LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It’s not easy being a big celebrity in a close-knit Orthodox Jewish community.
Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu, who achieved unlikely pop success in 2005 with the single “King Without a Crown,” tries to live a simple life with his young family in Crown Heights, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.
His two sons go to school across the road, the kosher pizza shop is around the corner, and he walks to temple three times a day. It sounds fairly idyllic, not unlike a “shtetl,” the Yiddish term for a small Jewish town or village.
But Matisyahu can blend in only so far with his traditional full beard and dark suit. People often ask him for money, or accuse him of setting a bad example if he happens to be praying while not wearing his hat and jacket.
“I do get a lot of crap,” Matisyahu, 30, — whose real name is Matthew Miller — said with resignation during a recent interview in his tour bus.
“It’s the Jewish way. They don’t care. There’s no space. There aren’t those typical sensitivities to people. Some people are (sensitive), but you get a lot of people who have no sense of boundary and are pushy.”
The old Matisyahu tried to be accommodating, fearful of being labeled an arrogant celebrity. He is slowly learning to push back when people test his patience, but realizes the attention is the price you pay for your riches and fame.
“It’s what you sign up for,” he said. “When famous people are pissed off about all this stuff, it’s like, ‘What did you expect? Don’t tell me you didn’t want the fame a little bit.’”
But the nosy neighbors are being replaced by cheering crowds for the foreseeable future as Matisyahu hits the road to promote his third album, “Light,” due in stores on August 25.
He hopes the Sony Music release will establish him as a career artist rather than consign him to one-hit-wonder status. “King Without a Crown,” a rap-style treatise about submitting to God in daily life, won heavy airplay on rock and top-40 radio stations in 2005. It was a rare feat for a reggae song, or for any song so avowedly religious.
Apart from late reggae pioneer Bob Marley, his various offspring, and the British band UB40, reggae never gained much traction in the United States. And Hasidic Jews were not exactly noted practitioners. Matisyahu sees himself as a savior
of the genre.
“Reggae music, in a lot of ways, got really stagnant,” he said. “You see a lot of the reggae bands play today and it’s the same horn patches on keyboards that they’ve been playing for 15 years, and not in a retro-cool kind of way. It’s totally nauseating to me.
“We’re taking elements of reggae music, but totally crossing over into different genres and blending different things.”
Indeed, he says that is how reggae developed in the first place, when Marley blended rock ‘n’ roll and ska. The concert video for “King Without a Crown” shows the extent of the new culture clash: There he is stalking the stage, the tassels of his tallit katan undershirt visible under his black jacket. His fedora comes off when he dives into the crowd but is quickly replaced by a yarmulke.
Matisyahu was not always so observant. He was raised in a moderately religious family, and dropped out of high school to join the hordes of pot-smoking fans who follow the jam-band Phish from concert to concert. When he signed up for college, he became intrigued by Orthodox Judaism and eventually immersed himself in deep study of the Torah.
The next stop on his unusual journey: reggae music, without the requisite marijuana, of course. Indeed, his songs often warn about the perils of getting high.
He released his debut album in 2004, “Shake off the Dust ... Arise,” and built a following with his energetic shows. In 2006, he received a Grammy nomination for the follow-up, “Youth,” from which “King Without a Crown” was drawn. He lost — perhaps inevitably — to Ziggy Marley, Bob’s eldest son.
Even though the new album is called “Light,” Matisyahu taps into darker subjects, like death and suffering.
“You get to a certain point where you realize it’s not eternal, you’re not going to be around forever,” he said. “You start to deal with that concept and what it means. For me, what it’s meant, in terms of putting a positive spin on this, is just an appreciation of life.”
As he sings in the track “I Will be Light,” we have got “one tiny moment in time ... to shine.” And few musicians stick out as much as Matisyahu.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte