Matisyahu is hard to pick out in a crowd these days. He’s tall, with cropped hair and a hint of stubble – the thick, prominent beard that marked him as the world’s first Hasidic reggae star is long gone. Sitting down on the bed at the back of his tour bus, parked backstage Sunday at New York’s Catalpa Festival, he explains that anonymity has its benefits.
“Friday I woke up in Blacksburg, Virginia, and rode my motorcycle into the Blue Ridge Mountains” for Floyd Fest, he says, speaking so softly that the air conditioner threatens to drown him out. “It was gorgeous, hippies everywhere, hacky sacks, grilled cheese sandwiches, and I got to hang there for a day. No one recognizes me, so I can kind of be incognito and just walk around the festival and just chill with people.”
His previous look made him a poster boy for the Hasidic Jewish community after he burst onto the scene with his bombastic reggae-rap in the mid-2000s. This past December, he parted ways with his beard, which was his most obvious calling card. He told Rolling Stone at the time that shaving wasn’t about shedding his religion, but rather was a way of being able to trust himself, and perhaps to find a bit of the anonymity he had lost over the years.
In the intervening eight months, he’s seen a sort of schism develop in his fan base between those who supported him for his music and those who supported him because they felt he was the first mainstream star to represent their culture. “Some fans have been accepting and have shown me a lot of love,” he says, “and others have been very hurt, and therefore very judgmental.”
Matisyahu has put much of that behind him on his first post-beard album, July’s Spark Seeker, which he credits to working with Kool Kojak, who produced the album and quickly became a friend. “It’s like going back and making beats with your best friend from high school in the bedroom and joking around and having fun, except that dude is fucking seriously talented, not just some kid,” Matisyahu says.
They recorded in Los Angeles, with stops in New York and Israel, which brought a more varied cultural feel to the album. “We made the whole thing into a trip, a project,” Matisyahu says. “As opposed to me and Kojak in L.A. in the hills looking out at the freeway or whatever, it created a whole world vibe, a whole new voice into the record.”
Matisyahu isn’t the only Catalpa performer who’s altered his identity: headliner Snoop Dogg recently declared himself Snoop Lion, marking the latest foray into reggae-rap for a hip-hop icon (after Nas’ Distant Relatives EP with Damian Marley in 2010). Matisyahu says he’s not surprised.
“It’s been happening for a while,” he says of the fusion. “As time has gone on, reggae culture and music gets more infused in the mainstream.”