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Interview: Protoje (2013)

Interview: Protoje (2013)

Interview: Protoje (2013)

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"The honeymoon is over!"


Oje Ken Olivierre AKA Protoje's debut album was called the '7 Year Itch' - charting the 7 years he had been itching to be a success in reggae music.

His second longplayer, 'The 8 Year Affair' which is out on February 12th, is similarly autobiographical. Because now, having achieved his dream, the son of the singer Lorna Bennett and cousin of his producer Don Corleon, is on a fresh musical and spiritual journey.

Once again the release has been sign-posted by the singles Who Dem A Program, This Is NOT A Marijuana Song and Kingston Be Wise – a tribute to his hero Ini Kamoze. But as he tells Angus Taylor, who has followed Oje's recording career from the early stages, it is the new tracks that hold the key to where he is as an artist and as a person today...


The 7 Year Itch had a story - what's the story of the 8 Year Affair?

The 7 Year Itch was based on me trying to do music and trying to be heard. The 8 Year Affair is me and the actual affair I’m having with the music now – the things that are happening because of the music, the distractions, all the energies coming back to me from the first record. So, when I started the 8 Year Affair, the title track, I made sure I touched on all these things to give it the same overview that the 7 Year Itch track gave my first album.  

What kind of challenges and obstacles do you face now you’ve achieved your aim to be a known artist and are in the public eye?

When you do your first record there’s not much expectation of you. When your first record does well there’s a lot of expectation. Also, sticking with this whole theme of the Itch and Affair, the honeymoon is over! When you’re out for two years everybody loves you, you’re new, you’re fresh and everybody’s excited but then the honeymoon wears off. That’s the point where a lot of artists would fade away because there is not enough substance. So it’s very important to me that my second album carried that spirit of what I am doing.

A lot of people view the late 70s as the golden era... But I am an 80s baby

Tell me about the time you spent making this album.

I started the album before I went to Europe on tour. When we got there Donovan and I had a vibe and an energy listening to the music on the road and we decided to come back to Jamaica and redo it, adding some more sounds. Part of it was watching Barrington Levy from backstage with Don. I was like “Yow, this is my music. This is the stuff I really want to do on my second album!” A lot of people view the late 70s as the golden era and I respect Bob Marley, Peter, all of them – to the max. But I am an 80s baby and I am in love with that whole Black Uhuru, Ini Kamoze, Barrington Levy, Channel One, Junjo Lawes sound and I never really did it on my first album. So I had to let the people hear this part of my influence.

A few months back you were trying to contact Ini Kamoze. Was that for clearance of Kingston Be Wise (which samples on England Be Nice)? Have you met this man who is such a big influence on your roots meets hip hop style?

(laughs) No, I have never met him! It has fallen through twice! I was on Irie FM talking with Elise Kelly - who is a big supporter of my music and new music in general - and she said she knows him and he’s in California so she’s going to let me meet him. My bass-player, Danny Bassie, has played with him before. One day I must meet the man. Because I heard he even went to a school where I grew up – St Elizabeth Technical! I only know Sly and Sly said “Anything you want to sample, just sample. Just make sure we’re credited” so I said “Alright brother”.

The Most High is paramount to what I am saying and how I am living

Like the last album you released some big tunes as singles - were you always confident the rest of album would stand up?

I am 100% confident in the rest of the music. When I did Who Dem A Program I hadn’t started the rest of the album. I was going to leave off Program and This Is Not A Marijuana Song because I just wanted to put more new stuff but when I went out on the road and saw the response to Marijuana Song – I wanted them represented. My favourite part of the album is tracks 12-14. I really wanted to finish this album strong so I didn’t release those songs as singles. I think I have at least three more songs to video off that album.

The last two tracks in particular are very spiritual.

I will tell you something I have not spoken about to anyone. This album has been a very spiritual time in my life. Where I am right now, in my philosophy and my whole being, there are one or two tracks from the album that I wouldn’t put out now. It’s not that it’s not good music but the type of vibration I want to put out to the world now is very specific. The Rastafarian philosophy of the Most High is paramount to what I am saying and how I am living. So I think this album could be the last in this whole series of 7 Year Itch, 8 Year Affair music. What’s happening on tracks 12, 13, and 14 of this album is a pretty good hint of what’s coming. I don’t want say “This is going to happen” because you don’t want to put a limit on anything you do. But when I sing a song like Hail Rastafari and Music From My Heart the way I feel on stage is unmatched by other stuff. That is what I need as a musician as opposed to making a song that may do well on radio.

