Chasidic reggae and rap singer Matisyahu just released his fourth album, “Light” — his first full-length work in three years. He discussed his new music, God, spirituality, sex, drugs and Israel in a phone interview with Rabbi Naomi Levy, spiritual leader of Nashuva and author of “Talking to God” (Knopf, 2002) and “To Begin Again” (Ballantine Books, 1999). A longer version of the 45 minute interview will appear here shortly.
Naomi Levy: I was just really impressed to see the variety of people who listen to your music at a concert and how you’re able to reach so many different sorts of stereotypes of people, from surfer dudes to rap fans to hip-hop and reggae, and clearly ultra-Orthodox people, all in the same room together. How do you think you’re able to achieve something like that, which very few people are able to achieve?
Matisyahu: I guess in general reggae music is a type of music that people listen to regardless. It’s kind of like a universal kind of style of music. And, then, I’m not specifically just producing reggae music. I definitely cross over into different genres. I’m 30 years old now, but the younger generation, and also my generation, we grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop music, to rock, to different stuff. And then there’s the message, and I guess the spirituality behind it, which is also kind of like that — crosses over into all different types of people.
NL: Yes, I’m curious how you think your words affect Jews and non-Jews.
M: Well, I think there’s definitely a certain kind of pride that Jewish kids get from my music, but I think everyone’s going to come to it from a different place. There’s definitely a large amount of young, Jewish kids out there that might be affiliated, [or] might not be, and the music is their kind of bridge into combining their Jewish identity with mainstream culture. When I was a kid, there was never anything really like that. There was never really any kind of a bridge between those two things, and they were always kind of at odds with each other, coming from a secular background. So I think for those kids, it’s a beautiful thing to have those feelings and that pride.
NL: Most performers, even if they are Jewish, they’re not out there being Jewish while they’re performing. With you it’s so out there, which gives your audience a different kind of connection.
M: Yeah, totally different thing altogether. And then for people that are not necessarily Jewish, you have to give people credit. People, when they’re into music or into something, they investigate it, they study it, they just feel the way it resonates inside of them, and it’s just as powerful for a non-Jew as it is for those kids.
NL: So what is your hope for how your music can affect people, Jews and non-Jews? What would be your dream of what your music could do for people?
M: Obviously I want to be able to sell out stadiums and to sell millions of records and all that and have all those opportunities, but for me the vision part of it is really about being able to really make something happen, something real, and then everything that would come along with that, it would be a reflection.
NL: What would be that thing?
M: It’s like a certain magic that happens sometimes on stage or in the studio, and it’s when you have that moment. It’s this kind of real emotional experience that takes place where it’s kind of a unification, that’s sort of a transcendent experience.
NL: Is it God?
M: No. I mean, I think it has to do with ... I mean, it’s all God, you know? But I wouldn’t say that it’s God. I’d say it’s really a musical thing, and an interaction between the musicians, myself, and the people that are there. It’s all from within.
NL: What is the relationship in your mind between your music and prayer?
M: It’s sort of having an emotion or a feeling and then expressing it, and then in the expressing you kind of get caught up in it and you put it out there.
NL: And so, it’s similar in some ways to prayer.
M: Yeah. And then there are those moments in the show that I feel like I’m actually addressing God. I feel some moments of the songs are me speaking to God.
NL: When is that?
M: I think it happens more in the improvisations than anywhere else, when something is happening fresh, when something is happening new for the first time.
NL: What does it feel like at that moment to jump into a crowd? What does that feel like?
M: Well, it’s awesome…. There’s actually a song about it, like going over the wall. Instead of trying to go around the wall, go over the wall, and I think that ... in some ways it’s almost like a shortcut, or it could be that I have the feeling for the crowd of people and then that draws it out of me, and then it’s like a climax by jumping in.
NL: As somebody who’s Chabad — or not Chabad or wherever you are with your religion now — have you taken heat? How do you feel about the whole connection between your music, sexuality, gorgeous girls throwing themselves at you and all of that?
M: It’s funny. I have a certain thing inside that it’s almost like a block, and it’s my own trip. When I look out into the audience, I feel like the women that are out there, they don’t want me to hit on them.
NL: They do. Trust me. They do.
M: Well, that’s funny ... because that might be the case, but I get this feeling that that’s not really what they want from me, and that I feel like they want to trust. They want to trust me like I represent myself, as a religious person having certain beliefs, and I don’t think that people want me to compromise that. I kind of don’t allow myself to get lost in that.
NL: Your attire, the way that you look, in what ways is it a hindrance to you; in what ways does it help you?
M: In terms of the beard, it keeps me a little bit less focused on how I look, you know what I mean? I want to look good, but it kind of makes me less focused on that a little bit. And then I guess when I get into the music and I’m moving around or I’m singing or whatever it is, it’s like there’s a lot in it, a lot of emotion, and there’s excitement and there’s love, you know what I mean? And I guess all those things can be translated as sexy. But I won’t go out there and sort of like ... I’m not looking to be sexy. I’m looking for this kind of spiritual experience.
NL: It seems like in reggae music altogether, the connection to pot is so intrinsic to the music. Do you have an objection to that?
M: I have feelings about it. For me, myself, I used to smoke a lot, and I used to experiment with a lot of hallucinogens and stuff, and I had experiences where I feel that it really completely opened me up to deeper dimensions of reality, and then I’ve had experiences where I felt it really hindered me and kind of distracted me. So, at this point in my life, spirituality for me, it’s kind of work, and it’s kind of about trying to get to those places without the substance. In terms of other people that are at my show or that are listening, I don’t have really an objection to it. I think that’s for everyone to figure out for themselves, and I think that music in itself is kind of like a high….
NL: And your song “One Day,” speaking of [Bob] Marley, it just seems like in one way it’s a slight departure for you in terms of being much more like a very singable anthem. I think it’s an amazing song, but it’s a much more commercial song than anything that I’ve heard of yours so far.
M: Yeah. It’s basically like exactly what you’re saying. It’s basic, just like really the theme, it’s something that I relate to, that I think pretty much everybody can relate to, and it’s the theme, the lyrics, the music, it’s just accessible. I wanted to write a song like that. I wanted to try to sum up some very basic idea about faith and about staying positive and kind of just create a song about exactly that. You don’t have to think too much. You can just put it on and feel those feelings and relate to that part of yourself.
NL: I do have one more question. Since so many kids from L.A. go to the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, how did that place affect you?
M: Well, I would say it was more about being in Israel than specifically that place, but that was when I was 16, and that was when I was just really starting to figure out ‘who am I?’ — and identity — and then being in Israel, I was able to make that connection between my Judaism being relevant to me and informing who I am, my history and all of that. So it was pretty massive for me.