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Staring at yourself in a mirror can be as daunting as looking down the barrel of a gun, especially if you don't like what you see. Last December, Matishayu faced the decision of whether to cut his beard, a symbol of his dedication to Orthodox Judaism. After mulling it over, he knew the beard had to go.
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With clippers buzzing in his hand, Matisyahu knew he could start fresh. When he tweeted a picture of his new clean-shaven look, the caption read, "No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me . . . no alias."
That event served as a watershed moment in the life of the 32-year-old once known as Matthew Paul Miller. He had been thinking about doing it for a while, but that day, the time felt right to get rid of his defining physical characteristic.
"It had been 10 years, and I was ready to make that change and expose that part of myself," he says while backstage in Jacksonville, Florida. "I wasn't sure how I was going to express that to the world."
The moment wasn't contrived or a publicity stunt. In fact, it was the exact opposite. "I didn't have a plan or call my publicist or talk to my manager and wife," he confesses. "That day, I was reading my Twitter and someone quoted my song 'Thunder,' and the lyrics that inspired some people gave me inspiration that it was part of God's plan for me."
Since bursting onto the scene with his 2004 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! the singer has had varied degrees of success. After the performance, his profile grew to heights no one could have foreseen. Initially, some perceived him as a novelty act, as there hadn't yet been a Jewish musician who looked like him who had caught on with the mainstream. But after people got past his appearance, they noticed he's extremely talented.
The peak of his commercial powers saw him garnering a Top 40 hit in 2005 with the catchy "King Without a Crown," and his Live From Stubbs album reached certified gold status by the Recording Industry Association of America. Like most things that are perceived as novelties, the mystique slowly wore off, and Matisyahu's popularity waned, but he hasn't stopped making music.
In July, he released his first album in three years, Spark Seeker. Two years in the making, it marked a bit of a change from the singer's earlier work. The reggae sound he's known for has been replaced by hip-hop and even traces of Top 40. Fans shouldn't be surprised by this change since not one of his four albums has stuck to a particular blueprint, which he sees as his musical metamorphosis.
On top of a new album, Matisyahu has branched out, showcasing his talents on the silver screen. His first role was as the ill-fated Tzadok in the recent horror film The Possession. "It was exciting, but also, at the same time, it's a different art form, and I loved it," he says. "I felt I was able to transcend myself through that form, which is what I try to through music as well."
Over his career, he has formed friendships with some of the biggest names in reggae, including Huntington Beach-based the Dirty Heads, whom he met when they toured together with Sublime With Rome. He collaborated with the band for "Dance All Night," a song on their album Cabin By the Sea, released this past July.
Despite the rapid ascension that marked the beginning of his career, Matisyahu keeps a strong perspective on who he is and how far he's come.
"When I started my career, I was right out of Yeshiva University, and I was going with the flow and where things led me," he says. "At this point, I still have a lot of faith, and I still feel I'm being led, but I have a lot more control over my career and my life. I know I still have a long way to go, which is a good feeling."
This article appeared in print as "Facing the Future: Shedding Matisyahu's Hasidic-rapper label took more than a clean shave."
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