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Off the Beaten Track
With the best of intentions, a friendly colleague told me I'd love Matisyahu. She thought of me every time she heard "King Without a Crown" on the radio, she said.
Why? Well, because he's Jewish, like me. Chasidic, in fact. And she knows how I love weird music. What could be weirder than a Chasidic reggae singer?
My first memorable encounter with reggae came during a teen tour of Israel. We spent much of our days riding a bus from place to place, and we took turns commandeering the tape deck. There were 36 of us, each carrying at least a dozen tapes. We could have listened to something different on every ride.
Nirvana was newish, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were hot, and R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" blared out of every store on Ben-Yehuda Street. And yet, old Bob Marley tunes ruled the bus: "I Shot the Sheriff" outside the Church of the Nativity. "Get Up, Stand Up" on the way to an archaeological dig. "Jamming" after Yad Vashem.
It was enough to put me off the island rhythm forever.
For some, the very idea of a Chasidic reggae singer makes Matisyahu a novelty, but Judaism and Rastafarianism go together like King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, like forelocks and dreadlocks.
When Sean Paul was nominated for three Grammys last year, some Jewish culture vultures were quick to claim him as a member of the tribe, citing his father's Sephardic heritage and his stint at the Hillel Academy in Kingston.
But where Sean Paul rhymes about going out and getting high - and, critically, doesn't identify as Jewish - Matisyahu's a yeshiva student in full Lubavitch garb who spits tongue-twisting rhymes with an island lilt.
The Dream of Jerusalem
Matisyahu (nee Matthew Miller), who just turned 26, affects a Jamaican patois in his songs, but he grew up closer to the island of Manhattan, in White Plains.
He wasn't born Orthodox, either. Raised in a Reconstructionist household, Miller went from hippie teen to reggae fan (pot was the link, of course), and his search for meaning in Marley's lyrics led him to explore his own culture.
He found resonance in many of reggae's touchstones: Judah, Exodus, Babylon, Zion. (Cultural appropriation goes both ways.) But rather than simply parrot the Rastas' theology, he began drawing lyrical inspiration from the Torah.
On his new concert CD, "Live at Stubb's," Matisyahu introduces "Aish Tamid" as a song about the destruction of the Second Temple and the yet-to-come building of the Third Temple. In six minutes of rapping, crooning and speaking, he holds onto the dream of Jerusalem while keeping an address in New York.
You don't have to be Jewish or Rasta to follow his mental leap from historical exiles to personal ones. It sure helps, though.
But the differences aren't just a matter of switching "Jah, man" to "Hashem." Becoming frum led Matisyahu to make some fundamental changes, and not just in his wardrobe.
Take "King Without a Crown," which first appeared on last year's "Shake off the Dust … Arise." Between his cries of "want moshiach now" and "been livin' in this exile too long," Matisyahu makes a motion few of his musical peers would second: "Me no want no sinsemilla/That would only bring me down."
It's not the only time he's renounced his former use of weed. But while he takes a firm stand against drugs and goes out of his way to say he has eyes only for his wife, a big part of his appeal is in his stance not to judge others harshly for living how they see fit. It's a much-needed reminder, whatever holy book you carry.
Now based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Matisyahu makes frequent trips to Philly; he'll be at World Café Live on July 9 and at WXPN's All About the Music Festival in Camden, N.J., on July 24. (And if former Phish frontman Trey Anastasio's Aug. 5 date at Penns Landing didn't fall on a Friday evening, Matisyahu would be back here to open for him.)
Matisyahu's got an eclectic fan base: frum Jews who don't listen to a lot of modern music; reggae fans with no direct connection to Judaism; hippies who relate to his past as a Phish follower; and Christian rockers who are thrilled to hear someone else spreading God's word. The diversity of his experience is what draws fans from audiences that don't often overlap, but it's also responsible for giving them all more than they bargained for.
Even a skeptical listener has to admit he's a talented rapper and a decent beatboxer, and his singing voice is sort of cantorial, if you're into that sort of thing. If I hadn't gotten my fill of reggae on that Israel trip, maybe I'd like him, too.
But if Matisyahu wants to strengthen the bonds between two spiritually grounded cultures - and maybe befriend his Crown Heights neighbors in the process - I'm all for those positive vibrations.