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She's Royal - Strong Female Voices in Reggae

She's Royal - Strong Female Voices in Reggae

She's Royal - Strong Female Voices in Reggae

By on - Photos by Carlo Crippa / Rototom 2012 - Comment

Marcia Griffiths, Tanya Stephens and Etana's talk at the Rototom Sunsplash Reggae University.

Day two of the Rototom Sunsplash festival's Reggae University programme turned the spotlight onto the contribution of powerful female voices and role models in the last 50 years of post Independence Jamaican music. Its guest speakers were three artists of different generations, two of whom – Marcia Griffiths and Etana -had shared a stage together at Rototom two years previously. Both ladies regally entered the university area to huge applause. Tanya Stephens, delayed by her soundcheck for her opening performance on the main stage that night, joined them fifteen minutes later, never taking off her shades.

Etana, Marcia Griffiths and Tanya Stephens / Rototom 2012

Riddim magazine's Pete Lilly introduced the session and his fellow panellists: the music journalists David Katz, Pier Tosi, and Riddim's editor-in-chief Ellen Koehlings.

Hailed as the "The queen of reggae" by Lilly, Marcia Griffiths has been a relentless force in reggae since she began singing in her teens, two years after independence. Where the other members of Bob Marley's I Threes; Rita Marley and Judy Mowatt have removed themselves from the daily grind of the music, Marcia still remains active, stylish and ever contemporary, working with dancehall artists like Busy Signal and Spragga Benz.

"When I started out it was a very male dominated business – there was just me and Hortense Ellis" said Marcia. The turning point came when she met Bob Andy a "father figure" who wrote her hits for Coxsone Dodd of Studio 1. But it wasn't until Bob went to Harry J that they hit the UK charts with a cover of Nina Simone's Young Gifted and Black. Just a week before Rototom 2012 she had reunited with Andy on stage at the Respect Jamaica 50th celebrations in London.

She also met the other of "Two Bobs I have in my life" - Bob Marley - at Studio 1. Her group the I Threes would contribute backing vocals on Marley's first album without Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, Natty Dread "And the rest was history." Later, when taking questions from the floor she would say "Bob opened my eyes with how deep he went with his audience. I started a new page in the business."

Asked by Koehlings about her work with reggae's first female producer the late Sonia Pottinger, Griffiths answered "She understood us – woman to woman".

Etana / Rototom 2012

August Town's Etana fulfils a similar strong female role to Marcia for her own age group. Prompted by Koehlings, Etana described growing up the only girl in a household of boys in August Town, Jamaica copying karate movies with her brothers.

When asked by Lilly about her early days singing in the US based girl group GIFT she recalled "What I didn't like was to always have to show so much". Moving back to Jamaica and becoming a roots singer. "I could wear skirts and be more of the woman I wanted to be. "

Describing the motivation behind her hit song August Town, she recalled the police opening fire on a party organized by her relatives to ease tensions in the community. The same police came down for shooting of her video and for a short moment the community and police were brought back together. Likewise, the success of her song Wrong Address (based on her aunt being told to lie about her ghetto address to get a job) had led to community programmes to help people's education.

Since the 90s the earthy voice and humour of Tanya Stephens has brought sex-positive feminism to the world of dancehall slackness. She was introduced by Lilly as "One of the most prolific songwriters not only in Jamaican music but in music generally".

Like Marcia, Stephens began singing in her teens. "When I was at high school I was called a nerd. When I left school I wanted to do something different and started hanging out and partying a lot. It never became a job until someone paid me to do some dubplates." Her mother disapproved of her career choice but eventually learned "It is never right to suppress someone else's dream. I am my own children's cheer leader."

Marcia Griffiths and Tanya Stephens / Rototom 2012

Tanya remained defiant about putting men in their place lyrically. "I'm not violent but I'm firm. Men who are secure and do their jobs don't have any problem talking about men who don't do their jobs." Marcia, whose songs Tanya said she tried to sing as a teen, was nodding and laughing throughout. To huge applause Tanya also spoke of her pioneering position against homophobia. "I have family members who are gay. Every time someone talks about killing gays I see someone I know."

Koehlings then asked if things have changed for women in the industry.

Marcia replied: "Most definitely it's no longer male dominated." Adding "My main accomplishment in the business is not money" but "Seeing these young sisters talking about me and referencing me."

Etana felt that today there were more shows headlined by women. "When I started – except for Marcia – you'd never see females at top. Thank god for Marcia you did a lot for us"

Stephens believed technology had opened up reggae so that it was no longer Kingston or even Jamaica centric. However she felt the need to point out that the industry was not "Male dominated. It was male overrun. We outclassed them" to more cheers from the audience.

Marcia closed the discussion with these words: "Woman is in the lead today. Women are flying planes so the sky's the limit."

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