: Well, at the time, yeah. The idea of [singing about] prayer [as] an anthem for peace for the world and having it backed by my religion — because there is that messianic concept in Judaism and certainly in the circles I ran in — that was a big deal. At this point, it’s less about the messianic message and more about me trying to pass some positivity into the world.
JN: What do you love about coming to Detroit, a city that like Matisyahu, has been on a transformative journey lately?
M: I have a song on the new album called “Back to the Old” — I think Detroit is one of those cities where young people who left the city have a real pride in it and return when they’re older. And my first paid gig ever was in Detroit — at the Detroit Auto Show for Volkswagen. Every hour on the hour, I would play music at the Volkswagen display.
JN: Do any of your four kids have your musical talents?
M: My oldest son [age 12] has a strong voice and he loves recording stuff. All my kids love music though.
JN: Tell me about the mishap at the Maccabi Games in Alabama this past summer, in which Jewish teens posted cellphone video footage of you pushing kids off the stage. It seemed like there wasn’t ample security. What’s your impression of what happened?
M: I literally haven’t spoken about this once before. When it first happened, I didn’t want to comment; I just wanted to stay away from it. That was an acoustic show and there were a lot of people there. There were thousands of teenagers there and they were ready to party. I don’t know if people heard Matisyahu’s coming and they think it’s going to be a rock show, and we’ll get to jump on stage and stage dive. These teenagers, I mean, I don’t know how many of them actually follow my music. They might have sung “One Day” at summer camp or seen a video of me going crazy on stage. The reality of the situation was there were two 40-year-old guys on stage on stools — me and my guitar player. It was not a rock show. If [the organizers of the event] know there’s going to be a bunch of raging hormonal teenagers there, they should have had a rock band — or paid for me to have my rock band there.
People started getting up on stage, [acting] totally entitled. In this situation, a girl got up on stage and started taking selfies with me in the middle of the show. I take my art seriously and … I always try to get into that zone and create something real. It’s not my job to throw them off the stage, but no one was doing it. These kids don’t know what they’re doing. I could have just stopped, I guess. Then basically when I saw someone about to crush hundreds of dollars’ worth of [my guitar player’s] pedals, I was like all right, that’s the limit, and I just tried to stop it. It’s a learning experience.
JN: What have been the high points of your career?
M: There’ve been some great moments. The time I got to go on stage at Bonnaroo [Music and Arts Festival] 2005 with Trey [Anastasio of Phish] singing “No Woman No Cry.” That was a definite high point. I also got to sing “Roxanne” with Sting at Ramat Gan Stadium in Tel Aviv. That was incredible. Those are probably the two biggest artists that I got to sit in with in big stadiums.
One of the memories just popping into my head was after the whole BDS thing in Spain [he was uninvited to the 2015 Tototom Sunsplash reggae festival after refusing to publicly endorse Palestinian statehood]. Coming to Israel a month later and the warm feeling I got from everyone in Israel was very special for me.
JN: Where are you 30 years down the road?
M: Hopefully I will have stayed on top of my health and I’ll still have a voice and still be singing and writing music. I’ll still, God willing, be doing what I’m doing right now. But I don’t even know what I’ll be doing after Dec. 15 when I get home from tour.
Rabbi Jason Miller Contributing Writer
Matisyahu, with guests Common Kings, brings his Broken Crown Tour to St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit Tuesday, Dec. 12. All ages. $27.50/advance; $33/door. Ticketmaster.com.
To hear the audio file of Rabbi Jason Miller’s original interview with Matisyahu, click here: