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Seeing the Light: Up close and personal with Hassidic Hip-Hop star, Matisyahu
February 23, 2010 by Howard Blas

Matisyahu beats and breaks across the stages of the world with his long beard and ritual fringes flapping. His music can best be described as a cross between reggae, Rasta Roots, rap, rock, beat boxing, dub and Hasidic nigunim which are sung in English, sprinkled with bits of Hebrew and Yiddish throughout. His fan base spans the young religious crowd, to hardcore reggae fans, to those simply intrigued by the idea of a rappin’ Hasidic Jew.

This past December, Matisyahu returned to New York City for the annual Chanukah “Festival of Lights” shows - four in Manhattan and four in Brooklyn. Matisyahu performed songs from his new album, Light, as well as such classics as “King Without a Crown” and “Jerusalem” from his albums Shake Off the DustArise (2004) and Youth (2006). Fans were in for a treat during the show as a silver, sparkly, three-foot-tall revolving dreidel descended from the rafters. Several lucky fans in the packed club even got to join Matisyahu on stage to light the Chanukah candles. As Matisyahu got warmed up, he shed his black jacket, revealing a white jumpsuit with the Hebrew letter “aleph” on the back.

Matisyahu was born Matthew Paul Miller in Westchester, Pennsylvania. He moved to New York, attended Hebrew school at a Reconstructionist synagogue, and became bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Am Shalom in White Plains. In 1996, when Matisyahu was 16, he attended the Alexander Muss High School Program in Hod Hasharon, near Tel Aviv, in Israel. “I loved it,” he said. “It was my first experience in Israel. I remember the day they took us to Mount Scopus, overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. I was deeply touched when we sang ‘Yerushalayim Shel Zahav - Jerusalem of Gold.’ It was the first time in my life I had an emotional feeling about being Jewish.”

Matisyahu has returned to Israel many times since, having grown a great deal both musically and spiritually. As a teen, Matisyahu discovered his parents’ record collection, and his talent for singing. He was instantly turned on to the music of legendary groups such as the Grateful Dead, Phish and Bob Marley and the Wailers. Matisyahu also became increasingly interested in his religion, ultimately becoming “Ba’al Teshuva” in 2001. The result is an incredible career which seems to balance his musical and spiritual needs together on stage, to the delight of fans worldwide.

In 2005, Matisyahu recorded Live at Stubb’s in Austin, Texas. He then toured extensively throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Israel. In 2006, his second album, Youth, was Billboard magazine’s number one digital (most downloaded) album. His third album, Light, was released on August 25, 2009.
D”ash American correspondent Howard Blas caught up with Matisyahu to glean his thoughts on Hip-Hop and the Holy Land. Here’s what he had to say:

How is your new album, Light, different from your two previous albums? What were some of your influences on this album? “This album has been a progression, a continuation. I like to explore different genres, to write and to use my voice in different ways. I used a different method to write Light. I took more time and wrote it with different people. My friend in Israel, therapist and co-writer Ephraim Rosenstein and I studied and compared the teachings of the Alter Rabbi and Reb Nachman of Bratslav. Then we created the music, then the lyrics. I was in no rush - it took three years!”

Your song, “One Day,” is the promo song for the 2010 Winter Olympics. How did that come to be? “I don’t know! But I am happy they are using the song, and I have two shows there, one in Vancouver and one in Whistler (British Columbia).”

What’s it like keeping Shabbat and kosher on the road? “We have a tour with a full kitchen, and I have an assistant who cooks for me - breakfast and hot dogs! For Shabbat, we are wherever our tour takes us. We often just connect with the local Jewish community or Chabad. Sometimes, we are stuck at our hotel. At music festivals, we bring a “Shabbos Team” and create a Shabbat community!”

Who are some of your musical influences? “Bob Marley, Phish, Sizzla, OutKast.”

You recently performed at Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem. What are your thoughts on Israel and, what is it like performing the song “Jerusalem” in Jerusalem? “Sultan’s Pool was a very special show. The fact that we were right there, just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, was very special and personally moving. For the last several years I have been going to Israel for Tishrei - to clean my plate and get focused. I think about my visit to Israel all year. I know I’ll be all over the world during the year, and staring off the year in Israel, making Israel “the rosh” is representative of something very special. And yes, it is awesome to sing my song “Jerusalem” in Jerusalem!”

Where have you been performing lately? What is coming up for you in the near future? “I did a show in Tel Aviv with awesome Israeli band, Infected Mushroom, in early February, and then did four shows in Hawaii. I’m doing a few shows in Australia around Pesach time, then a few shows in Poland, Portugal, Berlin, and London.”

Favorite place in Israel? “I love the whole country, but Jerusalem is where my heart is.”

Favorite Israeli Food? “I like pizza from a place called something like Shalom Felafel.”

Favorite Israeli band? “Infected Mushroom – they have such a great sound and I just performed with them as well, which was great fun.”

Ever think of making aliyah? “I’d love to!”
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