In Pursuit of Popcaan

Four days in Jamaica chasing down Popcaan, the dancehall superstar eyeing a global takeover.

by Lawrence Burney; illustrated by John Garrison
|
Aug 3 2018, 3:00pm

It was about 4:30 AM, and Popcaan had just conducted an intimate prayer circle right in front of me.

Before I could join, he’d zipped the flaps of his backstage artist tent shut, blocking potential spectators like myself from gawking. Then, the 30-year-old born Andrae Sutherland, his family, and his Unruly camp made a united march to the stage at Reggae Sumfest in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

And so there I stood, outside of Popcaan’s tent, far away from any fans, as the dancehall star performed in the distance. To get to this moment, I’d spent the previous 48 hours chasing him all around the island. In fear of another journalist chatting it up with him before me, I decided to stand in the same spot and just wait. My energy was dwindling. My phone’s battery was on two percent. I hadn’t drank any water for hours. The sun began to peak out and my only lifeline was that I could hear Poppy’s rendition of “El Chapo” in the distance. I sang along to stay awake while festival staff surveyed the area to make sure fans weren’t trying to sneak into artist tents while people were away.

When the set ended at 6 AM, the roughly 40 people who were originally outside of the tent returned alongside Popcaan. The musician—and unofficially Jamaica’s natural hair icon—walked in the middle of the crowd, looking surprisingly refreshed after his performance. He ducked inside, his head of security reestablished position, and things picked right back up where they left off—me, miserably tired, charging my dead phone, the clock nearing 7 AM, waiting to secure an interview with a critically-adored dancehall deejay, and the kind of artist you have to travel to Jamaica to speak with in person.

Then, it happened. Popcaan was ready for me. His team led me to the front of the lounge where he was somehow, miraculously, waiting to speak with me. I heard his voice before he entered my field of vision.

“Lawrence!”

Illustration by John Garrison

In the middle of the night a couple days earlier, three hours away in Kingston, all of Knutsford Boulevard was occupied as far as the human eye could reach. Micro groups of people chatting, trading spliffs, or trying to make a quick dollar filled different pockets of the street. The first signs of a steady breeze were starting—now that it was 4 AM and the unrelenting heat of the day had finally worn off. Still, it was warm enough for the dim yellow street lights to accentuate the sheen of sweat on people’s foreheads and brows. The collective chatter, coupled with the liveliness of cars honking and zooming around each other made it feel like the night was much younger, even though the sun would rise in 90 minutes. Suddenly, the streets turned into a scene from The Fast and the Furious. A group of 15 motorcycles revved and appeared out of nowhere, headlights beaming.

I watched from the distance as the group of men hopped off their bikes in unison and approached the door of Triple Century Sports Bar & Grill, a popular restaurant and lounge in New Kingston. As excitement began to peak, the brightness of a blue and pink floral blazer became more noticeable. The man rocking it was, of course, Popcaan. The dancehall deejay had just ended his nearly three-hour set around the corner at the Triple Century Car Park where he was celebrating his 30th birthday and the release of his sophomore album, Forever.

I had been invited to Jamaica by Red Stripe, who served as the main sponsor for Sumfest, the island’s biggest festival which is broken up into two nights: dancehall for one, and the more traditional roots reggae for the other. But in the nights leading up to the festival, my task was to get a hold of an elusive artist who has a reputation for being generally resistant to media. It’d been four years since Popcaan was introduced to the global audience with his Mixpak-released, autobiographical debut album, Where We Come From. And since, the former protege of dancehall god Vybz Kartel has become Drake’s strongest musical ally in Jamaica, laid bars alongside Young Thug, and ended up on a Gorillaz album.

Popcaan has already established himself as a Jamaican cultural icon. Now, with Forever, he hopes to make the musical case for genuine global stardom.

Around 1 AM that night, Poppy walked on the stage at Triple Century Car Park, nasally shouting, “All who seh Kartel fi free seh FREE. And any bomboclaat boy diss Kartel dem dead!” He was paying respects to Vybz Kartel, the now-incarcerated dancehall icon who introduced Popcaan to the masses by making him a member of the Portmore Empire back in 2008—a needed source of context for people unfamiliar with Poppy’s beginnings. For the first hour or so, Popcaan, donned in all black and a couple Unruly chains, danced around, took selfies with fans, and excitedly embraced friends who came on stage. Occasionally, he’d grab the mic to sing along with album cuts, but this night felt like it was more about celebrating life than just new music.

