Miriam Shaviv
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Hippiest Chasid hits town and is a sell-out
Date: Friday, December 2, 2005
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle

Eight hundred people are crowded into London’s Scala venue for the British debut of one of America’s most up-and-coming reggae stars. As the singer leaps off a speaker and starts jumping around the stage, the crowd goes wild, bouncing with him in a mass of bobbing heads. And, when he strips off a piece of clothing, the audience roars with appreciation.

So far, standard stuff. But the performer in question is probably the unlikeliest reggae star of all time — a full-bearded, bona fide Lubavitcher Chasid, who lives in Crown Heights, New York and splits his time between the recording studio and yeshivah. Even on stage, he looks the part — the clothing item he discards to the crowd’s delight is his black hat.

Nevertheless, Matisyahu (like Sting and Bono, he doesn’t feel the need for a surname) is on the cusp of true national stardom in his native country, with a profile in Rolling Stone magazine, extensive press interviews and appearances on the top TV chat shows. Last month, he performed three songs at the MTV college channel’s annual award show, and he is due to debut a new video on MTV later this month. The highly respected Forward newspaper recently named the 26-year-old as one of the five most influential Jews in America.

His London concert on Monday — the start of a short European tour — was sold out, even though his albums are not even available in the UK. The majority of the audience had first encountered him on the internet. And what a mixed audience it was, from rebellious Lubavitch youth and modern Orthodox professionals to non-Orthodox British Jews, secular Is-raelis, women in dreadlocks, Ame-rican tourists, and many non-Jews.

“I heard about him through friends on the local reggae scene,” said Luke Pruen, an 18-year-old non-Jewish student on holiday from Oregon. “I appreciate him as an artist and really connect to his music, although I did have to get a friend to explain the words Hashem and galut [exile].”

Born Matthew Miller, Matisyahu grew up in a non-observant Jewish home in New York. At 17, he dropped out of high school to follow rock band Phish on tour, prompting his parents to send him to a school for troubled teens, where he started to develop his reggae/hip-hop sound.

Back in New York in 2002, a chance encounter with a Lubavitch rabbi made him turn to Chasidut. He decided on a musical career after performing at a Chanucah concert.

Two years ago, he released his debut album, “Shake Off the Dust… Arise,” which sold 20,000 copies within six months, and in April he followed up with “Live at Stubb’s,” a recording of a performance in Texas.

In an interview with an American college paper, he explained that he was using music as an outreach tool. “People come looking for a way to connect to their spirituality, their Jewishness,” he said. So, while he cites Bob Marley, Phish and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach as his musical in-fluences, his lyrics push Jewish messages, and include scenes from the Bible and smatterings of Hebrew and Yiddish.

Matisyahu is merely the most successful of a string of artists in the States such as Josh Dolgin (So Called), Hip Hop Hoodios and DJ Peretz, who merge Jewish and secular forms such as hip-hop, rap and pop. They are part of a younger generation which shies away from the institutions of communal Judaism and expresses its spirituality in alternative, individualistic ways.

But he is also a typical product of both the ba’al teshuvah (return to the faith) movement — which has created a pool of strictly Orthodox Jews with non-traditional professions and talents — and the Lubavitch movement, which has a history of producing idiosyncratic outreach leaders.

For him, there is no contradiction in combining Judaism with a musical form more usually associated with West Indian Rastafarians. “The lyrics in reggae are mostly based on the Old Testament,” he says. “They took a lot from the Psalms and King David. They speak of the lion of Judah.”

His fans obviously love it. “Beards don’t normally do it for me,” said 34-year-old Kevin Sefton, in the audience at the Scala. “But Matisyahu has embraced Orthodox Judaism in a way that is really different to other people and which shows that Orthodox Judaism doesn’t have to be separate from the rest of society. You can be Orthodox and trendy.”

© 2010 Miriam Shaviv | Design by Danny Bermant