With the recent conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas as background, the music by Matisyahu, the Grammy-nominated Jewish reggae singer, is all the more poignant.
"I'm a strong supporter of Israel," Matisyahu says. "I've recorded in Israel. I have tons of friends and musicians that live there. To me, it's one of the most, probably the most, beautiful place in the world. And it's very, very fraught with conflict, sort of like the history of the Jewish people."
Matisyahu will perform with his band, the Dub Trio, at Washington's 9:30 Club on Thursday, part of his sixth annual "Festival of Light" tour, featuring seven unique performances around the country during Hanukkah.
"I've always felt a strong connection with Hanukkah, being that my name is Matisyahu, and Matisyahu was the key player in the Hanukkah story with his son, Judah Maccabee," explains the singer. (Matthias — also called Matisyahu, meaning "Gift of God" in Hebrew — was the Jewish priest who, in the second century B.C., led the Jews in a revolt against their oppressors and regained the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. When the Jewish priests went to relight the temple's menorah, there was only enough oil for one night, though it miraculously lasted for eight, leading to the lighting of the menorah for eight nights during the annual holiday.)
Matisyahu timed the release of his latest single, "Happy Hanukkah," last month to coincide with the tour, though he will play songs from all his albums.
It would be easy to pigeonhole Matisyahu's music simply as Jewish reggae. His first album, "Shake Off the Dust, Arise," released in 2004, combined roots reggae beats with lyrics based on Hasidic Jewish teachings and prayers, and these themes have remained prevalent in much of his music since.
Yet his full discography is surprisingly diverse, and includes albums heavily influenced by reggae, dance hall, hip-hop and traditional Jewish prayer songs, as well as albums featuring soothing acoustic rock and, recently, catchy pop-inspired tunes.
Originally famous for being the Hasidic reggae star, Matisyahu transformed himself in 2011, cutting off his signature long beard and dying his hair blond, and moving away from Hasidism. His subsequent album, "Spark Seeker," released in June, featured a fresh pop sound and more universal themes. Though some songs on the album incorporate aspects of Hasidic Judaism — such as "Bal Shem Tov," about the rabbi considered the founder of the sect — others, such as the album's two singles, "Sunshine" and "Live Like A Warrior," express more universal themes about love, hope and personal strength.
The singer's devotion to Judaism runs deep. Born in 1979, Matthew Paul Miller rebelled against his traditional Jewish upbringing in White Plains, N.Y. While finishing high school at a wilderness program in Bend, Ore., he discovered reggae, particularly Bob Marley, and hip-hop — and soon after, his faith.
"I was interested in the connection between the Old Testament and reggae music, and that eventually led me, as I was sort of a spiritual seeker as a kid, to want to have a stronger connection with God," Matisyahu explained.
Mr. Miller studied music at the New School in Manhattan, and after graduating in 2002, moved to Crown Heights in Brooklyn, where he affiliated with the Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Judaism. He devoted himself to studying the Jewish Torah and the sect's mystical Kabbalah teachings, and working on his music. Around the same time he changed his name to Matisyahu, he wrote "King Without a Crown," which was released on his debut album in 2004 and broke into the Top 40 in 2005. The musician's success was rapid thereafter — his next two albums, "Live at Stubbs" (2005) and "Youth" (2006), went gold, and his songs have peaked in the Top 40 on reggae, rap, alternative, and even pop charts, a testament to his widespread appeal.
"I hope that the feeling that people get when they listen to my music is a feeling of strength, a feeling of love," he said. "I'm a singer, and I'm not a politician, and I have no answers for how to make world peace. All I know is that music — at least in my life — is the most powerful tool for making connections and breaking down barriers between people that feel that they don't have an understanding of each other."
Matisyahu, in fact, has fans of all religions. "Thank God I have many Muslim fans at my shows — religious, devout, women with head coverings and all of that, singing along to the words of my songs," he said. "That makes it worth it to go out there and do what I do."
WHAT: Matisyahu & the Dub Trio's Festival of Light
WHERE: 9:30 Club, 815 V Street NW
WHEN: Thursday, Dec. 13 at 7:00 p.m.