Matisyahu is the Hebrew name and stage name of musician Paul Miller, a Jewish American artist whose music incorporates elements of reggae, beat boxing, and alternative rock. His religious beliefs had been a core component of his music especially during his early years, and Matisyahu in Hebrew means “gift of God”.
Paul Miller was born in 1979 and he spent most of his formative years in Westchester County, New York. As a child, he was brought up as a Reconstructionist Jew and attended Hebrew school. But upon reaching his teenage years he was a rebel. He began taking hallucinogenic drugs. He dropped out of high school and actually followed the rock band Phish on their music tour.
Eventually, he came back to school, reconnected with his Jewish heritage, and also went through rehab.
Paul Miller began his professional career as MC Truth. But he changed it to Matisyahu soon enough as he launched his debut album Shake of the Dust…Arise in 2004. The name of the album was from a Hebrew liturgical poem, and it signaled to everyone that his religious beliefs would be a crucial part of his music.
His albums include Youth (2006), Light (2009), Spark Seeker, (2012), and Akeda (2014).
His style was different, to say the least. He mixed in reggae and hip-hop with the jazz style of scat singing, along with the hazzan style of Jewish songful worship. His lyrics were mostly in English, though they’re peppered with Yiddish and Hebrew.
His Jewish nature was also a part of his look during the early part of his career. He sported long locks and a prominent beard, which was a common look among conservative Jews.
However, he shaved off his beard in 2011 in an effort to feel less “boxed in”. A 2012 music video also showed him with bleached hair and without the traditional yarmulke. These changes caused a massive stir among Jewish fans.
Religion and Politics
It’s inevitable that Matisyahu’s identity and association with Judaism would become target of political attacks. While his songs are mostly about peace and human understanding and he has collaborated with Muslim musicians, he has also been targeted by anti-Semitic organizations.
Perhaps the most notorious scandal was in 2015, when Matisyahu was dis-invited from the Rototom Sunsplash festival in Spain at the behest of the anti-Israel organization BDS. The move of the festival organizers drew worldwide outrage, and the Spanish government condemned the festival’s move as well.
Matisyahu was then re-invited after festival organizers apologized. His performance went through peacefully, though some Palestinian flags were waved by a few audience members.
It was an event that is still remembered today, and Matisyahu hasn’t quite forgotten it either. His collaborative single with rapper Kosha Dillz is called “Dodging Bullets”, and it’s expressly ant-BDS.
Nowadays, Matisyahu juggles the demands of music with his duties as a father to a 2-year old daughter who was born with a heart defect. He has been sober and drug-free for some time now, and he plans to remain that way even he as he creates more music that remains authentic to who he is now.