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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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As Matisyahu and his band came out, two things were clear—the first was that the “acoustic show” billing referred to the fact that there was an acoustic guitar present. The second was that his voice is a booming wonder. It rose in a way that voices do when they’re alone. When he launched into “Crossroads,” which opens Spark Seeker, it’s Acoustic counterpart, and at least the Morristown show, the room suddenly felt very small. “I’m still young/ Having mystic visions of The One,” he declared-slash-humblebragged, seated on a chair onstage. “All I got is my life/ All I got is my life!”

After “Searchin’,” a rambling feel took over the band, which included Dave Holmes on the aforementioned acoustic guitar, channeling that old Matisyahu influence, Phish. This was followed by the Stubb’s classic “Exaltation.” I looked around several times, to see if my fellow seated concert-goers were into this seemingly bland, watered-down version of songs we’d heard before. They were, big time, at least the seated version of big time, kind of just moving around in place a bit, not really sure of what to do but wanting to avoid the embarrassment of sitting down mid-song in front of the whole crowd. Many were mouthing the words out loud—“it’s time for a champion/ To heal the soul of the land.” The energy was high, the entire audience focused on Matisyahu, and if he had only stood up he’d have commanded the crowd. He got close, stretching his back at one point.

But what about that conversion—or that shaving incident, or whatever it was? Earlier in the evening, I’d been given 10 to 15 minutes with the man in his tour bus, and I wanted to know about his religious choices. Matisyahu the artist had moved away from his early fire toward a popular sound that carried only the shadow of his original message, and in doing so he became neither unique nor particularly disturbed. “I remember the moment when it hit me,” he told AISH last year, around when Spark Seeker was being released. “I was walking down Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side, and it felt like I was literally walking out of a jail cell that I had been in. At that moment I realized I could shave if I wanted. It was up to me and no one else.” So now, a year after the razor, what did he make of it? Matisyahu laughed and called it “the beard charade”—he knew it might be the last time Matisyahu breaks into the cultural consciousness. “I can speak about it, I can tell you,” about the beard shaving, he said to me. “In a certain way, my growing of and shaving of the beard had a similar meaning.”

We moved into a small discussion about the differences between spirituality and religion. “I think they are two things that don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand all the time,” he said. “For the most part, in today’s society, we’re all witness to see how religion has had such a strong negative impact on the world and citizens of the world. So, the majority of people are very skeptical of religion, even if religion is something that can contribute to the world being a more spiritual place.” Religious rules had given him “a certain structure” when he was younger, and now that he was a grown man some of those arbitrary laws seemed kind of silly, he said, so he didn’t follow them.

Matisyahu the artist had moved away from his early fire toward a popular sound that carried only the shadow of his original message

How did his religious fans react to this sort of message? Near the end of the Morristown concert, Matisyahu stopped the music to see if anyone had any questions, a freebie before an exclusive $100 meet-and-greet scheduled for after the show. He had been doing Q&As during shows, and a few days before Morristown he had told CT.com, “I don’t feel pressure, I don’t pretend to be a teacher or something.” I was excited, with the hope that some of these fans could get a solid answer out of the cipher I had met earlier. One asked when he would be playing Argentina next, another if he knew what an inspiration he was. Then another stood before a mic in the aisle and laid in.

“All your songs are great,” he said, though he clearly did not believe all of Matisyahu’s songs are great. “And you get to notice that you have two different types of songs. Now, they’re all great. But your religious songs, they have this extra fire in them. Why do you think that is?” Matis, very chill, looked at the man. In the wake of the shaving incident, Matisyahu had said pretty much the same thing about religion for over a year now, telling Time and Heeb that you can be spiritual without being religious. In Morristown he said, “I don’t see a difference between the two. You can find that type of fire wherever you look.”

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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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