Can Roots Reggae Win Back Jamaica?

Protoje is taking his Rastafari rhythms worldwide. He tells us how he brought reggae back to the homeland.

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Aug 22 2014, 3:15pm

Although there's plenty of reggae still being made in the legendary Jamaican studios, it's no longer the country's default genre. A few years ago, many radio stations refuse to play reggae entirely, instread favouring dancehall and homegrown R&B. Is reggae seen has belonging to a different generation? “I don’t know,” laughs Protoje, “but it makes us have to look outside Jamaica. Not getting love from your own country is what leads you to being sat at Phillies Cafe in Kensington, London, and trying to talk my music to people like yourself.”

Along with Kabaka Pyramid, Jesse Royal, Jah9, Raging Fyah and Major Lazer collaborator Chronixx, Protoje is on the crest of a roots reggae revival wave that started flooding Jamaica in 2011, and is now wetting the feet of the world at large. He’s had modest hits in France, Canada and Germany, and plays to thousands at festivals in Belgium, Switzerland and Poland. Right now, he’s in London, for a live set on the Red Bull Soundsystem at this weekend’s Notting Hill Carnival, and he looks visibly psyched: “Rodigan said it was real dope, so I said I’d do it.”

Protoje grew up in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, in a southwest parish that locals call ‘the bread basket’ thanks to its reputation for farming produce. With his mother, a 70s reggae star, and his father, a champion calypso singer, it feels fair to ask if music was just expected of him as a kid? “No, they didn’t need to encourage me, because in Jamaica everybody does music. If you grow up there, you have taken to music in some way.”

Soon, he was ditching his education to pursue a full-time career in music, and when his mother found out, she gave him one year to succeed. Pretty much twelve months later, his track ‘Rasta Love’ - the first great single of this roots reggae revival - was bossing local radio and breaking through the dancehall and pop monopoly. So, where did it kick off? “Jamnesia” smiles Protoje. “It was the key place that gave people an opportunity to play with live musicians and create.”

Jamnesia is a surf club ran by Billy Mystic, the father of Jamaican surf culture, and Protoje’s sessions there with Jah9 and Raging Fyah were the moments that inspired him to work towards an album. It became his debut record, The Seven Year Itch, from which the single "Rasta Love" detonated. “I was the first to get recognition globally for the music, while still working out of Jamnesia. Before you know it, Chronixx was releasing and I was producing Kabaka’s first album. It began to build up and spread.”

Reviving something as deep and historical as roots reggae is a heavy mission. On September 23rd, 1980, as Bob Marley stroked his final note of the show at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theatre, reggae could have taken over the world with its perceived message of freedom, acceptance and understanding. Instead, that gig was his last. ”Peter Tosh soon died after that” explains Protoje, “and Jacob Miller had already passed in a car accident. Imagine three of the biggest guns in a genre all dying in one decade? Reggae has always been trying to recover from that.” Roots almost revived itself in the early 90s through the conscious outpourings of Garnett Silk, but he too died early. In Europe, soundsystem culture erupted in homage to Jamaica’s legacy, but home soil progression halted, and whilst pioneers like Tony Rebel might have kept the flame alive - with annual festivals like Rebel Salute in Mandeville - it all just felt like nostalgia until now.

Protoje has no intention of letting this new movement falter. He knows all too well that classic reggae cannot simply be re-sold to a new, millennial audience. To give this revival any hope of endurance, his core Rastafari sentiments of spirituality, hope and black consciousness must be modernised. Protoje defines the general thinking behind this roots revival: “It is drawing from the past and building on it. Not just making music that sounds like 1970 or 1980 Jamaica. What I choose to speak about lyrically takes philosophy and ways of life from hundreds of years ago, puts it into music, and translates it to the present day for youths.”

To this new movement, each act brings something specific. Some of them channel golden age 70s reggae, and some recall experimental dub leanings of the early 80s. Chronixx, for example, is big on his dancehall, so he packs that bashment thump behind a roots rhythm, and it’s an approach that earned him a slot on Jimmy Fallon in July. “We all have different interpretations of what we want to do,” offers Protoje, “but what binds us is a respect for the past. You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’re coming from.”

Apart from Judy Mowatt, Althea & Donna and Protoje’s own mother Lorna Bennett, original roots reggae was a vastly male period for Jamaican music, and reflected the man-heavy population of the Rastafari movement back then. I ask Proteje if this modern revival champions equal opportunities for female musicians, and his face lights up: “For sure! There are lots of talented female artists in Jamaica right now. Jah9 for one, and I just signed a girl called Sevana. I have high hopes, and I know for sure that the UK is gonna be all over her. But you need to make sure the music is put out the right way. Jamaica has been lacking a vision of how to put out music properly.”

Dancehall is a genre that knows how to distribute its music virally, and current Jamaican radio playlists demonstrate that nothing fully collapsed when Vybz Kartel went down, but it’s definitely a genre in crisis. That once bold sounding move to digital has backfired now that anyone with a laptop can call themselves a producer. And, with less focus on live shows too, this has lowered the genre’s entry level and dropped the overall quality, resulting in a new crop that just aren’t capable of music that stands the test of time. With a huge focus on instrumentation, the roots reggae movement is the antithesis of this approach.

But when I ask Protoje if he feels that the last two decades of dancehall affected Jamaican culture negatively, he’s unwilling to point fingers. “I don’t discriminate against dancehall. I grew up on it. I just didn’t think it was fair to put the reggae message on the back burner, and let dancehall be all the youth see. There needs to be balance. This is our way to put our messages up there too and give the youth a choice.”

Protoje’s third album, Ancient Future, drops in September, and is already shaping up to be a key chapter in the future of roots culture. He hits the bars running on lead single ‘Who Knows’ - a deep reggae jam of blinding positivity that paints Jamaica as a place of pride and dreams for those willing to change perspective. He starts to sing one of the track’s more poignant lines to me, “man den in a city hungry and nuh eat / And food den down a country just a drop off a di trees dem / He say poverty nuh real!” It highlights a strange paradox in Jamaican life, where people are going hungry in the cities, but places like his home of St Elizabeth are throwing away produce that they just can’t sell.

Before he arrived at the cafe, I was reading about the latest night of tear gas and gunfire in Ferguson, Missouri, and I ask him what he makes of it all. “To speak about Ferguson is to speak about a bigger continuous incident. Now, not to make light of what is happening, because anytime that somebody loses their life it is tragic, but, what goes on in Ferguson goes on daily, daily, daily in Jamaica.” He asks me about a recent victim Mario Deane, and I am embarrassed to admit the name doesn’t spring to mind as quickly as Ferguson’s Michael Brown. “Mario Deane,” he explains, “got arrested for a spliff, and then got beaten to death while in police custody in St. James. These things are going to pop up more and more, and people are going to start getting more rebellious about it. Who knows what’s next? The only thing I know is this: the police are to protect and serve the interests of the state, under the guise of protecting the people, and by any means necessary.”

The role of the state is something Protoje feels strongly about, and during our chat he fires down tangents about Jamaican corruption, “fifth stage imperialism” and the IMF’s hold over his country. Concluding on topic, I ask him how he feels about the Jamaican government recently latching onto the roots reggae revival as a good way to encourage tourism? Adding that if the Conservatives suddenly came out in support of something like P. C. Music’s UK cute pop craze, it might just tarnish it for the general public. “Yes, it could have a negative effect,” he laughs, “but we are not about to let the government come in and control our music and twist it in a way they want. We see tens of thousands of people when we perform at festivals, so, yes, we are already a big part of the tourism industry... but we’re telling it authentically of what Jamaica is right now.”