Downtown Crowd

Matisyahu Talks Music Career, Touring & Cultural Identity

Juliana Ronderos

Matisyahu is a reggae, hip-hop and alternative artist known widely for tracks such as King Without a Crown and One Day. Born Matthew Paul Miller, Matisyahu is Miller’s stage name under which he has built a lengthy career spanning multiple genres.

Matisyahu is most known for his fusion of reggae, hip-hop and rock sounds that create a distinctly bold style unique to him. For nearly two decades, he’s kept his creative spirit aflame by evolving his sound, melding genres and testing the limits of the musical traditions that have inspired him. He outwardly embraces both the spirit of reggae and his roots in Judaism through his lyricism and music. Many of Matisyahu’s songs explore spiritual themes, drawn from his own spiritual experiences growing up in and around Jewish culture.

Dowtown Crowd had the opportunity to catch up with Matisyahu and talk about his upcoming tour in support of his forthcoming EP, Hold The Fire, which is set to be released on February 2. Matisyahu will kick off his latest tour at Vinyl Music Hall in downtown Pensacola on January 31. Tickets start at $33.50 and can be purchased online at To learn more about Matisyahu and his work, check out @Matisyahu on Facebook and Instagram.

DTC: You have experimented with a variety of genres throughout your career. What artists or specific influences have helped to inspire you and your music?

Matisyahu: At the current moment, the music most inspiring to me has been Afropop artists. Black Sheriff has been an influential artist for me over the last couple of years in terms of some of the music that I’m going to be releasing now. In terms of live music, Phish is always one of my top inspirations. They’re one of the only bands that I actually go watch for fun. In terms of other inspiration, I mean, what’s going on right now. Israel is pretty inspirational in the sense that it’s important and affects my music in the sense that my Jewish identity kind of brings me back to the beginning of my career.

DTC: Can you tell me more about the origin of your name?

Matisyahu: Matisyahu is the character in the story of Hanukkah. He is the high priest and has a family of sons called the Maccabee soldiers. They are led by Judah Maccabee and defeat the Syrian army, which infiltrated Jerusalem and destroyed the temple and fought off the destruction for a few more years until the Second Temple was destroyed. So yeah, it’s [the name of] a biblical character.

DTC: What was it like becoming a popular musician in a religious environment? How did people in your community react to your fame and success?

Matisyahu: Well, initially, there were a lot of people that were questioning it. But once I started having some success, most of the religious Chabad community where I was living in Crown Heights [Brooklyn, New York] was pretty supportive in the sense that they felt like one of their own was out there, and as long as I was representing them in a positive light, I think they felt it was a powerful or meaningful experience.

DTC: How do your religious or spiritual values inform or influence your music?

Matisyahu: Well, I’m not really religious in the sense of a religion. You know what I’m saying? I do believe in God, and I do still practice Judaism, at times, in certain ways. It influences [the music] in the sense that my lyrics and my whole approach to music, I wouldn’t say only comes from a spiritual place, but it definitely originated in some ways from my Jewish identity .So, with what’s happening now with antisemitism, I feel that aspects come back to me because it [spirituality] wasn’t necessarily the main focus of my work for the last decade. It has been a little bit less centered on God, less centered on Judaism and more just about life, existential experience, spirituality, struggles, everyday struggles, like the human experience more. In some ways, it was like a return to who I was before I was religious, and that’s kind of been at the forefront of the music, even though it’s always been informed by my experience within Judaism and specifically, Hasidic Judaism. As of lately, I’m noticing those like very strong Jewish feelings coming back up.

The music has always been kind of influenced by my original experiences and by the Hasidic experience that I had and my Jewish identity. Over time, it [spiritual experiences] became less like the central force of it. And, in a way, I kind of came back to in some sense who I was prior to my becoming Hasidic. With what’s happening now and like a lot of antisemitism and after the massacre, I feel like all the original Jewish identity is like coming in strong and I feel like that whole thing is like an ebb and flow. You know what I mean? At different times, it [spiritual themes] becomes more central in my music, and other times it falls into the background of the human experience or my personal experience.

DTC: Can you tell me a little about your upcoming EP?

Matisyahu: The EP is called Hold The Fire, and it has a handful of songs on it that I recorded last winter and spring. The concept is sort of an exploration of the idea of being able to have stamina and endurance as an artist and as a human being.

DTC: What can people expect from your live performances?

Matisyahu: The live shows are a real mixture of things. I try to incorporate the big songs like One Day, Jerusalem, Time of Your Song and King Without that a Crown. Then, I try to play at least one song off of every album, if possible. And then I would say about 40 percent of the show is improvisation—so, different types of jams, where I will blend different lyrics from different songs and kind of explore through the music. So, [the live shows are] really a combination of some really hard-hitting roots, reggae songs, and then some great rock improvisations and jabs. There’s also a hip-hop aspect to what I do. I think it’s all very organic. In some ways, it’s kind of loose. I think the show is empowering; I think it ideally leads people into some sort of joyful, ecstatic feeling of unification with the music and the people in the room. Especially now, when people are feeling alone, and [there is] a lot of separation. Like last night, we played a show, and I feel that you can really notice a difference from the start of the show to the end. It feels like everyone let down their guard and became unified, and that’s always the goal of my shows. On this upcoming tour, I think I’m going to also be trying to play the songs from the new EP as well, so it’ll be a mixture of all those things.

DTC: A dollar of every ticket sale for your live shows goes to support the Last Prisoner Project—a nonprofit organization dedicated to cannabis criminal justice reform. What inspired you to support this specific nonprofit?

Matisyahu: I was brought into it by my manager who has had some success with that program with some of his other bands. And it’s a great cause—it’s people who are incarcerated for marijuana offenses. Marijuana, as we know, should have never been illegal. The fact that it was [illegal] ruined people’s lives. It is now legal, and there’s still people sitting in jails or getting out of jails whose lives have been destroyed. So, we try to give money to help people in that situation.