In the insular, Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, members of the Hasidic religious group rarely mingle with outsiders.
So it’s understandable that a young Hasidic woman grows alarmed when she happens by an unusual scene a solemn Hasidic man being photographed by a secular group of people. But the woman breaks out into a smile when she learns the name of the man before the camera.
“Oh, Matisyahu,” she says. “Everybody knows who he is.”
Well, not yet. But the Hasidic reggae star yes, reggae star is gaining fans, respect and attention for his unusual hybrid of music and religion.
At a recent sold-out concert at a New York City club, Matisyahu emerged on the stage sporting a long beard, glasses and the black pants, white shirt and yarmulke worn by male Hasids. Standing against a backdrop that featured the star of David, he looked more rabbi than reggae artist.
But as his band began to play intoxicating rhythms, Matisyahu began to groove with the beat, singing and chanting in a Caribbean lilt so convincing one might think he was island-born. Halfway through the first song, the crowd which included Jewish kids, Birkenstock-type music fanatics and black faces was jumping up and down to the beat with Matisyahu, who held his hand to his head so his yarmulke wouldn’t fall off.
“There is a lot of very good in the music in the music business, and there is a lot of very bad, and it is very rare to find something truly great and extraordinary. We have found that in Matisyahu,” says Larry Miller, founder of Or Music, which released Matisyahu’s “Live at Stubb’s” album on Tuesday with jdub records, which originally signed the singer. (Matisyahu’s first album, “Shake Off the Dust … Arise,” was released last year.)
Extraordinary may be the best way to describe how Matthew Miller transformed into Matisyahu (Hebrew for Matthew).
Though Miller was Jewish, he was not born into the ultraconservative Jewish branch of Hasidism. Growing up in the New York City suburb of White Plains, Miller resisted any specific religious doctrine.
By the time he was a teen, he was a slacking off in school and squabbling with his parents. At age 17, he left home to follow jambands like Phish and search for a purpose in life. Even then, however, he says he knew there was a spiritual being that guided him: “I would always feel that God was with me.”
Eventually, he finished his high school studies at a wilderness school in Oregon for troubled teens, returned to New York and studied arts at the New School University. It was around that time he also became entranced with the music of reggae stars like Capelton, Sizzla and Buju Banton.
“That’s what really inspired me the most, the message and the method that I connected to,” says Matisyahu, 25. “The message was like some kind of connecting to your roots, going against the mainstream flow, searching for truth, believing in God and the unity of the world and the universe, and just a certain strength, a certain passion and a certain fire.”
He began playing in bands and making demos. But he also became entranced with Judaism, specifically the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Hasidism. Eventually, he abandoned the secular lifestyle and became a member, and studied for two years in a yeshiva. At that time, he stopped listening to music, concentrated on his studies and got married. But after he finished his studies, the desire to perform music, specifically reggae, remained.
Still, he had hurdles before he could embark on a singing career specifically, his religious advisers, who were bewildered by his plans.
“The rabbis at first were like, ‘You’re in yeshiva why would you want to go to these clubs and go to these bars and go back to this lifestyle that you used to be a part of?'” he remembers them saying.
But a performance before a group of young Hasidic boys at a community center won his rabbis over.
“I closed my eyes and sang the song, and afterwards I looked up, the two rabbis from the yeshiva were right next to me, and I looked up at them and they like had huge smiles,” he says. “Ever since then, they got it, and the whole community is totally supportive.”
He’s since gained plenty of attention for his late-night TV performances on shows like “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” and even reggae aficionados have given him the seal of authenticity he’s the only white act slated to perform at an annual reggae event this summer on New York’s Randalls Island.
“His style, you can’t put it into a single category. He falls into like three different categories,” says Joel Chin, the director of A&R at VP Records, which has made reggae stars out of artists like Sean Paul and Beenie Man. “I would love to hear some more stuff from him to hear how diverse he can be.”
Besides his unique delivery which combines hip-hop beat-boxing and reggae chanting and singing Matisyahu’s music references spirituality and Judaism heavily. One of his song titles is “Tzama L’cha Nafshi (Psalm 63:2-3).”
But Miller says he’s not trying to convert anyone he just wants people to feel the same spiritual high that his religion, and his music, has given him.
“I’m just trying to put my music out there, and at the end of the day, I hope people take away from it what I took away from music growing up, that it gave me a sense of strength and hope and peace, and stability and inspiration.”