Standing his (holy) ground

Matisyahu will perform in Jerusalem on Saturday night.

Matisyahu (photo credit: PR)
(photo credit: PR)
Nobody could have scripted a more unlikely 10-year career arc for American Jewish roots reggae rocker Matisyahu: Hassidic MTV hipster with a huge hit with 2005’s “King without a Crown” and an equally boisterous following among trendy festival goers and Chabadniks; leveling off as another talented, ethnic indie staple; the transformation as the religious trapppings disappear, the beard comes off and a GQ-friendly Matisyahu goes modern; the cleanshaven singer becomes a poster boy for Israel following a Spanish festival boycott attempt.
On Saturday night, he will perform at the Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem with special guest Idan Raichel.
“I trust myself more now than when I started out – it’s all part of growing up,” says Matisyahu in a phone interview from New York, explaining what he’s learned in those 10 years. “I learned that it’s all about inspiration – about making music that inspires me. And if I’m inspired, then the audience will be inspired. I always try to maintain an authenticity in my performances. At times it’s been difficult, but I’m always looking for that new fresh moment or groove or something new.”
Born Matthew Paul Miller, the 36-year-old singer/songwriter is still going through changes, including a move back to his native East Coast after years in California to a suburban house in Nyack, New York, with his four children (he divorced in 2011).
“It feels nice to be back in the good graces of the Jews,” he chuckles.
“Today I went to my old shul on the Upper West Side where I used to daven…and everyone was happy to see me.”
He continues, “After I shaved [my beard], there were some mixed feelings for a lot of Jewish people.
Whatever, a lot of people thought that I gave up on Judaism. But the people who really followed my music and listened to what I had to say in my lyrics knew what was going on and respected what I did. But I’m sure that 80 percent of those people sitting around the Shabbes table were going, ‘Oh yeah, he used to be Jewish.’” There was no avoiding his heritage and its source when Matisyahu found himself at the center of an international imbroglio surrounding his appearance at Spain’s Rototom Sunsplash reggae festival in August.
According to the musician, the organizers of the festival emailed him before the event to inform him that they were being pressured by BDS activists, and asked him to make a statement in support of Palestinian statehood and against Israel “war crimes.” When he refused, he was taken off the roster, resulting in mass publicity and a reversal of the decision.
But when Matisyahu hit the Spanish stage, he was greeted with a sea of Palestinian flags in the crowd and anti-Israel taunts throughout his performance.
“I felt the anger. These people were bullies and were really trying to mess with me,” says the singer. “It didn’t feel like it was just hippies in America protesting for the sake of protesting.”
He performed his usual set, defiantly including the song “Jerusalem,” which includes the lines “The gas tried to choke, but it couldn’t choke me.” But he recalls that he was rattled during the set.
“I felt like I was vulnerable, fully aware that they were like 50 feet away from me standing on each other’s shoulders, and if they wanted they could broach the stage,” he says.
“But what happened was – and it’s a very Jewish thing, actually – when the music began, I got this spark that made me stand up and not back down. The only reason why Jews are here today is because we have this thing inside of us that when we are threatened, it turns on something,” he says.
From Spain, Matisyahu went to do performances in Poland, including a show near Auschwitz at a synagogue in Oswiecim. After that route, it was only natural for him to make an unscheduled beeline to Israel to regroup. Here, he found solace in making an impromptu appearance with Hadag Nahash frontman Shaanan Street and rapper Sez at the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival “I always want to go to Israel, and I’ll play in Israel any time someone asks me to,” he says. “Going from the Spanish ‘inquisition’ to Poland, it just felt like the right thing to come to Israel. The love I was getting from Israel during that time was really intense.”
An attempt to arrange a larger show during that visit didn’t materialize, but a date for the Sultan’s Pool performance did.
Chances are that at the show on Saturday night, Matisyahu will be surrounded by a sea of blue-and white flags.