Interview: Matisyahu on the Torah, reggae and following the voice of God

This is a caption -- photo via Matisyahu
Matthew Paul Miller is known by his Hebrew and stage name Matisyahu, “Gift of God” — photo via Matisyahu


The Englert Theatre — Saturday, Oct. 31 at 7 p.m.

At the age of 36, the rapper Matisyahu has been in the game for over a decade. He has undergone many transformations physically and artistically throughout his career and will be bringing his distinct brand of Judaic- and Reggae-inspired hip hop to the Englert Theater. He will be performing in Des Moines this Thursday, Oct. 29, and in Iowa City on Halloween at 6 p.m. We caught up with Matis before his show at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. He shared his views on the relationships between the Torah and reggae, and what it means to follow the voice of God as an artist and the sacrifices that entails.

I had a chance to listen to the new record and I couldn’t help but notice that it doesn’t sound as reggae as the stuff I remember listening to in college — “King Without a Crown” and tracks like that.

A lot of people say that, that each new record is less reggae than before. On my first record, Youth, the reggae was definitely there because I was responding directly to that genre. But reggae is still there. The track “Confidence” on the new record is just as reggae as anything I’ve ever done, even if there is no patois. Maybe that is what people mean when they say, “this is less reggae” — they are speaking to the lack of the patois. But for me reggae has always been more about the soul and the symbolism and the rhythms than any verbal affect. I would never consider the music I make to be pure reggae anyway. The influence is there, the roots of reggae, but I’ve always felt that the music I create is something unique unto its own.

What obligations do you feel as a white artist creating music in the historically black traditions of hip hop, rap and reggae?

Every race, every culture presents something to society, to the world, and once it is out there it is available to be responded to through art or whatever. With regards to my culture, to Jewish culture, what we gave the world was the Old Testament, the Torah, and reggae responded to that. When I first heard reggae, those stories — the stories of the Jews — spoke to me. I had never heard anything like that in any other genre of popular music. It was through reggae’s interpretation of the Old Testament that I set out on my own journey into Jewish tradition, identity, faith.

There is a tradition of white artists responding to reggae. Paul Simon recorded “Mother and Child Reunion” in Kingston. Jimmy Cliff’s band was on that track and Hux Brown and Jackie Jackson from the Maytals sing back-up.

Really? I didn’t know that. Paul Simon was a favorite of my father’s and definitely an influence of mine. Graceland is an amazing work.

With the latest record Akeda, the title seems significant. Akeda in Hebrew refers to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. I can’t help but think of Caravaggio’s painting at the Uffizi, or Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. What does this title mean to you?

With every other record the tracks came first and the title came after but with Akeda I had that first. Yeah, Akeda does refer to Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac, and for me personally that means following the voice of God as it speaks to you, but what happens when His voice tells you to do something you’re afraid of, something you’ve never done, asks you to go somewhere you’ve never gone?

For me in my life that voice asked me to change and part of that meant shaving my beard. It was hard for my fans and the people close to me but it was the truth of God’s voice that I needed to follow. But this record isn’t just about following that voice it’s also about what happens next, that long walk back alone. We know about Abraham’s journey up to Mount Moriah to sacrifice Isaac, but what about the return?

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