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King Without a Beard: The Rise and Fall and Rise of a Former Reggae Star

As Matisyahu tours on ‘Spark Seeker,’ will his pop fans snuff out the spiritual fire that lifted him to the top of the charts?

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Matisyahu, 2012. (Mark Squires)
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Around Matisyahu’s tour bus, milling outside, a few Orthodox Jews under black hats huddled for warmth in the New Jersey cold, making small talk. It was President’s Day, in Morristown, a few seasons ago, which is how a lot of people remember Matisyahu. They probably remember that Matthew Paul Miller made his name as the Lubavitch Luciano, singing a compelling admixture of Orthodox Judaism and reggae. They remember how he took two of the most staid ideas in the universe—at least in terms of mid-2000s pop culture—and twisted them into something vital, a giant beat-boxing beard at the head of a farbrengen, or joyous gathering, with a voice that commanded attention. They remember “King Without a Crown,” how it became a hit (No. 28 on Billboard’s Hot 100), got excessive radio play, popped (annoyingly) into their heads without warning during otherwise leisurely strolls—and how the moment passed. That was around 2006.

Now it was February 2013, and if anything since then had flitted through the attention-addled megabrain of pop fandom, it was probably that Matisyahu is no longer Orthodox. “No more Chassidic reggae superstar,” he Tweeted in 2011, though he kept the single moniker. It’s not like he had been silent for the past seven years, not at all: a few gold albums and another insidiously catchy hit, “One Day,” sure, but compared to Beardgate, which was the Miley Cyrus Twerking of the Orthodox world? Bubkis. So, as I walked past the young Orthodox men, on my way to interview the former star and current musician about his tour promoting two releases—last year’s Spark Seeker and an EP of acoustic versions of songs off that album—I was as surprised to see so many black hatters as the black hatters were to see me. (I later found out that they were mostly fans and crew of the night’s opening act, Levi Robin.)

Inside the bus, seated at some Formica tables, Matisyahu seemed more interested in his sandwich than whatever we might have to talk about, but it wasn’t long until a match came: One of the Orthodox millers-about and I had gone to the same high school, played for the same basketball coach, whom we both knew as Coach Chad. Matisyahu seemed amused, his manager a bit frustrated—the interview was starting to derail. Talking about Coach Chad, the miller-about, named Eli, brought up some old racist bullshit I hadn’t heard in years. Behind his back, everyone had called Coach Chad a “white black man,” because he didn’t talk or dress like the only other black people students at Shalhevet High School were remotely familiar with: rappers. And now Eli was doing it again, laughing about Chad’s gigantic size and how he “acted white.” No one in the tour bus seemed to flinch at it, although Matis, as he’s often known, came closest, giving Eli a look and asking for qualification of the statement. Eli demurred; the manager shoved him out.

Matisyahu sans beard

Matisyahu sans beard, Dec. 13, 2011. (Matisyahu/Twitter)

Ostensibly, I was there because Matisyahu was then on tour, as he is now, scheduled to play in New York’s Central Park over the High Holidays. He’s on a small-venue U.S. run that extends to three shows in Israel (one on Masada, historical birthplace for Jewish rebellion) and finishes with an acoustic set at the end of September in Tel Aviv’s Zappa Club. Spark Seeker had sat atop Billboard’s Reggae chart for 29 weeks, until Spark Seeker: Acoustic Session, his newest album, replaced it in February—then the two sat together atop the chart through March, lording over Sean Paul and Jimmy Cliff. The original Spark Seeker, though it came out in July 2012, is now up to 57 weeks in the top 10 and currently ranks as No. 6. Acoustic Session, which came out January of this year, is a live recording that finds Matisyahu where he’s most comfortable—letting his tremendous voice fly, with some preaching and some improvisation. Even eye-roll-inducing lines like, “Let go/ Of what you know/ Return to the land of the rainbow” are sung well enough to be taken at close to face value.

In reality it seemed, though, I was there to watch Matisyahu as he—tall, tired-looking, face full of stubble—ate his sandwich. His answers were mostly mumbled, short, and given looking out the window. He fumbled with a cigarette some of the time. He wasn’t being rude, I thought, he’s just bored. His electronic influences? “No specific bands, just sounds I hear these days,” he said. The vibe he gave seemed quite right—a spiritually inclined, vegan, hippie dad (three kids) who was getting ready to go to work. As soon as I turned off the digital recorder, Matisyahu perked up. When his manager reminded him that another music-press interview was coming up, Matisyahu got bummed out again.

In all fairness, Matisyahu is beyond this—the whole getting-badgered-by-press-in-the-tour-bus thing. He’s a master of social media, and that’s where the people are. The physical realm of the in-person interview need not concern him anymore. He has reached a spiritual plane where 1,698,908 Twitter followers, 1,042,948 Facebook fans, and 30,674 Instagramers follow his every word, like, and #nofilter. They’re not Lady Gaga numbers, but life as a B-lister needn’t be so bad. He’s as open as can be around his fans, sharing a surprising number of triumphant shirtless pics, his musings on Rosh Hashanah, and his queries to Christians about why they like Christmas songs. He shows off his son and regularly chooses an Instagrammer of the Day. Even that vegan sandwich he was chowing down on has a powerful social media presence, chronicled on the What Does Matisyahu Eat? tumblr, managed by his personal chef. And it’s easy to see why Matisyahu loves the direct interaction. Before his first big hit, cultural gatekeepers denied him for years. Now, even after his fall from pop-phenom heights, he’s still standing—thriving, actually—because a group of people, mainly Jews but also not, kept him afloat. Maybe he can’t sell out Madison Square Garden anymore, like he did Jan. 14, 2006, but he can sure as hell sell out Skokie, get European tours and Jewish Community nights at ballparks, and rock Masada.

***

It’s an addictive feeling, being part of the Matisyahu fan base, as I have been ever since my days at Shalhevet High. All the friends who I’ve told about this article have looked in disbelief for a second—laughing a bit. It’s telling that none of them grew up Orthodox. Yeshivas were prepared to deal with celebrities hundreds of years old—the Baal Shem Tov, Rav Nachman of Breslov, Rashi. We were taught that every generation away from the reception of the Ten Commandments is spiritually weaker than the one before it, just by virtue of being born later. The idea that an Orthodox Jew—a real Orthodox Jew, one who passed all the imaginary tests by those looking for authenticity—could grasp onto a new idea was not one for which we prepared.

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King Without a Beard: The Rise and Fall and Rise of a Former Reggae Star

As Matisyahu tours on ‘Spark Seeker,’ will his pop fans snuff out the spiritual fire that lifted him to the top of the charts?