Matisyahu keeps the faith while rapping

[2 June 2009]

By Jordan Levin

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Matisyahu, the devout Jewish rapper, is making the kind of journey he makes all the time between his music and his religion. On this recent Friday afternoon, that consists of walking through Manhattan from a voice lesson to prepare for Shabbat, the Jewish holy day of rest. For Matisyahu, this particular passage is simply another step in his dual spiritual and musical odyssey.

“It’s one thing for me,” he says. “The music is not separate from the spirituality. The music is what provides the space to get to the spirituality.”

Even on tours such as the one Matisyahu kicked off Saturday in support of his new album, “Light,” due out Aug. 25, the 29-year old musician keeps his faith. He doesn’t perform on Friday nights (the one exception was a summer show in Alaska, which he justified because the sun didn’t set until 2 a.m.) His hype man doesn’t just work the crowd onstage, but goes into the audience to gather men for a post-concert prayer.

Of course, there are also those who come just to enjoy the music that has earned Matisyahu a popularity that quickly went beyond the initial novelty of an orthodox Jewish reggae-style rapper when he came out in 2004 with “Shake Off the Dust ... Rise.” His second CD, 2005’s “Live at Stubbs,” went gold and topped Billboard’s reggae chart, as did his 2006 CD “Youth,” which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Reggae Album.

“In some sense everyone comes to be lifted up, and there’s definitely different ideas of being uplifted,” Matisyahu says. “You can see people who have had some rough patch in their life and my music or songs have been a source of strength to them. Then there’s people there with their girlfriends and making out, and everything in between. I try not to be judgmental about anybody.”

That tolerant attitude should serve Matisyahu well in the newest stage of his unorthodox path. In late 2007, he made news in the Jewish world by rejecting the orthodox Hasidic Chabad sect that he had followed since he was 20, saying he wanted to explore other forms of Jewish spirituality.

“Exploration is the name of the game in terms of everything for me,” Matisyahu says. “I started to feel a bit trapped or unhappy with my quest. And I started to search, to look for different avenues of experiencing God.”

That need for exploration has also prompted Matisyahu to try music other than the reggae-style rap for which he’s known. For “Light,” he spent a year exploring with new collaborators, including singer-songwriter Trevor Hall and Ooah, an experimental turntablist and programmer from hip-hop group Glitch Mob. Guests include members of ska-punk band Fishbone and legendary reggae producers Sly & Robbie. Matisyahu also began to sing, encouraged by a new producer, David Kahane, who has worked with Paul McCartney and soul singer Regina Spektor. The first single, “One Day,” has a soaring melody to go with its utopian vision, while “Escape” and “Darkness Into Light” feature dark, pounding rock.

If Matisyahu’s songs are still about Jewish religious themes, he is also incorporating more universal spiritual messages. “We Will Walk” was inspired by an 18th century Rabbinic parable about a lost brother and sister, as well as by a story about African child soldiers who escaped across a desert, and news stories of child soldiers forced to join guerrilla armies. Matisyahu imagined a sister and brother fleeing, the boy’s hands cut off, telling his sister to go on without him, that his love will keep her going. “We will walk until my blood runs out, until my heart is burned,” he tells her. “You are not alone.”

“It got me going creatively thinking of the innocence of children sucked into this dark world, pulling yourself out of that and crossing this desert, being this idea that a lot of people could relate to in their own spirituality and inner world,” Matisyahu says. “Even if you are alone you will continue.”

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