The Evolution of Matisyahu

In recent years, Matisyahu has shed much of his Chasidic appearance.
Paul Citone
In recent years, Matisyahu has shed much of his Chasidic appearance.

By Mary Markos

Published May 19, 2016, issue of May 19, 2016.

When 17-year-old Matthew Paul Miller dropped out of high school, he became a groupie on tour with the band Phish and landed himself in rehab. At first glance, a troubled kid who grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania with such a track record would be expected to have a bleak future. Paul Miller defied those odds. He took his Hebrew name Matisyahu. In short order he became a Jewish American reggae vocalist, beat-boxer, and alternative rock musician finding his success as an upper-class family man.

Matisyahu in the early 2000s.
Frederic Aranda
Matisyahu in the early 2000s.

Matisyahu, which means “Gift of God,” is famous for blending Orthodox Jewish themes with reggae, rock, and hip-hop beat boxing, the uncanny vocal replication of sounds that would normally emanate from a drum set, percussion, and other instruments through a series of noises or popping sounds. Many rappers are involved with the drug culture, they’re misogynists, and some of them die young. But, of course, that’s a cliché, one that might accurately describe Matisyahu at the start of his career, but might not paint a true portrait of where he is today as he prepares to perform on June 2 at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott.

“I was trying to figure shit out when I was 18,” said Matisyahu. “I was sober and going through therapy.” Once he was out of rehab, he went to Oregon to a wilderness treatment program and started making music at open mic night. He was the lead singer of a reggae funk hip-hop band that he put together with local musicians a few years older than he was.

This marked the beginning of a spiritual journey for the singer. He grew out his beard.

“I became really, really interested in who I am as a Jew and it became sort of like a thing for me,” he recalled. In addition to the beard he wore a yarmulke and tzitzit. “I wasn’t just reading about Judaism in books but I was like really into living it and experiencing it,” said Matisyahu. He described coming to a point in his life where he became very religious. The circle of friends he surrounded himself with didn’t believe in shaving the beard. “You have to keep it,” they urged him.

At first the beard was an agent of self-expression for Matisyahu, but it later became more like a law or a rule to him, so he didn’t cut it. “It became a thing of like humility,” he said. Eventually he began to recover his life. He made a decision. “I decided that I could make my own rules about my life and how I want it to look,” he said.

After having the beard for ten years it was time to shave it off. Shaving his beard was not necessarily symbolic of how he identifies with his religion. “It was about reclaiming my life as opposed to living by other people’s rules,” he added. When asked if he still identifies with Judaism despite shaving his beard, he became impatient. He was made to feel a bit uncomfortable by the question. His answer was more an order to know more about him.

“Judaism is a big word. Judaism could mean a lot of things to a lot of people… I don’t even like that term, Judaism. I mean the best thing for you to do would be to listen to some of my music and some of my more recent music and make a hypothesis on it yourself.” This piece is an attempt to do exactly that.

In August 2015 Matisyahu was harassed during a performance at Rototom Sunsplash music festival in Spain. Initially, he had been dropped from the lineup when he refused to publicly endorse the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and sign a letter of support for Palestinian statehood. After outrage from Jewish groups, the concert organizers issued a public apology and invited him back to perform. He refused to revisit the anti-Semitic experience he endured. However, what was described in other interviews was a difficult experience for him. People, he said, were standing on each other’s shoulders with Palestinian flags giving him the middle finger.

“It was intense,” he said in a 2015 interview with The Daily Beast. “That experience was like the only time, or one of the few times in my career that someone did something against me because I was Jewish,” he added.

According to Matisyahu, he decided to perform at the festival, despite their initial cancellation. “At the end of the day its not about my own ego and like you (screwed) me so now I’m gonna (screw) you. The whole thing is about making and playing music for people so like at the end of the day I was able to get past all that and do what it is that I do,” he said in his typical deep voiced lingua franca.

For the last two years, Matisyahu has been touring often. “I’m now trying to spend more time at home, but my ex- wife takes the kids when I go out on tour,” he explained. When he comes home from a tour he will spend two or three weeks with the kids, and then go out on tour again. “I do my music and then come home and be a full-time dad. It’s nice. I love being a dad. I like being with my kids. Family is important to me.” He is soon to welcome a new addition to the family. “We are about to get a ferret; it will stay in my son’s room.” On a day-to-day basis he described himself as a domesticated father trying to do the right thing for his kids.

Matisyahu wakes up early in the morning, prepares his kids and drives them to school. “I come back to my house, I have like a nice house on the Hudson River, and I self manage so I am involved in emails and phone calls for most of the day.” Typically, he later picks up his kids from school and spends time with them in the evening.

Matisyahu often records in a variety of places, be it at home, in a friend’s studio, or in a commercial studio. “The last record we recorded between my home in L.A. and the producer’s home in Brooklyn and then Studio G in Brooklyn,” said Matisyahu.

Most recently, Matisyahu has spent a lot of time with his three boys and his daughter. “I make music. I pay the bills. I try to be creative. I try to express myself with music. My band is important to me. The people around me in my life are important. I like to make good music.”

To Matisyahu, making good music means being authentic, being real and expressing himself in a way that feels honest.

For tickets, visit Congregation Shirat Hayam will also be celebrating their 10 year anniversary and recent partnering with El Al Airlines by raffling a round trip ticket from Boston to Tel Aviv.

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