The last few years have been a journey of transformational growth and self-inquiry for Matisyahu, who plays at the upcoming inaugural One Love Experience at Lake Casitas Campground on Saturday, October 8. Though he rose to fame just over a decade ago as a one-of-a-kind Orthodox Jewish reggae-rap artist, earning millions of fans with his uplifting and affirmatively faithful singles such as “King Without a Crown,” the new incarnation of Matisyahu may seem unrecognizable to many: silvery-haired, beardless, and singing a much darker tune.
Matisyahu revealed his new appearance in 2011, to the confusion of fans. Had he lost his faith? Why the change? “I’m a human being. I’m not a guru. I’m not a monk or this incredibly enlightened spiritual person. I am a person that has spent a greater part of my life on spirituality and doing inner work, but I certainly don’t feel that has to look like anything,” he said. He needed to break away from the limitations of genre pigeonholing, from the expectations of being nonstop uplifting. “It’s great to have empowering, motivational, inspiring, feel-good hip-hop reggae songs like ‘Sunshine’ or ‘One Day,’ but at a certain point I decided that’s not all that I am. I’m certainly not a person who feels great all the time; on the contrary, I feel kind of crappy most of the time. I want to express the full range of emotion.”
The last few years have seen Matisyahu shedding the more superficial elements of faith-based living and delving deeper internally, even if it has meant embracing and confronting his own darkness. To his dismay, some fans broke allegiance with him when he lost his Hasidic looks. But despite appearances — and indeed, in reaction to those who invest so much value in visages — Matisyahu remains faithful to himself, soberly honoring his own inner truths. “The lesson that I seem to be teaching people is shattering stereotypes,” he said. “The Hasidic guy doing reggae was shattering stereotypes, but I needed to move away from that. Like Abraham breaking his father’s idols, there’s a certain idolatry and ungodliness that comes with having an image and having it become sort of a thing. I needed to break from that image, and the whole thing for me is very fluid and very organic.”
His newest album, 2014’s Akeda, is arguably the best thing he’s ever made, and it certainly breaks the mold — it’s almost a musical self-immolation, a phoenix birthed out of fires. Heavy with grave pianos and a grittier, dubby sound, the rootsy album is deep with themes such as trials and testaments, the darkness that precedes light, and the sacrifices redemption asks of the redeemable. Matisyahu said exploring darker themes has allowed him to come to a “more holistic picture of what life is.” “I think it’s kind of like about the yin and the yang; you can’t have one without the other,” he said. “The idea of not shutting out the darkness, but becoming one with it and using it to feed this bigger picture, is important. To me, music and art is not just a drug to make yourself feel good.”
The Matisyahu of 2016 is one whose skies share sunshine and rainstorms, whose days have tragedies as well as triumphs, and it has allowed him to forge a deeper connection with his listeners. From war veterans to cancer survivors, his music has tapped into the struggles of those who have held onto the light when there seemed to be none. As a One Love headliner, he will bring a profound understanding to the grayer zones of music, faith, and love, and how shedding light on their shadows may bring us closer to all truths, individual and universal.
Matisyahu plays the One Love Experience on Saturday, October 8, at 8:30 p.m. at Lake Casitas Campground (11311 Santa Ana Rd., Ventura). For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit onelovefest.com.