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The Elusive Matisyahu: A Jewlicious Quest [VIDEO]

by Ryan Torok

February 23, 2010 | 4:17 pm

(photo by Jay Firestone)

Matisyahu’s friends and family call him “Matis.” The first time I approached Matisyahu for an interview at Jewlicious, he said okay. But he was on his way to the bathroom. Can we do it in five minutes? he asked.

The lanky, Chasidic reggae star resembles a track runner. In fact, remember “Forest Gump,” when Tom Hanks is running all over the country and his hair and beard haven’t been cut for God knows how long? That’s how Matisyahu looks.

“Sure,” I said, feeling hopeful. I haven’t been in journalism that long – the Grammy-nominated reggae star would be my most famous interviewee – and I assumed that when he said he’d be back in five minutes, he would be. I waited and waited. Actually, I didn’t wait that long. There was Mexican food and I was hungry. But I did hang around longer than five minutes, and he never came back

Did he go to the bathroom? I will never know.

That night, I saw him during Kosha Dillz’s performance. He was wearing his hood over his head—he has to keep his head covered, but it seemed as though he was doing more than reminding himself that God was above, it was like he was trying to hide. He’s so tall, though, that his head was popping out of the crowd. He couldn’t hide.

“Hey,” I said, walking up to him. “Remember me? Do you think we can do an interview? It will only take a few minutes.”

Neither his head nor body budged. Just his eyes moved. He glanced all the way down at me, looking suspicious.

“Yeah,” he said. Then he averted his eyes back to the show.

I looked back too. A skinny Persian teenager had jumped onstage and was dancing happily to the beat, tossing his arms in the air.

Dillz, who was wearing a Star of David chain and is relatively new to the Jewish alternative music scene, was mid-verse, holding the mic in one hand. He threw his free arm around the teen, and they rocked out together.

“Um, do you want to wait until after the song,” I said to Matisyahu.
He nodded, less than enthused.

When the song ended, the kid hurled himself back into the crowd.
“When I was young I wanted to be onstage too,” said Dillz, to the audience. “So why not?”

I turned back to Matisyahu and asked him if he wanted to do the interview now.
“I think I’m going up,” he said.

Oh. Why hadn’t he mentioned this before?  “Can we do it after?” I said.

“Yeah.”

Matisyahu walked onstage, freestyled back-and-forth with Dillz, and I didn’t see him the rest of the night.

The next morning, I walked into the JCC determined to get my interview. I asked one of the P.R. people if I could talk to Matisyahu.

“He’s in Palm Springs,” she said.

“Palm Springs? What’s he doing in Palm Springs?”

“An interview.”

An interview!?  “Is he coming back?”

“Yeah, he’s scheduled to perform on the acoustic stage later this afternoon.”

The elusive Matisyahu, he did return and play the show that day. At 3:30 p.m., he walked on the candlelit stage, smiling. His long, ashen hair burst out of a baseball cap. He sat on a high stool, two acoustic guitarists flanked him and they played songs like “One Day” and “Jerusalem.” His off-the-cuff beat boxing extended most of the songs, and the guitarists did everything they could to jam well with his improvised beats.

Mid set, he asked the festival staff, who were sitting on the side of the stage, if this was supposed to be a Q-and-A, too. They basically told him “whatever.” So, Matisyahu decided to take some questions. He warned the audience, however, that if anybody asks who his influences are, they would have to leave.

When somebody wanted to know if he had smoked pot before the set, he told the person to exit the room.

“I’m just joking,” Matisyahu said.

After the 45-minute set, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, the director of the festival, went onstage. The crowd was departing, ready, after the 3-day event, to make their way home.  Bookstein thanked everybody for coming, for making Jewlicious possible.

Bookstein is known for being generous with his time, so when he stepped away from the mic, I asked him if he could help me get an interview with Matisyahu.

He led me behind the stage and through a door. It took us outside, to a parking lot, where Matisyahu was hanging with family, friends, other performers and Yuri Foreman, the welterweight champion of the world. Foreman, fresh off his November title victory, had come to the festival to lead boxing workshops.

“This guy is from the Jewish Journal,” said Bookstein, talking to Matisyahu. “Can he do an interview?”

“Yes,” said Matisyahu, turning to me, his tone unprecedentedly convincing. “Now we can do the interview.”

I followed Matisyahu to a quieter area across the parking lot. He found a couple of stranded chairs and sat down.

I stood, and, holding a recorder, aiming it at the Matisyahu’s mouth, fired away. I asked him if he liked playing Jewlicious.

Five, maybe ten minutes later, I was out of questions. I thanked Matisyahu for his time, we shook hands and I walked off.

Matisyahu stayed while another reporter shoved a camera into his face and started an interview. He asked him if he liked playing Jewlicious.

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