Many people may not know that the New York bred, Jewish roots reggae hip hop artist, Matisyahu, is a HUGE L.A. Kings Hockey fan. So much so, in fact, that the sold out show, “The Drop: Matisyahu at the GRAMMY Museum” was pushed a little behind because naturally, the Kings had gone into overtime. Unexpected twists and turns enhance the beauty of Matisyahu. His soul-searching new album, Akeda and his heart-opening GRAMMY Museum performance painstakingly illustrated the nature of a man most of us never knew.
We were first introduced to the “King Without A Crown” star, whose name translates to “Matthew” in English, hopping vibrantly across international stages, wearing all the trappings of the quintessential Hasidic Jewish man– complete with yarmulke and a beard so larger-than-life that it took on a life of its own. However, at this performance the mystical artist appeared on stage as an unearthed man, liberated from burial under a legendary persona so heavy that his new image was almost unrecognizable. But remarkably beautiful. Still spiritually invested in his faith, the Matisyahu of today has transitioned into a very different person: an understated, humbled, sans-miraculous-beard person.
Before his performance, donning the most casual and muted colors of browns and grays, a simple cap and jeans, Matisyahu sat on the intimate Clive Davis’ theater stage, across from his interviewer, Scott Goldman, Vice President of the GRAMMY Foundation. The Q&A session, which explored the inspiration for his new album, Akeda, felt more like an excavation, as more and more shrouded layers were removed to reveal the true artist, inspiration, husband, father and human conveyed on the new album.
He revealed that shaving his beard was a personal choice after the revelation that he’d been lost and hiding behind all the rules and formalities of immersing himself in Hasidic Jewish rites (including growing a long beard, not shaking anyone’s hand and not wearing glasses on the street, to “avoid seeing women in billboards”) and searching for so much outside of himself. One day, without alerting anyone, not even his wife, he decided to shave it all off. It was a move that both shocked and polarized his fan and family base. This unforeseen reaction made him question everything. He found himself venturing into the secular world, steered down a path of both inspiring discovery (Spotify and Pandora) and devastating destruction (addiction and divorce).
Akeda emerged from the rubble of transition. This record came “from the guts [and from] feeling misunderstood by a lot of people.” Returning to his roots, this album was penned in Jerusalem, ironically, in what unintentionally ended up being the family home of the “last-known murderer of the Jews.” This sweet family took him in despite the sins of their ancestor, teaching a new lesson of forgiveness and compassion. Black and white now appeared gray in the reflection of his cumulative experiences. Akeda, produced by Stu Brooks, features “a lot of first takes, a loose and raw feel with lots of space that’s all over the map.”
Upping the intimacy, all the while still seated, Matisyahu removed his hat, revealing a mass of salt and pepper hair, and topped off the evening with a passionate six song acoustic set. Standing beside him as sole accompaniment, his guitarist Aaron Dugan (Trevor Hal, Bootsy Collins) played a vintage, mint-colored electric guitar in clean tone peppering achingly beautiful effects here and there, as the mood called. Though the album was in its infancy, no set list was needed, as the two instinctually fed off of each other’s energy and masterfully crafted songs.
Matisyahu called out the songs he felt suited the moment, while Dugan would sing or sometimes mouth forgotten lyrics of songs to jog the artist’s memory. The audience sat in awe as Matisyahu, eyes closed, effortlessly blended his signature smooth voice with reggae, rap, beatboxing and spoken Hebrew. If Dugan’s eyes weren’t fixed on the artist, anticipating his every move, he too, would close his eyes, allowing his body to feel the music and groove with the guitar. The two closed the set with “Crossroads,” a song from his last album, and “Champion,” an inspirational song written for the L.A. Kings in hopes they get picked up for the Championship season. After wowing the audience, they received a standing ovation at the end of the evening.
Akeda is available now.
Sick for So Long
Learning The Hard Way
Vow of Silence