In 2004, Matisyahu began to capture the curiosity of the music press and American audiences, thanks to his talent and his sheer uniqueness: He was a Hasidic reggae singer.
In the decade since, much has changed. He’ll be performing at Bhakti Fest in Joshua Tree on Thursday, Sept. 4.
Matisyahu was born Matthew Miller in 1979 and grew up in West Chester, Pa. He attended Hebrew school, and after taking part in a program during high school in Israel that offered young people the chance to experience their Jewish heritage, he dropped out of school.
“When I was 17 years old, I left home and hitchhiked around the country, mainly to follow the band Phish,” Matisyahu said during a recent phone interview. “I went to a Phish concert when I was 16 and really fell in love with their music. When I was 17, I worked at a summer camp, washing dishes in New Hampshire, and I was struggling; I was fighting with my parents and wasn’t interested in school. I knew I loved music, but I didn’t really have an outlet for it. I wanted to have that experience I had after I went to that first Phish concert every day, so I just decided I would leave home with a bag of quarters in my pocket and a drum. I decided to experience life on my own terms.”
During his travels, he developed a drug addiction. After going through a rehabilitation program, he began to focus on music and Jewish studies, eventually blending the two together. At the age of 19, he joined the Lubavitch movement and began living the Hasidic lifestyle in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, N.Y., taking the Hebrew name Matisyahu.
In 2004, he released his first album, Shake Off the Dust … Arise, and began to tour the country, appearing onstage in Hasidic clothing—and he was not afraid to engage in stage-diving and crowd surfing. He became an instant hit and released a recording of a now-legendary live performance, Live at Stubb’s, in 2005. He attracted a universal audience.
“I was hoping for that,” Matisyahu said. “I wasn’t raised that way. I was raised listening to Michael Jackson, Madonna, and I saw what big pop stars looked like, and that’s what I wanted—to be a big pop star. I was thankful that I was reaching audiences. I never expected only a small group of Orthodox Jews to listen to my music.”
Matisyahu released a successful follow-up album, Youth, in 2006, and remained a big draw on tour. However, the restrictive lifestyle and the rules of the Hasidic life made life on the road lonely for him. He couldn’t perform on the Sabbath; he was told he couldn’t crowd-surf because he’d be touched by female audience members; and he couldn’t interact with female fans.
“The two years I spent before touring, I was living in yeshiva, studying Torah 14 hours a day,” Matisyahu said. “When I got a van and started going on tour, I was happy to be back out in the world. Those rules weren’t a question for me at the time, because I was dedicated to it 100 percent. It wasn’t fun, though. I wasn’t able to interact with the world around me. Even though I was on tour, I wasn’t able to go out to restaurants, so I would go to a family’s house to eat. I would spend the Sabbath at a rabbi’s house, and that rabbi might live in a small two-bedroom house with eight kids, and I’d be sleeping in the bedroom with his kids and having a limo pick me up and take me to a concert where there were 10,000 kids screaming, and it was sold out. It was a weird combination of things that never happened before.”
Fortunately for Matisyahu, he eventually found his escape.
“I started going for runs,” Matisyahu said. “My memories of all these places are not the concerts I performed, but the runs that I would take. As I started running, that’s when I started having more experiences of the places I was going to.”
In 2007, a mentor nudged him to open up more. He eventually left Hasidic Judaism.
“I started reading psychology books by R.D. Laing, and I found a teacher that was of the Hasidic background and a brilliant guy, but a unique and creative thinker. I spent a lot of time with him studying. That sort of became my hobby and interest, and I started meditating and taking these long, slow, meditative walks. Around 2011 or 2012, I shaved my beard and began to erode the walls and dogma.”
Gone is the Hasidic reggae singer; today, Matisyahu’s message is much more universal. Of course, not everyone likes this newer, more-open performer: After Matisyahu shaved his beard and began wearing regular clothing, he was immediately criticized by some Jewish fans.
He said his recently released album, Akeda, chronicles part of the journey he’s been on since he left Hasidic Judaism.
“This is the first record where I’m not promoting any type of ideology. It’s really about my own experiences,” Matisyahu said. “I’ve gone through a lot with changes I went through, and the backlash I took from a lot of fans. I went through a divorce; I’ve had drug-addiction issues; and I’ve had a lot go on over the past few years as my life unraveled, and I put a lot of that into the music for (Akeda).”
Matisyahu will perform as part of Bhakti Fest at 8:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 4. The festival, which runs through Sunday, Sept. 7, takes place at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, 59700 Twentynine Palms Highway, in Joshua Tree. Admission prices vary, but locals can purchase a one-day pass for $75; there are discounts for children, veterans and others. Visit bhaktifest.com for passes or more information.