Matisyahu Talks Religion, Music, and Adversity

Matisyahu Talks Religion, Music, and Adversity
Courtesy of DN Photos

In 2004 Matisyahu sported an untrimmed beard and a broad-brimmed hat with a yarmulke underneath. He injected Hebrew and Yiddish prayers with rhythm and impressive tongue rolling. His lyrics, though mostly about facing life's struggles, still managed to sound uplifting.

"I've been praying for/For the people to say/ That we don't wanna fight no more/ They'll be no more wars/And our children will play/One day/It's not about/Win or lose/We all lose" He goes on to say "Keep on moving through the waters" in his song "One Day" off his 2009 album Light.

In 2011 the artist would undergo a metamorphosis of his aesthetic image-- shaving his beard and sporting GQ like attire (blazers and henley's with the occasional scruff). While the Grammy nominated singer had renounced his former Chassidic reggae superstar image, he would still face adversity for sharing his religious beliefs with the world.

Last weekend at the Rototum SunSplash music festival (Europe's largest reggae fest in Spain), Matisyahu was asked to send a message in support of a Palestinian state. He declined to do so and due to BDS pressure (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) festival organizers canceled his performance. Fans of course were outraged and he was soon invited back. Matisyahu declared on Facebook "Thank you to my incredible fans and to so many people of all faiths who refused to remain silent in the name of artist freedom. This is your victory."

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We were fortunate enough to talk to Matisyahu (who will perform at The Queen Mary's Shoreline Music Festival, in Long Beach, Saturday September 5th) about how his journey began with religion and music. He takes us back to 2001 when he was in yeshiva (a Jewish institute that studies religious texts), in Crown Heights, wearing all black and learning the Torah.

OC Weekly (Taylor Morgan): Take me back to when you released Shake Off The Dust...ARISE. What role did music play in your life before releasing that album and how did that evolve?

Matthew Paul Miller (Matisyahu): My whole life my dream was to make music but I decided when I became religious that I was going to stop even listening to music. For that first year, in Yeshiva, I didn't listen to music and most people had no idea of my dreams or my talent. During study, quite often, I would make note of certain passages or ideas that I could work into songs and at some point I realized that I found the missing link I needed.

A cannon of ideas and words, a strong identity, a disciplined life, and to continue on the path of true seeking. At some point though I became convinced of the notion that my true test in life was to give up the "idol" or thing that was most important to me. In doing this I went through a very intense process of breaking my spirit and as many Rabbis have said, a broken heart is a full heart. A heart that bleeds for God. So amidst some confusion on one Friday night in the Catskills during the Torah Portion of Pinchot, the Zealot, I made quite a few l'chaims with my peers and Rabbis and got up on a table, during the Friday night meal, and rapped and sang. 

I used to listen to the community sing the chassidic songs at Shul or around a table and imagine how I could make the connection musically and I was full of ideas. Everything was lining up and rather then chasing after record companies, or Twitter followers, I was working on self refinement and discovery, but through a completely different outlet then I was used to. 

There was some real struggle though with feeling confident in this world and trusting myself. There is a certain line when walking this tight rope and it's very easy to fall into the abyss of nonexistence or even psychosis. Anyway I had a route. Every Friday we would get the chance to leave the Yeshiva and go into Manhattan, connect with Jews and tell them about the Rebbe or doing mitzvahs etc. At some point I reconnected with old friends who had started J Dub Records and they were booking some show around for me. I also reconnected with old friend Aaron Dugan from the New School and he helped me put together a trio.

So, my Rabbi was convinced that I was actually talented and I had told him about my plans to follow the Rebbes path of glory by influencing the Jews and non-Jews of the world with my music. I also had met an Orthodox Jew who worked at Rawkus records who wanted to help me make a record. On Fridays I gave up my route to a new Yeshiva Student and instead, began to write and record Shake Off The Dust with an Israeli X rock star and the trio. 

We released it in Fall of '04. I got married. Got my wife pregnant. Bought a van. And we left on tour for about 9 months. During that winter is when everything popped off for me so the tour basically just got extended and then we recorded Youth and never really stopped. At first I brought my wife and kids everywhere with me. We only ate at Rabbis houses along the way. It was a very unique situation in terms of the blend of such opposite lifestyles. It wasn't easy, a lot areas in my life paid the price.

See also: The 50 Best Things About the OC Music Scene The 50 Worst Things About the OC Music Scene The 25 Greatest OC Bands of All Time: The Complete List

Follow us on Twitter @ocweeklymusic. Like us on Facebook at Heard Mentality.

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