The next few hours became a revolving door of performances by Unruly members and peers, with every artist bigging Popcaan up and wishing him a happy birthday before going into song. Jafrass, a gruff-voiced member of Unruly, performed “War Mi Nuh,” his take on the Not Nice riddim originally produced for Poppy’s hit “El Chapo.” Triga Finga, the only member of Unruly from Japan—where dancehall is huge—got some of the crowd’s best reactions, presumably by the sheer excitement of seeing him holding his own. The most gratifying appearance came from a young kid named Zion, who didn’t seem older than twelve, but barely took a breath on the mic, inspiring a few finger gun shots from Popcaan—who was now wearing that decadent blue floral blazer—and lighter flickers from others surrounding him.

While the jubilant set was still going on, I got pulled away from the crowd’s densest area and taken just near the outside venue’s entrance. I was introduced to Cuzz and Petro, two members of Unruly that I’d frequently saw on Instagram and who I’d hoped would help facilitate the Popcaan interview I was pursuing. Cuzz, who rocked braids and an Unruly tee, was sparse on words. But Petro instructed “Stay here and when he finished, we can do it.” The confirmation felt a bit too straightforward to be real, giving the circumstances of the night. The next time I saw either of them is when they arrived in front of Triple Century’s bar on motorcycles and insighted so much excitement that the club’s entrance was locked off after they and Popcaan went in.

Popcaan’s 2014 debut album, Where We Come From, was a generally linear story about the deejay’s coming of age. It was the first inclination of Poppy having the ability to create crossover hits as a solo artist. The Dubbel Dutch-produced “Everything Nice” was one of 2014’s biggest songs out of the Caribbean and gained international traction, partially thanks to its airy, pop-leaning appeal. Songs like “The System” and “Ghetto (Tired of Crying)” gave him an avenue to express the frustration of seeing (and experiencing) oppression tear people down in every way imaginable.

Soon after, he was being featured on songs with Young Thug and stamping himself as someone needing to be paid attention to, even outside the dancehall world. It was also during this time between albums that Popcaan became a more regular collaborator with Drake who, through his admiration, help cast a pop light over Poppy’s career—though his contribution to the artist’s success has been regularly exaggerated by American media.

The confirmation felt a bit too straightforward to be real, giving the circumstances of the night. The next time I saw either of them is when they arrived in front of Triple Century’s bar on motorcycles and insighted so much excitement that the club’s entrance was locked off after they and Popcaan went in.

Forever, in comparison to his debut, is an album that feels like a more pointed reflection of things going on in Popcaan’s life, even if many of the songs are more suited for easy listening than Where We Come From. The album’s opener “Silence” is a creeping track about being weary of the people you let in. The hook warns you to be “careful who you confide inna” and on it, Poppy confesses, “Me nah lie. Me love me family, but me nuh trust the whole a dem.” The closest thing to a street banger is “Lef My Gun,” but it dually works as a keenly self-aware track about never leaving your guard down in the face of greed and envy.

But Forever is effective not just because Introspective Poppy is giving some of his more heartfelt lyrics to date; there’s also a healthy collection of slow wining cuts that will permeate until fall weather sets in. On this more tender side of Popcaan is also a handful of tracks that display a type of range that has clearly always been there, but not nurtured to a point where it was fully displayed. “Naked,” one of Forever’s best, is a raunchy slow jam, equipped with babyfied runs in the background and a sound that is prime for a T-Pain remix. “Through the Storm” is a beg for forgiveness that sounds like it belongs on MTV Unplugged.

After spending two days in Kingston with no interview to speak of, I arrived in Montego Bay on a hot Friday night, where I witnessed Popcaan's prayer circle. Around 1 AM, I made my way to Catherine Hall Festival Grounds for Reggae Sumfest, where Popcaan was set to close the dancehall night a few hours later. On the festival grounds, red, green, and gold found their way on everything from fences, to beanies, to food stands. In the VIP area, dancehall stars old and new like Bounty Killer and Aidonia walked around. Local television stations conducted on-air interviews.

