Former Hasidic Reggae Star Matisyahu Finds Salvation Beyond Perfection

Matisyahu’s spiritual journey continues on his newest album, Undercurrent.
Matisyahu’s spiritual journey continues on his newest album, Undercurrent. Mathew Tucciarone
In February, a school nurse phoned Matthew Paul Miller, the Jewish reggae singer and rapper who plays under his Hebrew name, Matisyahu, with bad news. His three boys had lice. Again.

Matisyahu has gone through some drastic changes in recent years, and this was the capper. In 2011, he’d shaved his beard and announced that he was backing away from Hasidic Judaism, a decision that caused some trouble for Orthodox fans. He then quit working with record labels, with whom he had produced one Top 40 song, “King Without a Crown,” and several others that hit the Billboard charts. He moved back to New York, he and his wife divorced, and he had a daughter with another woman. Top all that with three cases of lice, and he knew it was time to do something drastic: He cut off the dreadlocks he had been growing for years, one part delousing effort and another part ritual.

“It was kind of cool,” Matisyahu recalls. “I kind of like to do that. I tend to do it every couple years — kinda grow my hair out and shave it. Shaving is kind of a thing for me, I guess. I tend to live my life in cycles and patterns, and I find myself, when I come into a new place, wanting to have some kind of physical representation of that.”

Change has been a constant in Matisyahu’s life. He grew up in the Reconstructionist Jewish denomination, a politically liberal and religiously observant movement. Although he connected with his community, he questioned his identity. As a kid in New York City, he listened to hip-hop and latched onto reggae, moved by the genre’s biblical imagery. “It made me curious about wanting to look into my spiritual tradition,” he says. “The place that I saw the most devotion and intensity was in the Hasidic world. As I started to dip into it, I realized that I could make this jump, and that might be the salvation that I was looking for, in becoming a newer, better version of myself.”

By his early twenties, he was studying Torah and Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. He meditated and followed Jewish law. Immersed in the ecstatic spiritual practices of Hasidim and diligently attempting to observe the daunting 613 commandments that many rabbis say are outlined in the Torah, he aspired to be a tzadik, a righteous person, a source of light in a fragmented world.

At times on his religious journey, he felt “like someone in a cult, someone completely brainwashed, who can’t take five steps without asking their leader or supervisor how they’re supposed to walk,” he recalls. At other times, he experienced “very beautiful, purifying moments.”

In the early 2000s, Miller was studying at a yeshiva when he began to record music and tour as Matisyahu. He sought perfection in his music, too, approaching it with the same fervor as he did religion, becoming an unlikely master of hip-hop and reggae.

While touring, he continued to observe the weekly holiday Shabbat, not working from sundown on Friday through sundown on Saturday. On those days, he didn’t drive, use electricity, cook or play musical instruments, which kept him from performing Friday night concerts and driving to the next town on Saturday. That cut into his bottom line and put him out of sorts with the rhythms of most music fans who flock to weekend shows...but it kept him good with his God.

Some weeks, he’d spend Shabbat with a family that would take him in, but his spiritual experience would be up to the whims of his host and whatever guests they invited. On other nights, he would hole up in a motel, with no lights, telephone or television, light candles alone, recite the Shabbat prayers and eat prepared kosher meals in solitude. Sometimes he liked the ritual; other times, observance felt like prison.
As his career blossomed and songs like 2004’s “King Without a Crown” and 2009’s “One Day” found their way onto the radio, his music was shaped by heavy-handed producers and JDub Records, a nonprofit Jewish music label that shut down in 2011. While the hits’ anthemic quality moved many listeners, the tracks leaned on money-making musical structures as predictable as daily prayer. If his spiritual life had been subsumed by the Hasidic vision of holiness, his musical life was dominated by Top 40, uptempo, auto-tuned pop perfection. It pleased fans and irked many critics, who also gave Matisyahu heat for being a culture vulture, misappropriating reggae and hip-hop — even Hasidism — for commercial gain.

His take: Songs know no borders.

“All this music has been thrown out into the world and has made its ripples and has made its effect,” he says. “And it’s reached all these different people and affected them. And then those people have added their twist and their culture and their piece to it and created their version of it, until the time comes when it’s like, okay, this is where this music comes from. And we need to recognize that and pay ode to that and really give thanks for that.”

Matisyahu, who has found himself in the canon of contemporary Jewish music, doesn’t believe “Jewish music” actually exists — at least, not since the Jewish diaspora began around 70 AD.

“We’ve had the opportunity to dip into a lot of worlds,” he says. “Like, maybe there’s music from Ireland; there’s music from Jamaica. What’s the music from the Jews? The Jews, we’re all over the place. There’s no specific chordal structure or sound or rhythm that’s inherent to the Jews, I don’t think — unless you’re going to go all the way back to the Temple and the songs in the Temple.”
If reworking music from other cultures is essential to how Jews have related to music, Matisyahu perfected that tradition, adopting hip-hop, reggae, rock and pop. But perfection became a grind for the artist. Matisyahu, who made a living touring aggressively, fell into a depression playing the same songs the same way night after night. So he pushed his band to improvise more, turning his hits into winding jams.

“Every night, there are new versions of songs and improvisations and real musical exploration happening,” he recalls. “We were using that as a venue for my spiritual desires. All of that is going to happen in the show. It’s almost like going to prayer or to services.”

Matisyahu’s on-stage improvisation paralleled his growing free-form approach to life, including that day in 2011 when he shaved his beard and posted, on Facebook, a photo of himself no longer decked out in Hasidic garb.

He wrote: “No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is alias. When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process. It was my choice. My journey to discover my roots and explore Jewish spirituality — not through books but through real life. At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules — lots of them — or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.”
In 2015 he started playing shows on Shabbat. Since then, he’s formed a new band and opted to produce his latest album, Undercurrent, himself. The self-produced record is less polished than his previous efforts, but more authentic. Sometimes his vocals drift into out-of-key despair. Other times, they’re filled with a driving fury or spiritual ecstasy.

“There is really very little barrier between who I am and the final product on this record,” he says. “I didn’t try to make it clean and perfect. There’s mistakes, even, that I kept in. My voice doesn’t always sound at its best. I really wanted to capture a realistic notion of my life and the world around me.”

The album traverses genres, from hip-hop and reggae to electronic music and rock. The compositions are not as tight as those on his previous albums and benefit from spurts of Grateful Dead-worthy improvisation. The lyrics chronicle his journey, the quest for knowledge and how that has led him into bleak spaces. Instead of dogma, the songs present a radical uncertainty, where hope is found not in answers, but in the pursuit of wisdom, the raw solo journey of a seeker without a master.

Matisyahu’s previous music had been riddled with hooks so catchy that they risked forcing themselves on listeners; they were emotionally engaging, but manipulative. On his current album, though, he has liberated himself and his music from the tyranny of perfection and embraced his stripped-down essence.

“I’m a little bit sloppy and rough around the edges and dirty,” he says. “And I think that I realized that when I went into the studio this time. I was like, ‘Don’t try to make a perfect record, because you’re not that guy.’”

Matisyahu, Friday, July 21, Levitt Pavilion, 1380 West Florida Avenue, $40-$75, 800-745-3000.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris