Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Matthew Miller was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania on June 30th 1979, corresponding to the Jewish date of the 5th of Tamuz 5740. Shortly after his birth, the Miller family moved to Berkeley, CA and eventually settled in White Plains, NY. Growing up, Matisyahu's parents sent him to Hebrew School a couple of times a week, but like many kids, he resisted the additional school hours and was frequently threatened with expulsion for disrupting the lessons.
By the age of 14, Matthew Miller slid comfortably into the laid-back lifestyle of a teenage hippie. Having fallen in with the "Dead-Head" crowd, he grew dreadlocks and wore his Birkenstocks all winter long. He played his bongos in the lunchroom and learned how to beat-box in the back of class. By 11th grade, despite his carefree days, Matisyahu couldn't ignore the void in his life. After nearly burning down his chemistry class, he knew his mission must begin immediately. He decided to set off on a camping trip in Colorado. Away from his suburban life in White Plains, Matisyahu had the opportunity to take an introspective look at himself and contemplate his environment. It was there in the awe-inspiring landscape of the Rocky Mountain's, that Matisyahu had an eye-opening realization: there is a G-d.
I'm a little ambivalent about reggae. I do love the old school stuff like Bob Marley, Toot's and the Maytals Prerssure Drop, Desmond Dekker's The Israelite, and By the Water's of Babylon. But much of reggae, especially the newer stuff gets tiresome. Blame George Lucas, but more than half of the songs they play on the college station I get on my ride home conjure an auditory and visual image of a skankin Jar-Jar Binks.
When I heard "King without a Crown", it was instant gooseflesh. The accent was so authentic, I just though it was odd the singer was referring to "HaShem" and "Moschiach", instead of Jah, but there is so much borrowing from the Old Testament in Rastafarianism that I just shrugged it off. When the announcer mention "That was by the controversial Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu.." I literally drove right to the record store to buy it. I can't remember the last time I've been so thrilled to discover a new artist.
After Colorado, his spiritual curiosity piqued and Matisyahu took his first trip to Israel. There, for the first time in his life, he felt a connection to the G-d he discovered in Colorado. Israel was a major turning point. Matisyahu relished the time he spent there, praying, exploring, and dancing in Jerusalem. In every nook he encountered, his dormant Jewish identity stirred into consciousness.
Living in a neighborhood with a small Hasidic congregation, I feel a strong affinity with Orthodox Jews. Matisyahu's music brings this to life for me in a completely different way. The sincere devotion to G-d and longing for the Messiah are so moving I find myself weeping uncontrolably during certain songs, which I don't recommend when you have a long commute. I was not at all surprised to discover that the Chabad-Lubavitch shul he attended after moving to New York was the one that Shlomo Carlebach attended.
A person who was once skeptical of authority and rules, Matisyahu began to explore and eventually fully take on the Lubavitch Hasidic lifestyle. He thrived on the discipline and structure of Judaism, making every attempt to abide by Jewish Law. The Chabad-Lubavitch philosophy proved to be a powerful guide for Matisyahu. It surrounded him with the spiritual dialogue and intellectual challenge he had been seeking for the past decade. The turmoil and frustration of his search subsided, and now, 2 years later, Matisyahu lives in Crown Heights, splitting his time between the stage and his yeshiva.
I have absolutely no vocabulary for musical criticism. Fortunately Matisyahu's record company has posted the entire video of "King without a Crown" on their website. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.