An interview with Matisyahu
from New Voices Magazine
After a prayer service with students at Duke University last Wednesday afternoon, Matisyahu came strolling into the dressing room of Page Auditorium at Duke in simple khaki pants and a blue sweatshirt, ready for an informal interview before that evening’s concert. Matisyahu (né Matthew Paul Miller), an American Hasidic Jewish musician, has cited Phish and Bob Marley among his biggest musical influences.
Following the release of his first studio album, “Shake Off the Dust… Arise,” in 2004, Matisyahu became a worldwide hit due to his unique blend of reggae, Hasidic nigunim and traditional Jewish lyrics. Here are his thoughts on Jewish identity and aliyah, and some words of wisdom for his 15-year old self.
NV: How do you keep your Jewish identity intact with so much media attention?
M: The whole basis for what I do is rooted in Judaism. When I became religious, I really disconnected from mainstream culture. I was very anti-American culture and very much into coming in touch with my Judaism and not being afraid of it. I’ve found a lot of producers and record companies who have been respectful to me. Because—you know—if you’re back and forth or wishy-washy about it, then people sense that. But when you know who you believe in and what you are, people respect that.
And you see that with Israel today. After the Six Day War—20 or 30 years ago—when Israel was really kicking ass and didn’t give a shit about what others thought of them, everyone really respected Israel a lot. And now you see Israel so concerned with what everybody thinks of them, and you see the world is totally anti-Israel.
NV: Have you ever considered making aliyah?
M: I would love to live there but I travel a lot and I’m away from my wife and my kids. So it’s really good for us to be in New York because she’s right by her friends. But at some point I’m sure we’ll move there. I mean, we’ll all move there at some point.
NV: Have you ever been a victim of anti-Semitism?
M: Not that much, really. I’ve been all around the world and I’ve been lucky that, with the music that I’m doing, I feel like it appeals to people in a certain way where they don’t get stuck or hung-up on it. I have had one show where someone came and was protesting with a Palestinian flag outside the show. I think it was a Jewish kid, in Boston.
NV: If you could travel back in time 15 years and meet yourself, back when you were this “Phish-head,” what would you say to yourself?
M: Wow, that’s a good question. I don’t know. Would I even listen to myself? I guess I would tell myself to keep doing what you’re doing, because it worked out for me. I was pretty confused and pretty out there, and I was always kind of struggling with different things. But I really soul-searched. So I don’t think I would want to screw that up.
NV: Where do you get the inspiration for your songs?
M: When I was in yeshiva, whenever I would come across lines or ideas I felt were powerful or cool I would write them all down. When I went to record my first record, I took all those ideas and quotations and started using that as the basis for the songs. I took the things that I was learning–Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, Hassidut and Jewish philosophy—and I started putting it all together to write lyrics.
On the last record I got into really studying Reb Nachman and his philosophy, and used that as the basis for the “Light” record. [For] my next record I went to the grave of [the] Baal Shem Tov [the founder of Hassidism] and spent a week there coming up with an idea and lyrics.
NV: What kind of message are you trying to send with your music?
M: My music is really about self-reflection and meaning in my life. So if people can benefit from that, then it’s great. But I don’t really have like one idea that I’m trying to transmit to everybody.
NV: In 2008 you contributed to the documentary film “Call + Response,” which is about human trafficking and child sex-slavery. What caused you to take part in the film?
M: Someone reached out to me and asked if I would be a part of it. I did a little bit of homework and read a book it was based on called “Not For Sale.” So a lot of that became very much connected to my last record, to “Light.” I was studying the story called “The Seven Beggars” by Reb Nachman, about two children who are lost in a forest, and that was really the basis for the record. So it had an effect on me. A lot of people don’t know it, but it’s very much a part of the lyrics and the ideas in that record.
NV: How did you and your wife meet?
M: My wife went to film school at [New York University] and was making a film about shomer negiah [the religious prohibition against touching the opposite sex]. She wanted to do an interview and I was kind of interested in her. Right around that time, I was starting to play more gigs and my rabbi told me, “If you’re going to do this, you’ve got to get married because you won’t stay religious.” That was really good advice and I fell in love with her right away. She was not into Chabad. Her experience with Chabad had not been so great, so she thought I was kind of weird. I guess when she kept watching back the interview, she realized I’m a normal person. So we started dating, and then got married pretty quickly.
Samantha Tropper is a sophomore at Duke University majoring in International Comparative Studies. She also studies Arabic, French and Hebrew and is involved in Jewish life on campus.