Matisyahu Continues An Inner Journey & Returns to Stubbs (INTERVIEW)

“Umm, excuse me,” a hesitant Matisyahu apologises prior to initiating our conversation. “This woman is kind of giving me this look and I’m not sure if she was someone I’d met before or if she was interested in possibly getting acquainted. This may be worth pursuing”

Being known as an orthodox Jewish rapper and reggae artist has admittedly brought Matisyahu a certain amount of attention. And yet, while he’s certainly evolved artistically and aesthetically over the course of his career, there are those who still view him as a novelty act at best and a curiosity at worst. After all, one would be hard pressed to find any other artist quite that draws on the same unlikely inspiration. “It’s inevitable,” the 36 year old admits. “It’s been both a blessing and a curse.”

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Likewise, the attempt by certain groups to typecast him and make him a political symbol in the midst of the ongoing Mideast crisis caused quite a clamour this past August when a pro Palestinian group pressured the promoters of the Rototom Festival in Spain to have him removed from the line-up. After an international outcry and the intervention of the Spanish government, he was reinstated even though some protestors insisted on waving their banners throughout his performance.

For his part, Matisyahu insists that he doesn’t preach or proselytize. “All I’ve ever tried to do is to share my inner journey and express what I’ve been going through and what’s been important to me,” he maintains. “But if I can help anyone or share what I’ve learned along the way I’m always happy to do that.”


Indeed, even as Matisyahu’s career has followed his own path of spiritual awareness — one that’s taken him from an rediscovery of his Jewish roots following early struggles with substance abuse, to his shifting alliance with various Hassidic sects — his artistic parameters have also broadened considerably, leading him from rap to reggae to an ambitious musical mix that defies description altogether. Lately however he’s opted to reconnect with his roots. His new album, Live at Stubbs Volume III, finds him returning to the Austin Texas venue where one of his breakthrough early performances was recorded a decade ago, offering opportunity to rerecord several of his signature songs in stripped down settings. The third album to bear the Stubbs branding, it’s indicative of the route he’s taken lately in terms of his direction. It also finds him reuniting with guitarist Aaron Dugan, a stalwart of his earlier ensembles.

While Matisyahu’s music has become increasingly intriguing and the sound more sophisticated, he demurs when asked about his imprint and influence on the arrangements. “I do get involved to a certain extent,” he suggests. “But when you have musicians of this caliber working with you, there’s really nothing you can teach them that they don’t know how to do already. They’re the best players I’ve ever worked with as far as I’m concerned. They already know their chops so I trust them and let them do whatever their instincts tell them.”

That tack seems to have worked well, and, in fact, even after a career that’s found him selling in excess of three and half million tracks, releasing five well received studio albums, winning the respect of such esteemed musical luminaries as Sting, Phish and guitarist Bill Laswell, reaping Top Reggae Honors from Billboard magazine, having a song chosen by NBC as background music during their coverage of the 2010 Olympics, and even branching out into films via the 2008 documentary Call + Response. Matisyahu’s quest is far from completed and lately he’s been seen without the traditional religious garb in the former of the wide fedoras, long coat, prayer shawl and beard that marked his earlier embrace of the Lubavitch movement. Nowadays he more closely resembles an insurgent rocker, a style befitting the young masses he’s performed for in ever increasing numbers.

“When you’re young, you tend to be very enthusiastic about whatever you embrace,” he reflects. “So that’s the way I was when I rediscovered my Jewish roots. I was determined to look the part. It was all encompassing. These days, I’m no less enthusiastic, but I feel that as long as I abide by the tenants of my religion I can let go some of the outward trappings.”

While it’s clear that the former Matthew Paul Miller (Matisyahu is translated from the Hebrew meaning “Gift of God”) has held true to his beliefs both artistically and philosophically, he’s not immune to the criticism that has dogged him along the way. Indeed, the mix of rap, reggae and religion has sometimes been frowned upon by some Jewish elders.

“Sure it hurts,” Matisyahu admits. “Criticism is always painful. But that’s the price I pay when for sharing my music and my muse.”

 Live photos by Paul Citone

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