Matisyahu has never followed styles or trends. He doesn’t even follow the setlist.
The reggae rapper took Billboard on a journey as he and his tourmates prepared for a show, with his Festival of Light tour reaching the snowy state of Vermont on Dec. 16. It’s no ordinary occasion: Matisyahu’s annual series of shows always coincides with Hanukkah, and the near-capacity gig at Burlington’s Higher Ground marks the first evening of the holiday.
Billboard‘s crew got to hang with the rapper at soundcheck and watch him get into the zone with a few pushups. Later, in the hours before the show, we observe Matisyahu in a quiet moment of prayer and reflection, and the rapper allowed the crew to look on as he ran through his vocal warm-ups in his trailer.
Once the house lights go down and the famous disco dreidel is illuminated above the swaying crowd, the devout, socially conscious Jewish rapper takes the stage and sinks into his element. “The best part about my job are the moments when I’m on stage and everything fades away. I just feel that direct connection. That’s the thing I think I can really give to people,” Matis explains. “We’re on the road so much and away from our families… With this group, it feels like truly that this is our family.”
|Exclusive: Matisyahu Tour Photos|
Matisyahu’s appearance has certainly changed in the decade or so since he first broke through with his own brand of soulful storytelling. Having moved on from Orthodox Judiasm (and the beard and yarmulke that came with the faith) in 2011, his face is now clean-cut and he dons little more than a white T-shirt for his nightly endurance test under the stage lights. Still, the devout artist carries a quiet intensity, both onstage and off, and aims to share his spiritual inspirations with his faithful fanbase. “I’ve had moments where music has felt like it’s saved my life. At the end of the day, that’s the kind of music I strive to make,” he explains.
Matisyahu’s fifth album, Akeda, dropped in June and peaked at no. 4 on Billboard’s Top Rap Albums. His most personal collection to date, the songs on Akeda take a slighter darker and starker tone than his previous party-starting singles. Still, recent tracks like the anthemic “Champion” and “Daddy’s Little Girl” — a slow-burning reggae duet with acclaimed soul singer and opening act Judith Hill (of The Voice and 20 Feet From Stardom fame) — fit nicely alongside tried-and-true crowd pleasers like “Youth,” Jerusalem” and his biggest hit, “King Without a Crown.” A setlist is handed out before the show, but by now, the crew knows not to put too much stock in it. “Matis definitely keeps us on our toes,” says bandmate and musical director Stu Brooks. “We do write a setlist but we rarely adhere to it. He won’t feel a song if he’s not feeling it.”
Tonight, he’s feeling it, and the artist thanks his fans for giving him the juice. “Sometimes as a performer … you feel you don’t have the energy, especially when you’re on tour,” he explains. “Sometimes going to a show and I won’t feel up for it. Then when I see the people in the show and I see how they’re connecting with the songs, it will be like a reversal. It’ll inspire me and wake me up.”
Matisyahu’s Festival of Light tour rolls through Washington, D.C. (12/22); Philadelphia (12/23); South Orange, NJ (12/24); Sugar Loaf, NY (12/27); and Ridgefield, CT (12/28) before winding down in Northhampton, MA on 12/29.