What do you think of when you hear the words “Hasidic Jew?” Probably the last thing to come to mind would be rapper. But that is exactly what Matthew Paul Miller, better known as Matisyahu, epitomizes. By blending traditional Jewish themes with reggae, rock, beat box, and hip-hop, Matisyahu defies most racial boundaries as an unexpected but talented artist. His race and religion is not a detriment, but a blessing and he treats it as such. Singing of self-proclaimed “songs of love and healing,” he effectively spreads the messages of his religion and beliefs.
Dressed in traditional Hasidic Jew attire complete with a black fedora and long beard, Matisyahu is constantly surprising audiences with his music. His major hit song, “King without a Crown” was a Top 40 hit and was plastered all over MTV and the radio. He was even named as the Top Reggae artist of 2006 by Billboard. Matisyahu appeals to both young and old audiences as he delivers messages of Bible stories accompanied with a hip, catchy reggae beat. His vocal style mixes traditional Rasta Roots with a dub sound. His lyrics can be deeply spiritual at times, while other tracks are lighter in tone. Some of his musical inspirations include Bob Marley, Phish, and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Most of his songs are completely in English although he does occasionally use some Yiddish and Hebrew terms.
Matisyahu – King Without A Crown
Although he may not look like the stereotypical rapper, Matisyahu performs with “crooning, spell-binding vocals” (Meadows) that create a unique and refreshing sound. Equally impressive is his ability to take a genre such as rap and use it in an atypical way to spread positive messages instead of the hate and degradation that is common in many rap songs. Matisyahu uses his race and religion to separate him from other similar artists. His culture makes him so dissimilar from the rest of the rap artists that people really pay attention when they hear his music in combination with his exterior presence. In essence, he stands out. The intrigue surrounding Matisyahu negotiates the two different representations of self and industry stunningly.
He stays true to himself, his religion, and his music without conforming to the standard message, style, stereotype, and influence that comes with traditional rap music. In Matisyahu’s case, his race and unique representation of himself is a tremendous benefit because he is so distinctive. Most are pleasantly surprised when they hear his music after previously judging him based on looks alone. In a genre primarily dominated by African Americans, Matisyahu successfully differentiates himself from the rest of the pack not only with his looks, but also and most importantly with his unique and refreshing musical styles. Disregarding industry pressures, Matisyahu delivers inspirational music without compromising who he is.