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Interview: Jah9 (Part 1 - The Education)

Interview: Jah9 (Part 1 - The Education)

Interview: Jah9 (Part 1 - The Education)

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"I'm kind of an introvert. I live in my head"


Janine “Jah9” Cunningham has caused an enormous stir with her prodigious debut album 'New Name', produced by Rory Gilligan of Stone Love. This is roots music of old, made in Jamaica, with the same jazz inflections that bolstered its counterpart in 1970s London so great. Jah9’s vocal, lyrical and spiritual confidence seem to have sprung fully formed so it was a necessity for Angus Taylor to seek her out for United Reggae to discover where she and her poetic music came from.

It is a testimony to the strength and self-determination of Jah9 that after several false starts the interview took place on her terms between 12 and 2am London time – a commitment that only Sizzla Kalonji has inspired in the past. Jah9 had an uncanny ability to anticipate each follow up question before it was asked and spoke at length with steely conviction. The resulting two part story is in essence authored by her in answer to a few pointers on topics. Part one deals with her education prior to becoming a professional musician, both inside the system and out. Part two, on her music, will be published soon.


On the name “Jah9” and its significance

“When I was younger my uncle used to call me Jah9. He was the first one who actually pronounced it that way and it just took on. He isn’t even Rastafari or anything.

As I went to high school, even before I came into consciousness, I was drawing my name as J-A-H and the number nine and writing it on the desk tops! So I started visually seeing my name as Jah9 right from the desks at school.

As I grew older and felt the significance of the name of Jah as The Most High it just made me want to hold on to it even more. I’d always wanted to have an African name because names are so significant to me. My sister had an African name and I was like “I’m the darkest one! How come she gets an African name?” (Laughs) So as the significance grew I just held on to it.”

On singing in church

“I am a preacher’s daughter so I’d be at church every Sunday. My mother and my sister could sing so I’d just be sandwiched between these two women singing. We knew all the hymns so it was just learning how to memorise and keep melodies for all these songs would stick in my head. I was five or six, going on seven - those ages where I was cognisant of what’s happening around me. I would be singing and they would be singing and we’d be making harmony and then we’d go home and have our family fellowship there would always be singing so I developed a natural ear for harmony. There would always be three part harmony in the house.

Then as I grew up and moved from Trelawny to Kingston I joined my school choir. The man who was directing the choir was a legendary Jamaican, Lloyd Hall, who had written melodies for some of the national songs and he was auditioning people five at a time. I ended up in a group with some people who really couldn’t sing! So he auditioned my group and dismissed us all! I was like “What???” So I just went to choir practice the next day like I was a part of the group that got through anyway! I was always on the choir since then.”

The Bible – it's really poetry. Just being exposed to that wordsound made my mind work in a particular way where words were concerned

On her interest in poetry

“I can’t even remember when I started writing. I started reading pretty early so the whole connection with writing came very early as well. I’m only thinking this now as I try to answer your question but growing up in a family who sing hymns and read the Bible a lot – it’s really poetry. Just being exposed to that wordsound made my mind work in a particular way where words were concerned.

I was always coming up with a verse but it was not poetry-poetry until I got to Kingston when I was about eight. I was in class and our grade three teacher introduced us to the whole concept of poetry, verse and stanzas and I remember being so excited about learning this officially. We were all given an assignment and I was so ready to deliver and so proud of myself! But I went to her and she was so unimpressed by my poem and she had so much to say about it! I wasn’t even disappointed, it was just “This lady clearly doesn’t know what she’s talking about!” I was so confident that this was my thing. I was so comfortable writing.

Since that age I have been consistently writing ever since. I can actually watch my own development through all these volumes of writing. At first it was just from my imagination “My Life As A Shoe” and that kind of thing! As I started to interact it started to become more social because I was thrust into a new environment so writing became an escape for me to leave my physical space and just write. Then you get older and learn more and get exposed to my heritage and culture then certain themes that I wouldn’t necessarily have conversations about I could just tackle them with writing. At that time I had no intention of showing everybody this. It was just for me. I started to experiment with different styles because of different things I was reading or the music I was listening to or whatever it was.

By the time I got to university was when I started to share my writing and read it out loud. I had a little background in public speaking from High School so I had the confidence to present it. I just wasn’t sure how people would take to the topics I would choose to talk about. Then I went to a few open mic poetry events and got a really good reception which gave a little confidence “They’re feeling it. That’s cool!””

On studying Psychology at University of the West Indies and how Psychology contributed to her development as an artist

“I studied psychology as a major and chose two minors – criminology and human resource development. But they said I could only declare one minor so I chose human resource development because that was the one that was more likely to get me a job when I came out of university. I’m kind of an introvert. I live in my head. My parents were in the social sciences. My father is a minister but he was a guidance counsellor as well, while my mother is a social worker who does counselling as well so there were a lot of those kinds of books around. That was the kind of literature I was exposed to.

The formative years of my life were spent in a more traditional environment outside the city, so when I got to the city everything was brand new and as an outsider I had the opportunity to watch the people around me. The whole psychology of looking at yourself from outside became real to me as I had those experiences. Before I went to university I went to an all girls’ school so there were no distractions like having boyfriends. It was all just learning and arguing with teachers and students – it was really a mental experience. In relating to girls I got to look at myself also - you can’t help but compare where you are with where other people are – and at that time I was heavily into church and my spirituality. My spirituality was being contained within the church environment at that time. I was the quiet Christian girl, the pastor’s daughter – I was everybody’s friend and nobody’s friend. They wouldn’t talk to me when it came to personal details about things that they thought I might not have any experience with but I was fun to talk to so I always had the opportunity to look at the whole social sphere from outside. So a lot of my poetry would reflect a lot of introspection and even the wordsound on this latest work is very introspective as well.