Soon after feeling the vibrations of music come from the stage, I made my way closer to see who was coming on. Much to my pleasure, it was reigning queen of dancehall, Spice, being carried out on a throne onto the stage by men dressed as Marvel’s Black Panther. Her signature blue hair was tied back and she was donned in the uniform of the Dora Milaje—Wakanda’s all-woman warrior force—singing “the black race is unstoppable” as she glided around. Amid performing her hits like “Sheet” and “Like It,” she also broke out into her own version of Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up” hit. “Feeling. I’m caught up my feelings/ Found out that I couldn’t breathe when he cheated on me / Oooooh I wish I could get a chance to create my own man,” she heartfully sang out. Next to me was a young woman dressed in all white, screaming in support of Spice’s wishes, taking selfies, and letting off a few resounding “BOOM’s” with finger gunshots.

Spice ended her set with the cover, and I headed back to the VIP area, only this time—keeping in mind that Popcaan’s set was about two hours out—I weaseled my way back to the artist tents, which were well closed off from outsiders. It was a maze. Every tent was white with a zipper running down the middle. There were no labels to indicate who was in which tent. I was high. Almost everyone was high. Near the backstage area entrance, a man who didn’t have proper credentials was being held up by—for some odd reason—six burly security guards. “I don’t care who you are! You listen to me,” a guard with an impressively shiny bald head yelled at the man. The altercation lasted for no longer than two minutes, but due to the weed in my system, I stood there for every second and watched it unfold like a scene out of a straight-to-DVD film.

Further into the backstage area, I met Corey Todd, an American businessman who partnered with Vybz Kartel a decade ago to help shape him into having more global appeal. He mentioned that he’d be back in the US to promote younger dancehall artists and we exchanged information while he fielded phone calls and shook hands with almost every person walking by. After parting ways, I aimlessly walked in circles until a friend pulled me in the direction of Popcaan’s tent, along the last row of the artist section. The closer we got, the thicker the crowd became. I recognized a few faces from the album release two days earlier in Kingston: Dre Island, Cuzz, Petro, Quada.

At first, the small percussion instruments seemed to only add to the noise already going on outside, but after 15 minutes of them hitting on the same tempo, I started to feel myself going into a trance-like state—one, in which, the time that I was waiting outside, the fact that I still hadn’t interviewed Popcaan, and the reality that I hadn’t had a drink of water in over three hours stopped mattering.

I finally end up directly outside of Poppy’s tent. A tall man with braids, a patchy beard, and dressed in all white guarded the entrance with his life, regularly waving off people who weren’t in the camp but trying to get close to Popcaan. The space was tight, and with nearly 100 people cramped outside of the tent, I wondered if Popcaan would even trouble himself with being around so much noise before a performance.

By that point, I’d accepted that an interview wasn’t going to happen in that kind of commotion, but I still stuck around to see what might go on. Before I knew it, the clock was nearing 3:30 AM and the chatter was getting louder. Children playfully ran in and out of the tent, entertaining the men safeguarding it. Dancehall star Aidonia worked his way up, slapped fives with the man holding down the fort, and rose the tent flap up. Behind it was Popcaan who, when he saw Aidonia, cracked the type of smile you see when he’s running off jokes on Instagram. Right before they embraced, Aidonia jumped up and down in excitement as if he was getting ready to go out on the stage. Then, the tent flap swiftly closed and those eight seconds of vicarious joy ended.

A few minutes into me settling back into the waiting game, a middle-aged Rasta guy started—I thought—to provide his own entertainment by rocking back and forth, rhythmically shaking a pair of shekeres. At first, the small percussion instruments seemed to only add to the noise already going on outside, but after 15 minutes of them hitting on the same tempo, I started to feel myself going into a trance-like state—one, in which, the time that I was waiting outside, the fact that I still hadn’t interviewed Popcaan, and the reality that I hadn’t had a drink of water in over three hours stopped mattering. My only focus was on the beat of the shekeres. Time was frozen. Then, without warning, everyone started to rush into Popcaan’s tent like some unknown signal had been let off. The shekeres persisted.

Popcaan's prayer circle. Illustration by John Garrison.

As people ran into the tent, I got my clearest look at Popcaan. There he was, majestically holding his head up to the sky with his eyes closed. Everyone who made it inside formed a tight, layered circle around him, obviously preparing to conduct some form of prayer. The lone white couple outside the tent—whose affiliations were unclear—tried eagerly working their way to the very end of the prayer circle but were met with a Heisman Trophy-like stiff arm from Cuzz who scolded “Back up!” A few members of media snuck their way in but Cuzz sniffed them out as well, asking them to leave the tent, sans stiff arm. Once all intruders were ousted, the tent closed again and not another word was heard until Popcaan ended the prayer by screaming “DEM DEAD,” much like he did at his party in Kingston when honoring Vybz Kartel.

