Monday, June 9, 2008

Interview with Mattisyahu - as promised

On a humid night a few summers ago, I had the chance to interview Matisyahu, who may be past the peak of his interesting rise to pop consciousness, but his story (and the fact that he is playing a gig in STL at the end of June) make him relevant to this blog.

by Tom Bombadil --originally from Hip Hop Congress
An Album Review, Show Review, and Interview

--My sound man, Marcus Black, and I were taken outback of the venue on a fire escape overlooking the Mississippi River. Fitting that the venue was Mississippi Nights. As we settled into our ten minute allotment, we jumped right in asking about his choice in reggae as opposed to rock or hip hop.

Matisyahu spoke about the universal qualities of all human beings, and how reggae spoke to that inside each of us. "There are twelve vessels when this world was created, and one of them is Victory, or overcoming. People have a need to overcome and feel success, feel victory, and reggae has always and will always speak to that inside each of us."

Matisyahu said that he was well-received by all types of fans, regardless of their religion. "People come for genuine music, and that is what we want to deliver."

I found him to be very humble, yet completely confident. His offstage personality might seem stand-offish, but when I asked him about his fears, I think his true self came through.

"I fear that I want to progress. That I want to move forward. In terms of my skill, my singing, all that. Relating with my band, and the audience and the main fear is more of a subconscious fear is that I won't be able to do that. I'm not so afraid of the lifestyle or that type of thing. No person should be so sure of themself until their dying day, but I don't have an outright fear of the drugs, and that type of stuff, because I feel like I have such a strong foundation in religion. I have a wife and a child on the way. When you get to a certain point and you're making the right decisions, and you have been making the right decisions for awhile, it is hard to imagine yourself slipping."

I had heard many people posit that Matisyahu had made this move to become more religious as a marketing technique. They said it was purely gimmick, a career move. I didn't believe it, but I had to ask, "What do you say to people who think this is a gimmick?"

He didn't wait even one second to respond: "It's obviously not a gimmick. It's my life. My life's not a gimmick." What came next was an invitation: "For people who say that, they probably have never seen the music, and I don't blame them. I would probably think it was a gimmick too. 'Here's some Hassidic guy doing reggae, it sounds like 2 Live Jew.' It doesn't make sense. But when it is a spoof, it is like ripping off both cultures. People that know my story and my music, and know my life, know that this is just the way it has gone."

Finally, after witnessing what seemed like an audience-gone-to-synagogue/church, I brought up Jimi Hendrix's concept of "The Electric Church." Hendrix wanted to take this spiritual, musical experience from place to place. Was Matisyahu's reggae a religious, spiritual, and prayer-like experience? "You're not supposed to say God's name in vain. You can only say God's name in a prayer. But tonight, when I said the Shema (the cornerstone of Jewish prayer) I said God's name fully. I made a decision that when I say that, it's not just a song, it is a prayer. It really is a prayer. Just the fact there is music in the background, doesn't mean it is not a prayer. It is a prayer when I say it."

While I had trouble enjoying "Live at Stubb's" I think that is more out of disappointment that anything else. Matisyahu demonstrated his unique ability to blend many cultures and music, while at the same time maintaining his own religious beliefs in an attempt to elevate all of his audience members. A recent appearance with Trey Anastasio at Bonnaroo cemented a relationship that now has Trey and Matisyahu currently touring together. The upside is tremendous, and I fully recommend checking him out.

For more information on Matisyahu, check out his website

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