By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 19, 2006; N04
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."
"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."
Young man, control in your hand
Slam your fist on the table and make your demand
Take a stand . . .
Got the freedom to choose
Better make the right move
For Matisyahu, God is to be found in the details. Literally. Each order, each mitzvah, is a way to connect with God, and as an Orthodox Jew following the strict Lubavitch Hasidic tradition, Matisyahu is all about connecting with the One on most high.
The physical and the spiritual are one. So if that means turning down a Friday night gig, so be it.
If that means not touring with Shakira on a stadium tour through Latin America because his rabbis say performing with a female singer is forbidden, so be it.
If that means subsisting on turkey sandwiches on tours because finding kosher restaurants in Finland or Jamaica is tough, then turkey sandwiches it is.
Matisyahu does this because, as he sees it, he has what he has because he's put God first.
"It's an amazing thing, a phenomenon, when a person is willing to give themselves over to something else," Matisyahu says softly, in a lilting voice that reflects both his White Plains roots and the accent of the rabbis he studies with. "That's what real passion is . . . and that passion comes through a divorce of self. . . . And the way to do that is to give yourself over to something greater."
Still, he says, he's not out to convert anyone with his music. He's just journaling his life experiences through his lyrics. He started performing as Matisyahu (a Hebrew version of "Matthew") in 2002, and early in this incarnation he decided that he didn't want to be put in a religious box, playing acoustically challenged auditoriums at the local JCC. There was easy money to be made performing for Jewish organizations; instead, he chose performing at secular clubs starting in 2002 for "100 bucks a night." It hurt his pocket, but that was the way it had to be.
After all, he says, Orthodox Judaism was never meant to separate you from the world.
"You embrace life," he says, "while living a powerful, elevated lifestyle."
"I don't see myself as a religious musician," Matisyahu says. "I'm not trying to make myself more marketable or more mainstream. My music, and my message, is more marketable. It's emet , it's truth. And I feel like that's for everybody. It's just a matter of getting it out there."
Getting it out there is the task of his management team, Jacob Harris and Aaron Bisman of J-Dub Records.
At first, Harris says, when they laid out Matisyahu's rules of engagements to concert booking agents -- no Friday night shows or Saturday matinees -- they were told, "Good luck to you." Since he wouldn't play the two nights when it's easiest to fill a house, his guarantees -- the flat performance fees based on promoters' estimates of how many tickets they could sell -- were half what they could have been. But bit by bit, thanks largely to the word of mouth of the college crowd, he built an audience. The sold-out shows led to a record deal with Epic last year. Now, Matisyahu's in demand, but his managers are careful about overexposure. They checked out the reggae/rap careers of one-hit wonders like Afroman ("Because I Got High") and Snow ("The Informer"). They decided that wouldn't be the fate of "Matis." He wouldn't be a novelty act.
In other words, "we've taken a hard line on marketing," Harris says. They turn down a lot: A Burger King commercial, because he didn't want to promote non-kosher food. Reality TV shows. Howard Stern.
"People want him to make fun of himself," Harris says, "and it's just not going to happen."
"He's not a rapping rabbi," he adds. "He's a reggae singer and he mixes in rock and hip-hop. He's a Hasidic individual, a spiritual individual."
Descended to the pit
What's this feeling can't get rid of it
Can't seem to shake it
When one retires at night weeping, joy will come in the morning
You made my mountain stand strong
His was not always the observant life.
Matisyahu grew up in a relatively secular household in White Plains, the oldest child of liberal Jews who embraced the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism, a modern movement that emphasizes individual autonomy over traditional Jewish law. His parents are social workers; his dad attended graduate school at Howard University and runs an agency that works with the homeless. His mother is a school social worker. As a kid, he attended Hebrew school three times a week. There, he acted up. A lot.
He felt something was missing. What, he wasn't sure. Even today, Matisyahu can't fully explain his troubled school years; he speaks carefully about that time, skimming over past tensions with his parents.
As a high school junior, on a trip to the Colorado wilderness, out in the woods, he felt a spiritual union that bordered on the mystical. That sense of the mystical was amplified during a trip to Israel. There, he saw religious Jews praying at the Western Wall, davening , rocking back and forth, back and forth.
That image stuck with him. But back in the States, he felt constricted: school, parents, rules . This would prove ironic later.
He found refuge in rap, particularly in Nas and his 1996 album, "It Was Written," which included a riff about a slave rebellion. Matisyahu, too, felt enslaved. By what? He didn't know. Just felt the chains.
The lyrics rocked him. The beat did, too. He took to hanging out in his White Plains High School cafeteria, freestyling and beatboxing with his buddies. Around the same time, he got into reggae and Bob Marley, locking his hair and connecting with the message in the music: Find strength in yourself.
He ran away at 17, chasing music in the tradition of Grateful Dead fans, following the jam band Phish from city to city. His rebellion lasted but a couple of months. At his parents' urging, he enrolled in a wilderness treatment program in Oregon. Drugs (he won't say which) had become a part of his revolt.
After the program, he remained in Oregon for nearly two years. Bought a motorcycle, worked at a ski resort, snowboarded. A lot. When he wasn't snowboarding, he haunted the coffeehouse scene, jamming with a group he'd formed there, Soul for I. Singing led to acting and he snared the lead in a community theater production of Peter Shaffer's "Equus," an apt play for an angry young man.
Then drugs started creeping back into his life. He needed out. New York, and college, beckoned.
