Q and A with Matisyahu: 'Hasidic reggae superstar' sans the Hasidim
Singer Matisyahu, pictured on a March trip to Israel, is currently on tour in the US.
December 26th, 2012
12:04 PM ET

Q and A with Matisyahu: 'Hasidic reggae superstar' sans the Hasidim

By Dan Merica and Eric Weisbrod, CNN

Washington (CNN)–
It has been a year since Matisyahu, the famed Hasidic reggae star, shaved his beard, separated from his devout following of Orthodox Judaism and said he was ready for a "rebirth."

Since that time, he has produced new music - including a recently released album, "Spark Seeker" - and is ready to stop talking about his big change. Of course, we asked him about it anyway.

In his view, it was his decision to get into Hasidism and it was his decision to get out.

The beardless, but still scruffy, artist is touring the country with a show that included lighting a menorah during Hanukkah. We caught up with him in Washington to talk about his album, his new take on Judaism and how his life has changed in the last year.

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Belief: Thanks for having us. Let's talk about the new album, "Spark Seeker." It's incredibly diverse; it jumps from pop to hip-hop to reggae. How is this album different from your past work?

Matisyahu: Whenever I approach a record I don't really have a science to it. I approach every record differently. First record was in a home studio. Second record was a live record. Third record was made while I was on tour. Fourth record was made over the course of like two years in David Kahn's basement. This record was basically - I got friendly with this producer, Kojak, and I started recording with him whenever I was in L.A.

Belief: How does Judaism influence this album specifically?

Matisyahu: Judaism is just such a huge part of who I am. I don't think I could separate that at this point. I spent 10 years sort of really immersed heavily in the practice and in the study of Judaism. This record was made when, I wouldn't say phase out, but when I started to expand and explore and let go of a lot of that. But it's still such a part of me that it's inescapable.

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Belief: Last year, you notably left Hasidism, because you "took it as far as you could take it" and you "started finding other things resonating." What was it about Hasidism that caused that feeling and what else resonated with you?

Matisyahu: I started out in the Chabad movement, and I started pretty closed up, with the idea of there being that "this is it." I bought into that fully. I really explored in depth the Chabad ideology. Then I started to open up. ... I started to explore other types of Hasidism. ... Eventually I began to regain trust into my own intuition and my own sense of right and wrong. I began to realize that there were a lot of things within that lifestyle that were actually holding me back. That were sort of weighting heavy down on me and keeping me from tasting a certain freedom of expression.

Belief: What specifically was weighing on you?

Matisyahu: In Judaism there are a lot of rules - everything from which fingernail you cut first to which side you sleep on in bed, to the way you get dressed in the morning, to actual ideas, like ideas about being chosen people or ideas about female/male and how to interact with people from the opposite sex. So all those things that I tried to mold myself into that never really jibed. When I'm talking about all the heaviness, I'm really talking about the rules. So at a certain point ... I basically said, "I don't need to do all these things. It's my life, I can choose how I want to worship God, what words I want to say. I can say less words." And once I let go of that, just sort of like a freedom that opened up that I began to taste, this freedom in my life that I had been missing.

Matisyahu before and after shaving his beard.

Belief: Was there a single moment when you knew you were going to shave the beard?

Matisyahu: Over the course of years, I was thinking about it, but there was a time when it just came down to this moment where I was like,  "All right, I need to move now, it is time to shift." And I was going back and forth with it, the pros, the cons, what do I believe, this thing or that thing, and I kept going back and forth. Then there was an actual moment where, I remember, I was walking down the street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and I just realized, it just clicked. "I can let go. It is my life." That was it, "It is my life." And then at that moment it was like a backpack of bricks just came off.

Belief: Your change shocked a lot of people. Why do you think that was their first reaction?

Matisyahu: Because I was a Hasidic reggae superstar. My whole thing was the Hasidic thing. I guess people aren't used to change so much. I've been through lots of different phases, but when I made that commitment and jumped into it, when you take on that ultimate reality, a lot of people don't usually leave from that. That's it. It's ingrained into you. This is the way, and to let go of that takes some chutzpah.