This album could be the last in this whole series of 7 Year Itch, 8 Year Affair music

Your lyrics seem increasingly to invoke Rasta themes. On Kingston Be Wise you mention Leonard Howell’s community at Pinnacle. How has Rasta come to you in the course of your career?

It’s always been in me without me knowing what it was. I started to read around the first time I started to do live music, linking with Jah9 and that whole movement with Uprising Roots Band. The drummer, Kush, is spiritual and he would speak to us about these things. There’s also a brethren named I Nation now who literally drives around in his car with books to make sure the ones writing or playing music or just seeking can find stuff. He gave me the autobiography of Haile Selassie and I was on the road in Europe reading that book. I was flying from Norway to Spain – I’ll never forget it – something just happened to me on that flight. 

What happened?

ProtojeWe went through a lot in Norway - it was the eighth show on the eighth night of my first tour so I had not eaten a lot. It was hard to get food and I had only had bread for two days. It was snowing and I was at a low energy. We missed our flight which was not our fault and when we got there the promoter didn’t want to pay us to do the show. They knew I didn’t eat certain things and they still sent shrimp and chicken so I couldn’t get anything to eat. I was at breaking point and the show didn’t happen so I didn’t get to see the people who came out to see us. Then I misplaced everything I had earned on the road so I thought I had lost everything! I was just about to break down and then I started to read my book.

How did the book help you?

Suddenly something in me knew that people go through way more than this. Ten times worse than this to let me travel to a different country to do music. It really taught me a lot and when I realised that I felt strong because of the power of The Most High. I knew I could overcome anything once Jah is present. From the moment we landed in Spain I knew that something was different inside me. From that point on it’s just been a journey to get closer to The Most High. To not just say “Rastafari” but to know His Majesty and his teachings and philosophy and the messages he left for I&I.

You’ve talked about the hard roots sound on the new album but a lot of the undiscovered tracks on there are for the ladies.

Rasta is about love too. So we can’t leave out the females. They bring forth creation and inspiration so I had to go there also. As you can see, even that was handled in more reverence. It’s not about “This girl is crying over me” or “You want to roll with a pro today”. People will hear it’s a different tone. It’s more about finding that queen. That female who can bring me to a different height and a different place so I had to touch on that somewhat even though it is not my favourite vibes on the whole album! (laughs) But if we don’t let the women feel good about themselves, how are we going to make the youths feel good about themselves? Whether we like it or not the woman is the backbone of the nation so if you empower the woman you empower the nation.

The woman is the backbone of the nation so if you empower the woman you empower the nation

When I received my copy of 7 Year Itch, my favourite song was Our Time Come. But within a day I was told there were issues clearing the Burning Spear sample and I was not allowed to tell anyone about the song – which was hard! When you performed it with Don at Summerjam and Burning Spear was there – did you try to get him to sing it on stage with you?

I met him in my hotel room. My Summerjam jacket has a big autograph on the back. I had a fever that day – I was burning up – but having that with me on stage I felt invincible. I got the strength from him telling me to just go out there and that he liked what I am doing. He said he’d heard the song and he really appreciated that we were connecting with our elders. I knew I was not going to be that lucky to have him come on stage with us – at least not yet! Hopefully one day that can happen. It was the highlight of my tour to meet him. I went to watch his set and was backstage and it was a joy. Those people are legends who got a real fight both musically and socially. The man made it possible for me to even have natty on my head and say “Rastafari”, so it’s an honour to even be speaking of him.

When 7 Year Itch came out David Rodigan was being critical of the contemporary Jamaican music saying it wasn’t exportable. But when I asked a few months later if things were changing one of the first people he mentioned was you and your album.

This is a person that has seen everyone in reggae music come up. Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, Spear, Barrington, the list goes on. It really gives confidence because my music doesn’t really get the full strength in my own country. I have got a lot of support from radio – but it is a challenge to get certain songs playing. Rasta Love will get a lot of play because it’s 94bpm so you can move to it, whereas Hail Rastafari or Take Control don’t do that. So to have Rodigan himself telling me “You’re on the right track, do not bend, do not break, continue what you’re doing” it was a great strength. I remember telling him and you “Listen, the music is on its way back. Don’t worry there are a lot of soldiers coming up”. It’s going to be our time. Going into 2013 you can see there is a direct movement and a slew of artists to take back the control and put reggae music – from Jamaica – back on the map.

