Correction to This Article
A Feb. 19 Arts article about the reggae singer Matisyahu incorrectly identified Aaron Dugan as the bass player/keyboardist and co-writer in Matisyahu's band. Josh Werner is the group's bass player and co-writer.

Funny, He Doesn't Look Jamaican

Matisyahu has fused music and religion in a highly unorthodox -- er, make that orthodox -- way.
Matisyahu has fused music and religion in a highly unorthodox -- er, make that orthodox -- way. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 19, 2006

NEW YORK

Backstage at Madison Square Garden, Matisyahu cuts a striking figure, more rabbinical than reggae, 6 feet 3, all Talmudic beard and tzitzit fringe, shaking hands with the men, smiling at the women, saying, yes, yes, hopefully, one day soon, he'll be the one headlining. God willing .

Just minutes before, he was onstage, rapping and beatboxing, singing praises, bouncing like Bob Marley. Folks in this mostly white crowd of college kids were standing in their seats, arms in the air, jamming to the beat. Hollering. Not a bad way to debut at the Garden, especially for an opening act with an unusual concept -- a Hasidic reggae singer.

Now Matisyahu's working a different kind of performance: the industry Meet & Greet. He's making his rounds, navigating the terrain between religion and ambition, dodging potholes. For example: He's presented with a preteen fan, her dad wielding a disposable camera. The girl grins hopefully, revealing a mouthful of metal. Would he? Sure. But just before the camera clicks, she slips in closer to Matisyahu -- and he ever so slightly arches his lean frame away from the girl's, carving vital inches of space between their bodies.

The life of a charismatic rapper-singer with crossover dreams and spiritual convictions poses its challenges.

Matisyahu, ne Matthew Miller, has been dubbed the "Hasidic reggae superstar," a pat moniker of which he's none too fond. But the title sticks. It's an easy shorthand for a complex man, reducing the performer to a punch line. Still, the 26-year-old has always wanted to be a star, ever since he was a fractious teen growing up in a secular household in the New York suburbs. Right now, that star is on the ascendant: His third album, "Youth," drops on March 7, while his sophomore CD, "Live at Stubb's," has been No. 1 on Billboard's reggae chart for the past five weeks, beating out dancehall king Sean Paul. Right now, Matisyahu can be spotted on MTV, a Hasidic hunk dancing against an animated backdrop in his video "King Without a Crown."

Last month, in addition to opening at the Garden in that sold-out show for jam band O.A.R., he appeared on Letterman. Jimmy Kimmel's asked him back for an encore appearance on March 8, while Conan O'Brien's booked him for March 7. Matisyahu has been invited to perform this summer at two of the hottest music festivals, Bonnaroo and Coachella. He's touring 32 cities this winter, filling venues in New York, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland, Austin and Orlando. (He sold out the 9:30 club in a Christmas Day performance.) Mike D from the Beastie Boys is doing a remix for "King." Dave Matthews has asked him to go on tour with him. At the Sundance Film Festival last month, rapper-actress Eve, Matt Dillon, Pras, formerly of the Fugees, and Vince Vaughn were among those crammed into his standing-room-only concert. In May he will tour Europe, wife and baby in tow.

Exclaims TV host Carson Daly in a blurb on the "Live" CD: "The most exciting thing happening in music today is Matisyahu!"

"He has everything going for him," says Joshua Neuman, whose New York-based magazine, Heeb, profiled him in 2004. "Talent, good people surrounding him, and a good head on his shoulders. Looks. And values. It doesn't mean a lot of people aren't buying his record as a novelty album. But whatever, that's what being a pop star is. . . . I don't think Matisyahu objects to anyone buying his album, listening to his music for whatever reason."

Indeed.

"This is what I've always wanted," Matisyahu says, strolling through the Upper West Side, squeezing in an interview before sundown on Friday, when he has to head inside for Sabbath. "It's not that I like the spotlight, it's just that music and acting were the two ways that I just felt natural. That's how I always felt.

"When I became religious, everything shifted and changed inside of me."


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