By Brad Lopez
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By Noah Hubbell
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According to Matthew Miller, aka Matisyahu, listening entails more than simply owning a pair of fully functioning ears. "The concept of listening is the concept of giving yourself over to something," declares the planet's only Orthodox Jewish reggae star. "You could think you're listening, but if you're not nullifying yourself, you're not really listening. You're missing the point of listening if you're just projecting your own thing."
In other words, Matisyahu doesn't want music lovers to come to albums such as Live at Stubb's, his latest release, with preconceptions -- and as time goes on, he believes that fewer of them are doing so. "When people first heard ŒOh, there's a Hasidic guy who does reggae,' they might have thought it was a novelty," he concedes. "But when they really listened, they realized there was more to it than that."
He's right. Matisyahu, who performs in full Hasidic regalia, is sartorially dissimilar from any previous reggae icon, but Stubb's, a disc released under the Epic Records umbrella, catches plenty of the genre's original character. Musically, the majority of Matisyahu's offerings get back to the basics. "The other night, somebody said to me, 'Thanks for bringing back the roots,'" he notes. His lyrics, meanwhile, largely eschew the hedonism associated with contemporary dancehall in favor of overt religiosity that makes it clear how much Judaism and Rastafarianism have in common. "Jamaicans and the reggae community get a large part of their inspiration from the Old Testament, which is a book from the Jewish tradition," he points out. "While they might not necessarily understand all Jews and what they're doing, they respect to some degree where Jews are coming from."
As for Matisyahu, he was raised in White Plains, New York, where he developed a taste for the neo-hippie lifestyle. Yet he traces his spiritual awakening to a camping trip to Colorado when he was sixteen. "We went to Durango and a lot of other places, hiking and kayaking and stuff like that, and it was around that time I started opening up and exploring," he says. "When I was out there, I really started feeling a calling, or a longing, or a void. And after that, everything began to change."
Today, these alterations extend to marijuana, which reformed toker Matisyahu rejects in the lines "Me no want no sinsemilla/That would only bring me down" (from "King Without a Crown"). He doesn't see his lack of interest in reggae's sacrament as contradictory. "I'm just putting out my ideas," he allows. "But when I smell people smoking weed at my concerts, I'm a hundred percent non-judgmental. I realize that everyone has their path, and if it wasn't for me getting high and zoning into reggae music when I was seventeen, I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today."
Today, Matisyahu's main buzz comes from his music and its message, and expectations be damned. "Anytime someone has listened to my music, they either come away with something or they don't," he says. "All I ask is that they really listen."