By Harlton Fitzherbert –
Music is a powerful force throughout cultures around the world, and often has deeply religious influences.
Matthew Paul Miller, who goes by his Hebrew name Matisyahu, has impacted American audiences with his dynamic music. His name means “gift of God,” and he is convinced to give back through religious music.
Matisyahu has a unique sound, combining elements of reggae, hip-hop and rap with roots from his Jewish heritage. Matisyahu might even use contemporary reggae to form what can be heard as a Jewish prayer of hazzan style. Reggae originated with the Rastafari movement, and Matisyahu interestingly uses it instead to convey themes that are primarily from Orthodox Judaism.
This fusion of sound and subject matter seems self-conflicting at first, but has been met with widespread approval by his fans. His song “King Without a Crown” made it on the United States charts as a Top 40 in 2005, and his song “Akeda” made iTunes Top 10 in 2014.
Matisyahu often reflects the various teachings he has absorbed in the lyrics of his music. And through that, his music becomes a way for him reach out to the world and share his beliefs for people who are searching for the peace it could bring.
His devotion to God is shown in his song “King Without a Crown,” particularly in the chorus:
What’s this feeling,
My love will rip a hole in the ceiling.
I give myself to you,
From the essence of my being.
And I sing to my God,
Songs of love and healing.
I want Moshiach now,
Time it starts revealing.
Moshiach is the Hebrew word for Messiah, and Matisyahu expresses his love for God and yearning for the Messiah through his music. He also expresses his desire for peace and the cessation of violence in the world through his song “One Day,” which was released 5 years later:
All my live I’ve been waiting for
I’ve been praying for
For the people to say
That we don’t wanna fight no more
They’ll be no more wars
And our children will play
As Matisyahu developed throughout his musical career, he began to discuss broader topics such as peace, and use different musical styles such as rock and jazz. However he still aimed to keep the deep meanings in his songs that use references from the Abrahamic text. As he branched out, he became somewhat less traditional, forgoing his yarmulke in a 2012 online video and even becoming beardless the year before. On his website, he stated:
“No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me…no alias. When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process. It was my choice. My journey: to discover my roots and explore Jewish spirituality—not through books but through real life. At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity…to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.
“Get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth. And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry…you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.”
See the whole excerpt on his Facebook page.
Although his dedication to the strict precepts of Judaism might be questionable, Matisyahu is convinced that his mission is still divine in nature as he continues to produce music. Does this mean that those who still accept him are accepting a more relativistic form of Judaism? It possibly could be. If so, then it might reflect a general change in how people feel about a strict adherence to certain religious customs. Something to think about.
Regardless, in pursuit of the ultimate truth and rebirth he seeks, Matisyahu will undoubtedly continue to refine his music to reflect his beliefs by filling the ears of the people who listen to him. This may in turn, help shape a culture that could influence the future.