Rodigan has had his own problems with the state of the music industry and commercial radio strategy – resigning from Kiss FM as specialist music is increasingly being removed from peak listening hours in favour of the latest heavy rotation. Fortunately he has now joined BBC 1Xtra.

Well, as they say “For a just man falleth seven times and riseth up again”. So when he left Kiss for those reasons, we all knew that this man’s contribution to the music is such that he warrants the respect. So I’m really glad he has got another slot on BBC 1Xtra and I commend them for making that move to help Rodigan fight for the music. And for me now it lights another fire to see that this person is willing to put their job on the line, come off radio and stand up for what they believe in, in the preservation of reggae music. So we must give him something to preserve.

Jamaica is known for reggae music. But there is not a decent indoor live venue for music in Kingston. That’s just unacceptable

This movement you refer to which has been bubbling under for some time and includes artists and bands – are you its leader?

(laughs) It’s a group of leaders! The way I have been grown and groomed is to be a leader. That’s the way my parents have raised me. And a lot of the people in this movement are born leaders. So I don’t get into who is leading what. The Most High is the leader; the binding force; the one that brings it all together. I have been the first to go out there and I have been given the opportunity to do that. I am from the tribe of Levi so certain roles, I have to fulfil. When I go out there I have to make sure I talk about ones that might not get that chance. But right now a lot of ones are getting that chance and soon it’s just going to be everyone out on the road promoting the music. Jah9 is about to drop her album – she’s straight roots. Chronixx has done an important thing too. He’s versatile, he can do everything. But he has crossed into the dancehall market and brings back attention to everyone that does straight roots. Everybody has their own flavour and their own role to play so I give thanks for what everybody is doing – Jesse Royal, Raging Fyah, Kabaka Pyramid, I can list a whole article of names! (laughs) So we’re ready and motivated and excited to get this show on the road.

This movement has been in the European specialist press for some years now but it seems like only since late 2012 has the mainstream Jamaican press started running stories on it every day.

(laughs) So you noticed that too, eh? You’re going to see them run in now like they have been promoting reggae music – which they have not been. But it’s getting popular now so everybody is going to jump on the wagon and we are not going to neglect them because the more the merrier. But it’s just like the athletes – it’s not until they win a gold medal that they give them a chance.  I don’t really dig that at all. A lot of people complain that there is no good music – but are you finding music or just listening to it on radio? That’s not the only way to find music. Come out to the live shows. Go online. Try to investigate without saying reggae music is dead. You’ll see a whole lot of articles in the Jamaican press – this about reggae, that about reggae. A lot of elders will complain about this generation. But where is the infrastructure set by that generation? Where is the label that I can go to as a young reggae artist and look to get support and guidance? There is none. So a lot of work needs to be done in that respect. That being said we give thanks for the resurgence and we give thanks for the press right now.

What work needs to be done?

ProtojeLook on this now – Jamaica is a place that is known for reggae music more than anything. Big up to Bolt because he got Jamaica known for a different thing but at the end of the day Jamaica is known for reggae music. But there is not a decent indoor live venue for music in Kingston. That’s just unacceptable, Angus. There are venues that shows are held at but they are not made and built for sound. Why do we as a people put our music to the back at all times?  We need an indoor venue in Jamaica that can seat five thousand that people from all over the world would be honoured to visit. Where is the venue in Jamaica where somebody can say “I aspire towards performing there”? That a little youth can pass that place and see it packed to the brim on a Friday night and say “One day I am going to perform in that venue”. Jamaica you need to believe in our music. I don’t really depend on government for that so that is something I am working towards and I know other ones are. I’m just saying instead of talking about supporting show us the support. Don’t jump on the wagon and just take up weight. Make sure the wagon can run bigger if you’re going to jump on board.

How did it feel to appear with your band on foreign soil for the first time last year? I was there when you vowed never to come abroad again without your band when they couldn’t make Summerjam.