You're all that I have and you're all that I need
Each and every day I pray to get to know you please
I want to be close to you, yes I'm so hungry
You're like water for my soul when it gets thirsty . . .
Sometimes the world is dark and I just can't see . . .
But I believe, yes I believe, I said I believe
-- "King Without a Crown"
At the New School, from which he graduated in 2002, Matisyahu plunged into the arts, music and theater, crafting lyrics and plays, performing at open mikes at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, making music wherever he could. Mystical themes dominated his art. He wanted a real, tangible connection to the ethereal world of the spirit. He was a musician without a band, a spiritual seeker without a religion.
"I was looking for something more," he says. "I was looking for a way to stay clean, I was looking for a way to fill the gap or hole in my life . . . to glue all the pieces of my life together in one common focus."
Two experiences provided the glue: He started attending the Carlebach Shul, an Upper West Side synagogue with a focus on ecstatic music. And one day, in Washington Square Park, he met Rabbi Dov Yonah Korn, who was proselytizing as part of the Chabad movement, an outreach branch of Judaism dedicated to turning Jews on to their religious roots.
At first, says Korn, "I didn't give him any special attention." He saw a grungy-looking kid who called himself Matt. Then, "I thought he was a very interesting young guy, kind of looked a little lost. . . . He was an average kind of youth searching for something."
Under Korn's guidance, Matisyahu took on the accouterments of Orthodox Judaism. The kid who eschewed all rules became the man who embraced regulation.
Matt became Matisyahu.
"One day I just decided to wear my yarmulke in the street, see how I felt representing myself," Matisyahu says. "You're not just seen as an American, a white American. You're seen as a Jew. That's the first thing people will see. And I like that."
For a while he lived with Korn and his family in their Greenwich Village apartment, learning how to be an observant Jew. (He says he remains on good terms with his parents.) For a while, he put aside his music, and enrolled in a yeshiva in the Orthodox neighborhood of Crown Heights, where he spent nine months, in deep study and reflection.
His life changed on another level, too: Through Korn, Matisyahu met his wife, Talia. She was a graduate film student at New York University, a young Orthodox Jew.
The two were wed in Crown Heights in 2004. Six months ago their baby, Laivy, was born.
Man is just a man
Filled with thoughts and weakness . . .
I feel I'm just a man, flesh and blood
-- "Late Night in Zion"
As he came out of yeshiva, his music and his religion were synthesized. He'd written more than 20 songs, and he was ready . He met Aaron Dugan -- a bass player, keyboardist and fellow New School student -- two years ago at a club gig. Dugan isn't Jewish, but he too was drawn to the spirituality of reggae. The two hit it off immediately, Matisyahu writing lyrics, Dugan crafting tunes.
"I tell people, [Matisyahu could be] a Muslim singer or a Christian singer," Dugan says. "It just happened this way. If it's on a peace and love level, I'm into it."
"The only time it was a little awkward, we were at a Stuckey's truck stop in Idaho," Dugan recalls with a laugh. "And he was praying at the gas station and the local guys there didn't know what was going on. That was the only time I was going, ' Oh boy ,' worrying for our safety."
The road shows led to a first album, "Shake Off the Dust . . . Arise," released by J-Dub Records in 2004. MTVU, a version of MTV aired exclusively on campuses, played the live version of "King Without a Crown," and university students voting online ranked him No. 1 on the show "The Dean's List." He held that rank for months.
"His music is just connecting at a moment where eclecticism is prized more than ever," says Ross Martin, head of programming for MTVU. "His message is one of unification. . . . It's broad enough that people from all walks of life can connect."
Indeed, Matisyahu has a number of things working for him: There's the curiosity factor, to be sure. But also Matisyahu's jam band heritage, where improvised music means transcendence and you're expected to dance, dance, dance. His spirituality has resonance with a generation used to mixing and matching cultural influences, the products of interracial and interfaith marriages, embracing ethnicity in a way that is once earnest and playful, taking on stereotypes and turning them upside down. Will his career last beyond the novelty factor?
"Whether reggae ultimately benefits, I can't say," observes Dermot Hussey, program director of the reggae satellite radio channel XM 101 The Joint. "But he's definitely benefiting . . . He's going to be very big."
What's this feeling?
My love will rip a hole in the ceiling
Givin' myself to you from the essence of my being
Sing to my G-d all these songs of love and healing
-- "King Without a Crown"
It's close to the start of the Sabbath, and so the kosher shops on 72nd Street are closing up, one by one. Matisyahu has decided to spend the holiday in Manhattan, so he has a bit of time before sundown.
First, he pops into a Jewish barbershop for a quick haircut. The barber grabs his shears, and Matisyahu's curls fall to the floor, leaving him with the downy fuzz of a newborn chick, the better, he says, to fit tefillin, or a prayer box, on his head when he prays. The words of the Torah are inscribed inside. The idea is to keep God's words close to his head.
After the haircut, Matisyahu walks to the sink to wash his hands. Another mitzvah.
His life is contained by ritual.
This is what brings him peace.
He pauses next to the Pizza Cave, a kosher pizzeria, and a gaggle of preteen boys wearing yarmulkes spot him through the window, and pop up in their seats, nudging each other and pointing.
Look who it is, one of the kids says, bolting through the door.
Armed with cell phone cameras, they aim them at Matisyahu, snapping and snapping pictures.
Matisyahu stands, poses a little, looking embarrassed by all the attention, and then, too, just the slightest bit pleased.