Belief: Did you worry when you shaved it off that you were going to lose that artistic hook as that Hasidic rapper?

Matisyahu: No. Because I believe in my music and I always have. I never felt that I was getting fans because of this. I felt it helped put me on the map and get me attention because I always had that surprise attack element to what I did, because I was a white boy singing reggae music with an authentic reggae patois.

Belief: How did you react to the negative responses from the Hasidic community?

Matisyahu: I tried to stay off the Internet. I had moved out of Crown Heights (neighborhood of Brooklyn). I didn't want to confront the people over there. I think that most Hasidic people that I know, that I am actually friends with or that are acquaintances, all say that they think I seem like a happier person now than I was then, and they respect my decision. There were times, late at night or whatever, where I would go online and I was interested or I would check it out, but it always came back to bite me in the ass because you read those comments that are just mean and it hurts.

Belief: Did it bother you that people may have initially gravitated to you because of your appearance as an outwardly religious Jew?

Matisyahu: It didn't bother me, I represented different things to different people. At a certain point early on in my career it became obvious to me that the majority of my fans at my shows, that were buying my music, most of them had no idea what Hasidism was. A lot of them had no clue I was even Jewish. Or they knew that I was Jewish, but that wasn't the main thing for them. It was my music, it was the lyrics, it was the music that was inspiring and empowering people. And then there were people that it was more about, "OK, here's this Jewish guy who is making Judaism cool, representing Judaism to the rest of the world," and for them, a lot of that was very much tied into my look. So I didn't really care, I was proud to do that. I was proud to represent for the Jewish people. I figured, who else should do it if not me?

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Belief: You have three children. How do you approach Judaism with them?

Matisyahu: In terms of the religious aspect, I tell them nobody knows the way. Yeah, there are teachers and people will tell you there is a way, this is like the Torah from God and these rules are from God, but I tell them that you have to decide in your life what's real for you. I take the things I feel are enriching and meaningful and those are the things that I focus on. But I'm not like running around the house telling them to throw on your yarmulke and telling them to say this blessing or that blessing, or to study this thing. I feel like it will come to them as they get older.

Belief: Do you consider yourself the Jewish pop star and the answer to the Christmas albums that we see dropping this time of year?

Matisyahu: I just wanted to make Hanukkah songs. Hanukkah is the (Jewish) holiday that is the most mainstream in America. I felt, I am the Jew who is the most mainstream, who is giving people a glimpse into Judaism via my music. I felt a real strong connection and still do with Hanukkah. So it started out by doing concerts on Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights tour, and then, yeah, let's make some Hanukkah songs. Let me make a Hanukkah song that kids can listen to, party to and get the spirituality of it, because it is not just about dreidels and having fun. There is a depth to the holiday. So I tried to combine those things into a song.

The Belief Blog's Hanukkah kitsch gift list

Belief: Why are there so few notable Hanukkah songs?

Matisyahu: The Jews were too busy writing Christmas songs. All of those songs are written by Jews - Irving Berlin, "White Christmas" and "Jingle Bells" - all those songs are written by Jews. ... The Jewish people are smart, they know where they can make a buck or two.

Belief: Do you look up to other artists who have made Hanukkah songs?

Matisyahu: It is not "other," it is just one - Adam Sandler. He wrote one Hanukkah song, it is the only Hanukkah song in my book that has ever been written. It made us all feel great and, whatever it was, 10, 15 years ago, Jews felt good when that song came out.

Belief: Does it bother you that his song is "the only Hanukkah song that has ever been written"?

Matisyahu: I feel like, let the Christians have their time. It is Christmas, there are a lot more Christians in this country than Jews. For us, for Jews, it is not the biggest holiday in the world. It is not the most meaningful one. It is good, but who cares. We don't have to be always equal with them. We are a smaller people. Our impact on the world is tremendous. We don't need people recognizing all the time.

Belief: Two years ago this interview would have been very different. In a year, if we were to talk again, where would you see yourself, what do you hope to be doing?

Matisyahu: In a year from now I hope to have another record out. I don't see myself as making any more drastic changes. I think I just hopefully keep growing, keep evolving.

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Belief • Judaism • Music

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.