“Hasidic Jewish reggae rapper” sounds like an anomaly at best and a novelty at worst. But anything closer than a cursory listen to Matisyahu’s words and music discovers a serious artist with strong faith. The now clean-shaven Matisyahu will perform at the State Theatre Nov. 6. The Sun spoke over the phone with Matisyahu to talk Judaism, detox and world peace.
The Sun: So there was a big controversy last December when you shaved your beard, and I heard you’ve dyed your hair blonde now.
Matisyahu: No, you’re behind! The hair was blonde about six months ago. It was short-lived. I was in Israel, filming a music video called Sunshine, and I sort of wanted that look, that sort of desert sun.
Sun: I feel like your latest album, Spark Seeker, contains fewer religious, fewer Jewish themes than your earlier work. Would you agree with that?
M: I don’t know, I wouldn’t say it that way, it’s just different. Every song is really different, you know. For example, I have a song on this record called “Bal Shem Tov,” and there’s Yiddish all over the record, there’s Jewish prayers on the record, so you could call that religious. For example, the “Bal Shem Tov” song is about [18th Century Jewish mystical rabbi] Bal Shem Tov, right? The message of the song is that a person can find their truth. So it really depends on how you look at that. I don’t think it’s so black and white, or that it’s less religious, or more religious.
Sun: I also feel that it’s a little more pop than your earlier records, and not so rooted in reggae and rap.
M: I would say so. But you know, “pop,” the word, has connotations with it, so it all depends on your definition of the word “pop.” I think the songs there are in some ways more accessible. I would use the word “accessible.”
Sun: What originally drew you to reggae?
M: I don’t really know, I’ll be honest. My cousin was from Barbados, and we’d listen to reggae when I was a kid and he used to come over for summer camp when I was in New York. So that was my first exposure, and after that it was Bob Marley. I don’t know what was is that drew me to the music. Music is the type of thing that has kind of a soul, a very spiritual kind of thing, and why one type of music draws one type of person more than another — I have no clue about the answer to that question.
Sun: In Got No Water, one of your lyrics is, “Young man, don’t you know drugs impurify your mind.” So it seems like you’re not that big into recreational drug use, and I was wondering how you reconcile that with your affinity for Bob Marley, with his often explicit references to drug culture.
M: You know, when I wrote that song, I was in kind of a detox period. I was becoming religious, and part of my becoming religious was kind of about getting off of drugs. So that was the relevance to that song at that moment. I don’t really have any necessarily big issues with drugs, or recreational drugs. I think everybody’s different, you know, and everybody has to really make their own decisions in their lives. You know how you said earlier that my music was more religious before? I would say it’s not that it’s more religious, but it’s got a lot of attacks on stuff that I would never write again. Things were a little bit more black and white, you know — drugs are bad, this is good, this is bad. Over time I’ve evolved to see different shades of colors.
Sun: Your show in Ithaca is on the night of the election. Are you planning on voting?
M: No, I don’t vote. I don’t really believe in politicians. I don’t know what they’re really offering, though that could just be my own ignorance. I’ve never voted. I’ve been asked that question before, but I’ve never felt the desire to vote. I was never inspired by a candidate that was running for presidential office, that my life would be affected by them hugely.
Sun: In your songs, you talk a lot about world peace. Do you feel any of the candidates in the upcoming election are in line with your vision of world peace?
M: I mean, I don’t really know, to be honest. I mean, world peace — who doesn’t want world peace? Everybody wants world peace, you know? But if the question is how to get there, no one knows how to get there, and I don’t know if that’s going to happen. The biggest thing is starting with yourself. I’m not really so concerned about big peace; I’m more concerned about, how can I find peace in myself? How can I try and convey that when I’m on the stage? For me that’s really the focus.
Sun: Your lyrics often center around ending conflict and bloodshed. Where do you stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
M: Well, as far as I understand, there was never a country called Palestine. There was the British occupation, but there was never a government. Palestine was a creation that was created within Israel, as Israel had already come about. That’s my understanding, but again, I’m not going to claim that I have the answer or the truth or the right knowledge. I’m a singer. I’m a musician, trying to find his own sense of balance in his own life, trying to write songs that inspire people. I love people and I love human beings, and I think if people could focus on that, it’d be great. But I have no answers as to who’s right and who’s wrong, and how we should deal with such huge issues that go back so far. All I know is that I have devout Muslim followers that love my music. To me, that’s what it’s about with modern people now, getting past who killed who, and knowing that God created this world in mercy. And if we could emulate that quality of mercy, we would be godly people.