Though the moment was short lived, there was something deeply fulfilling about what I’d just witnessed. Popcaan is a pop star who has much of his life and whereabouts documented, even as a person who’s been candid about his disinterest in the media. So to see him in an intimate space, surrounded by friends and family projecting out good intentions before he went out to exert his energy on to thousands of eager fans, was a moment worth cherishing. Even with the access that social media affords us consumers, it’s not often that we are able to see the fully human side of our favorite artists—the side that, like many others, needs community around them before they perform tasks that seem like second nature to the outside world.

“Lawrence!”

I wasn’t sure if this was actually happening or if I was becoming increasingly delirious from a lack of sleep.

I looked around, and there he stood, his hair in double strand twists as he wore all black, and a pendent-less chain swinging from his neck. We dapped each other up and I thought about the beautiful irony that I’d just spent the past 48 hours chasing him from Kingston to MoBay, only to now meet him in a curated media lounge that looked like Ikea’s work-from-home section. His publicist informed me that I was limited to two questions, and yet somehow, it still felt like it was worth the wait.

I ask about the group prayer.

“It’s a principal me have from young, you know? Always keep the family close,” Popcaan told me. “Because the island spiritual. We live in a spiritual world. We have to be aware of that, also. Me give my people dem energy and dem give me energy. That’s just the way it is.”

That kind of thinking—giving out what you want back—is echoed in much of Forever, even in songs that aren’t explicitly touching on the deejay’s personal beliefs. Where songs like “Silence” can serve as guidance on how to maneuver through people who could be hiding their malicious intent, a song like “Superstar,” which instructs you to triumphantly sing your own praises, is just as crucial a gem to share. Trying to see the good in life, even when it’s constantly testing your patience, is a staple outlook amongst the oppressed worldwide and Popcaan is one of his island’s best motivators (and comes from a deep legacy of Jamaican artists who did the same).

"We live in a spiritual world. We have to be aware of that, also. Me give my people dem energy and dem give me energy. That’s just the way it is.” —Popcaan

“Mi tek the words me say very serious,” he said in a hushed voice about naming his sophomore album Forever. He folded his arms together. “Like, I don’t say certain things, I won’t sing certain things ‘cause I’m always thinking positive. That is it from time. Me as a yute me always sing and tell The Almighty want me want.”

As we spoke, about four cameramen stood in front of us capturing the conversation, lights blinding me when I looked up. For a minute, it felt like we were on an E! awards show red carpet special but I did my best to block them out, considering that my limited time was already running out. Before we parted ways, I asked Popcaan how he felt about his growth in the four years between Where We Come From and Forever, and if the desire to be considered as dancehall’s leading global ambassador influenced any decisions he made while crafting the project.

“I sing more song for the ladies. I speak more things that’s going on in my life. More plain, you know?” he said, looking over to me, also avoiding eye contact with the cameras that hadn’t budged since we’d sat down. “‘Cause we as human beings, we go through similar struggles. So at the end of the day, when me as somebody who make it out of the struggles, me share it with people—seh mi used to struggle before. It give them more confidence to push through.”

If Where We Come From was an invitation into Popcaan’s world, with uplifting songs that aimed to make people who came from the same circumstances as him feel better, Forever is the chance for Popcaan to achieve the same level of motivation, but by digging into his own intimate experiences in order to push others. And though the music of his that tends to travel furthest is more about having a good time with someone you’ve had your eyes set on, Popcaan’s sheer existence (his topical range, sometimes otherworldly voice, and international appeal) is what will likely push him to the people he so badly wants to feel a connection to his art.

That, and the sense of destiny that’s been carrying him before Vybz Kartel deemed him worthy of being a member of Portmore Empire a decade ago.

“When me say certain things and certain words, it can affect me. Likewise, it can build me. So that’s why me chant on me Sunday for what me want from The Almighty,” he said, before I left him at 7:30 AM. “And me get dem.”

Follow Lawrence Burney on Twitter.

John Garrison is a Chicago-based illustrator. Follow him on Instagram.