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Rapper explores evolving faith

Driven by Hasidic beliefs, Matisyahu pulls from diverse inspiration

Matthew Paul Miller, aka Matisyahu, will perform Saturday night at the Knitting Factory.
Matthew Paul Miller, aka Matisyahu, will perform Saturday night at the Knitting Factory.

In 2011, Hasidic rapper Matisyahu cut off his distinctive locks and beard, biblical requirements of his religion, and posted a photo of his new clean-shaven look online. “No more (Hasidic) reggae superstar,” the caption read. The Internet lost its mind.

Matisyahu (real name Matthew Miller) is best known for incorporating his strict Hasidic beliefs into his music, and such a dramatic change in appearance suggested that perhaps he had abandoned his faith. Although he still identifies as Jewish, Matisyahu says his belief system has evolved beyond the strictures he initially set for himself, and that it’s too complicated for a simple label.

It still comes as a shock to him, he says, that fans take such fervent interest in his personal life.

“Sometimes I get caught off guard, but I guess people have a very clear definition of who I was or who I am,” Matisyahu said. “I guess I’m not those things exactly. That’s what my music and my whole trip has been about – blending and bringing things together and evolving. Things aren’t so black and white for me at this point. But I guess that’s tough for some people to understand. I try not to think about it too much.”

Matisyahu’s fifth studio album, “Akeda,” its title a reference to the story of Abraham and Isaac, proves that he hasn’t abandoned his spirituality. His lyrics are heavy with biblical imagery and snatches of Hebrew, and although he drops a few hints here and there regarding his changing feelings toward faith, Matisyahu says his primary guide when writing is the music itself.

“I try to pull myself out of the picture when I write and just let the music inspire me,” he said. “There’s a switch that I turn on in a different part of my brain. This record was mainly free association, so I’ll just write about my life and my experiences and the things that matter to me, the things that have touched me or the struggles I’m having. I write about that, but I use the music as my inspiration to get into that realm.”

He points to R&B and electronic artists like the Weeknd, James Blake and Twin Shadow as significant inspirations on the latest album, adding that he wanted “Akeda” to have a more “throwback, roots-reggae kind of vibe” than previous releases.

“Every record I’ve made has had a different feel; there’s an evolution in the music,” he said. “I don’t ever try to re-create what I’ve already done, and I’m still listening to music and developing as a listener and as a musician. I’m constantly being influenced by other genres and other styles, so when I go to write a record, I take the influences of the moment and use those to blend and create my new sound.

“I’ve always had influences from so many different genres and have been interested in so many different styles. I never saw myself as being locked into one thing.”

That desire to break down boundaries and defy classification applies to both his religious convictions and his own popular image, one that was so distinctive (few people in the rap scene looked like or talked about the same things as Matisyahu) he found it difficult to shake. It’s still sort of disarming to look at current pictures of Matisyahu and see a very different Matthew Miller staring back.

“When I started, I had a very clear cut take on the world and a very clear belief system,” he said. “Over time, that’s expanded, evolved, opened up. I’ve had 10 years of life to write about, and I continue to get inspiration from different places. … It’s amazing to have the creativity and the music as a way of expressing and celebrating my life.”

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