Thank you. I have been waiting for you to ask this question! My band is the sound, it’s the lifeline, it’s the vehicle. If you’ve never seen me perform with the Indiggnation then Protoje and the Indiggnation is leaps and bounds ahead of just Protoje. Personally, to be performing in Texas with my band was a joy. To come to Europe without my band was not fun. I give thanks to Dub Akom. They did their job so enough love and respect to them but I’m not coming back to Europe without my band. Those days are finished. Reggae music is a true experience – we do our work with our bands down here. And they tell us “Oh, we will give you a band”? No. I don’t enjoy myself when I know my brothers are at home. A couple of my band members are living with me in the country now. I’ll stay home so we can chill and we have some acres where we can plant some food and be happy and play music. They deserve to be on the road with me and I am definitely taking a stand towards that.

I’m not coming back to Europe without my band. Those days are finished

You’ve called the names of the artists who are part of this movement. Who are the artists from your vantage point that people will be talking about in 2 years’ time? The next wave?

But this wave is just starting! (laughs) That being said, there is a brethren named Evaflow. I mentioned him on my first record 7 Year Itch when I said “Nah go give up, nah go ever slow, yuh know mi a hold it down for Evaflow”. He was away for five years and I almost started a “Free Evaflow” campaign. He moved back to Jamaica this year and I’m so excited for him to go into the studio because I can be fully well confident with this youth. When he drops he has a lot of stuff to say. I’m definitely looking forward to him being a force in the music. 'Mo-Zhai' that artist is going to be great. He actually played violin on 'Come My Way' on the album, and co-produced Black Cinderella. The little youth plays every instrument you put in his hand and has such a genuine spirit; he is as good a songwriter as he is an instrumentalist.

You were out of Costa Rica with many of the artists you mentioned as well as the group Midnite – did you reason with Vaughn Benjamin at all?

I spent a lot of time with Vaughn and Ron Benjamin. Midnite brings me back to your question of my relationship with Rastafari. It had an enormous amount to do with Midnite. Because when I heard Vaughn’s lyrics I thought “What’s happening here? Why don’t I understand what he is saying? How do I not know these things?” I went back to school and stacked up my library because of Midnite and their vibration. When I finally got to meet them I realised that Midnite make music for the vessels. They do music for the artists. They are like our teachers. They teach the professors. When he saw us all together Vaughn said he’s never seen as much unity and energy from Jamaican artists together. He really wanted us to maintain and continue doing what we’re doing. I can speak for myself and my selector Yaadcore when I say 90% of our listening is Midnite because they have 40 odd albums! I came back from Costa Rica with a much clearer understanding of the message I have to deliver and the way and the reverence in which I have to hold the music. I have to do every show like The King himself is there. Because that’s how Midnite perform. They’re singing as if His Majesty is sitting in the front row watching them. I saw that my whole thing had to change to a different groove.

I am performing from a different place now

You had some harsh words about Sting 2012 on Twitter – why?

(laughs) I’ve got to remember this twitter thing is worldwide! My problem with it was “The Greatest One Night Reggae Show On Earth”. See, you can say whatever you want but when you involve reggae now you involve I&I. You involve the music and one of my jobs is to fight for reggae music. I don’t want people abroad to see Sting as their representation of what reggae is. Reggae music is not about going on stage calling out telling what a man did with that man and those things. Don’t mix up reggae music in that. Reggae music is a Rastafari music. For me it is a misrepresentation of reggae music and a slap in the face to the legends that have come before and set the music. Call it the greatest something else on earth but “A reggae show” it is not.

When you play big shows like Rebel Salute do you get nervous?

Absolutely not. As I said, I am performing from a different place now, Angus. This is not about nervous. This is not about a forward. It is not about whether I mash up the place or shell the place. It’s about delivering the message and maintaining the reverence, having fun with my brothers on stage and making a joyful noise unto the Lord. What is to be nervous about that?

Tags: Protoje

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Read comments (2)

Posted by Jah D on 06.27.2014
Yes I Protoje The runnings move FORWARD!!!!! BIG RESPECT!!!! Bro. Levi the Priestly Ites!!! I Tribe of Judah. Bless and May Jah Guidance & I tection in & out!!!

Posted by Strongtree on 06.29.2014
Does anyone know where you can purchase Protoje album The 8 Year Affair on CD... also Chronixx Dread & Terrible album on CD???

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