Matisyahu on faith and music

When he arrived on the music scene in 2004, Matisyahu couldn’t help but seem like something of a novelty act — a Hasidic Jew who could beatbox like a hip-hop artist but whose primary music of choice is Jamaican reggae.

“Initially there was a surprise element,” the 30-year-old singer says by phone from Connecticut. “And there still is. People don’t know what to expect, or they expect something different. And in some ways that helps, because it really makes an impression and draws a lot of attention. But it’s hard for people to get past that.”


The former Matthew Miller — whose stage moniker is a Hebrew translation of his first name — got plenty of attention during the recent Winter Olympics in Vancouver. His song “One Day” was used as the games’ official anthem.

Certainly it fit the spirit of the event. The song speaks of getting past negative feelings and looking forward to a day of world peace and cooperation.

“The idea was just basically to try to write some kind of accessible, anthemic song to tap into the idea of hope and peace and love,” Matisyahu says. “(To) take people to the good place, take people to the happy place.”

His work has a way of doing that. His latest album, “Light,” topped the U.S. reggae chart, something he’d done previously with his 2006 album, “Youth.” As a single, “One Day” charted in several formats even before its Olympics run.

Those are impressive an unusual accomplishments for a Jewish kid from Brooklyn whose early years were spent in a somewhat dissolute fashion, sampling various drugs and hitting the road to follow the jam band Phish.

The first important conversion in Matisyahu’s life was to reggae music.

“(It was) just like any suburban kid who grows up and hears a Bob Marley record and gets into it,” he says. “I just really absorbed it. I listened to jam music, I listened to hip hop, I listened to reggae, but my first few years of listening seriously were really just to him, though later on I broadened it out.”

His conversion to Hasidism took him on a more serious trajectory.

“I didn’t become religious until later on, in my 20s,” he says. As a kid, a teenager, music opened me up, got me thinking about God and about consciousness and all those things. I became religious, though, because I sort of felt a little bit defeated in my life. I felt like I had to submit myself to this greater power.”

He cites Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s book “The Lonely Man of Faith” as a major influence on his thinking.

“Rabbi Soloveitchik talks about how there are two Adams, Adam I and Adam II,” he says. “There are two chapters in Genesis that talk about Adam, and they’re contradictory. In one, he’s the type of person that is about mastery and victory, conquering and building this kind of empire. And then there’s this other type, which is about submission, going to a more spiritual and questioning type of place. I think at that point in my life, I was identifying more with the second type.”

You don’t see many musicians adopting a lifestyle bound by tradition and strict rules, but Matisyahu doesn’t see his faith as a hindrance to his musical goals.

“The lifestyle I’d been leading — and there’s not much middle ground with me, I was a little bit wild,” he admits — I felt defeated by that. So I wanted to try something else and I kind of went to the other extreme. But I came to understand the idea or the secret to redemption was through rules, or any spiritual practice. Any person who is serious about anything in their life has to set up rules for themselves if they’re trying to get somewhere. I was trying to use those rules to help me.”

While Matisyahu’s faith has helped him achieve success in music, his music has in turn led others to faith.

“I get a lot of messages, a lot of stuff about people finding their own path, whether it be religious or just a sense of hope or spirituality,” he says. “Certainly a big number of my fans listen to music for that purpose.”

At the same time, it’s OK with him if his fans simply enjoy his music without attaching too much of a higher purpose to it.

“There’s the question of what you mean by spirituality,” he says. “Spirituality doesn’t necessarily mean being indoctrinated into a certain idea. You can listen to Bob Marley and there can be one word or a phrase or an idea, and that could come through the words or it can come through the music. Just invoking emotion is spiritual, right? To me, music and spirituality are completely linked. But it doesn’t necessarily mean religiosity or ideology or something like that.”


WHEN: 4 p.m., Thursday

March 18

WHERE: Washington University’s Graham Chapel

HOW MUCH: Free (Priority goes to WU students, with limited seating for the general public)

MORE INFO: 314-935-9040