I was the quiet Christian girl, the pastor's daughter – I was everybody's friend and nobody's friend

By the time I got to university, out of all the options, psychology was logical and natural. I went through several phases in terms of what I wanted to be when I grew up, lots of the them to do with the sciences because they felt the most interesting and challenging, with brand new concepts I had never been introduced to before. I started to build ambitions around nuclear physics and then forensic psychology which were always evolving but revolving around natural sciences. But when I got to sixth form I realised I didn’t want to work that hard in school. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t have an academic personality even if I have a brain for it. So when I got to university I chose psychology and although it did feel like I was chickening out, it was what I was interested in so I just went ahead and dived in.

After the first year I realised I was acing everything and not even trying which was the worst thing that could have happened! (laughs) Because by my second year I had started to delve more into other subjects and read way more widely than the curriculum. So I started to challenge the teachers again because if you brought anything up out of the ordinary they were very predisposed to whatever the textbooks say - “This is what we are teaching you and that’s how it goes”! I can remember in particular in cognitive psychology where the lecturer – and I can still see her face right now! – was talking about when a child learns to read and saying because of the way a child’s brain develops there is no way they can read until they are five. I told her I was reading when I was three years old and brought up the possibility that they could read when younger than that but she wouldn’t even allow the idea to be brought up in the class! It was like I was offending her! I could read when I was three and I was sitting beside two brethrens whose cousins were reading at that age at the time so it opened up a whole discussion which I eventually didn’t win because I wasn’t the teacher! That woman’s class was the only one I ever got a C in and she affected my entire grade for university – it was like she did it on purpose! I had a lot of challenges with different personalities and opinions when I was growing up. When you read for yourself it makes it harder for people to tell you things unless you believe them. Most children were going to school to learn and not learning out of school but I grew up differently which made me a little difficult for teacher!”

My father had always exposed me to a level of Afrocentricity

On her philosophical education outside the system

“My father had always exposed me to a level of Afrocentricity because he was kind of a radical. He was a pastor but he went away to do his Masters at a theological seminary that was run by some very strict and what he termed almost racist white people. The way they presented information almost offensive to him. He went through a lot of those kinds of struggles because of the time he went to school and they made him very radical and very firm in his beliefs about African pride, knowing yourself and understanding your roots. He kind of passed that on to me because of how he spoke and how he related to people. As I said, I am the darkest child and he would outrightly favour me and make it known like it was something he was doing for himself – to make me feel very proud of the fact that I was so dark skinned. So ever since I was a little girl he would affirm things about black pride and being beautiful because you are black. When I got to Kingston I found the city mindset was much different. I would look and see some beautiful dark skinned boys and say “Wow!” and these boys would have no interest in me! They would only be interested in these other girls. So I would go into myself and start to write about it and explore that concept. It made me upset, not at the boys or even the situation, but at this slavery and this thing that was a heavy weight around all of our necks.

So it got me very into reading our history and by the time I got to high school they would expose us to books like by authors like William Green who had never set foot in the West Indies and was writing about it in a way that was very offensive to me because I was already reading other books that taught me a lot more about Africa. My education of Africa was not starting with slaves. For a lot of students in Jamaica, the first thing they hear about Africa was “That’s where they took the slaves from”. They don’t learn about Timbuktu having the first university or ancient medicine coming from Kemet or how the Kushites left Africa and educated other parts of the world. They don’t have any of that so they have no reason to feel proud of themselves. So I ended up looking like I was an aggressive little girl because I had all this information and won’t take any talk from anybody about it.

For a lot of students in Jamaica, the first thing they hear about Africa was "That's where they took the slaves from"

The first time I was exposed to the book Wretched Of The Earth by Frantz Fanon I was really excited by it. I was even excited about how the preface before the book started because the voice of the writer of the preface was a different voice from the author. It was almost as if he was preparing a white reader to absorb this information – that was how I received it because he used terms like “they”. I was like “Wow, it’s almost as if he thinks black people aren’t going to read this book”. There is a saying “If you want to keep something from black people put it in a book” and I’ve found some truth in that saying as said as it is. So when I started to read the book I got so excited and went to my dad and told him about it – and he went out and came back with a beat up copy of the same book! I was like “Wow, we really are our father’s children” and that opened a new chapter in our relationship where I got to talk very firmly about certain things – certain injustices that have filtered down into our society because of colonialism and imperialism – and my father had a lot of opinions about those things as well. There was a period where I was really angry and intolerant of a lot of things I didn’t agree with. If I thought it was injustice then I wasn’t having it. It was kind of a self-righteousness but it was just where I was in my development.  Because if you read the history you can’t help but become emotional.”

On patriotism

Jah9“It’s a very sensitive topic. I think this country and its people are blessed and strategically positioned on this rock with the soil we’ve been blessed with and the water and the land and the mountain-scape that protects us from hurricanes. The way we’ve been placed in the Caribbean Sea at that point in the journey of the Triangular Trade and how it was that Jamaica had to be passed at the time that it was and the particular Africans that got let off in the journey because they were kings and queens who were the least likely to be cooperative. To see the heritage we have and the bloodline we come from – because His Majesty said we in Jamaica are direct blood relatives to those in Ethiopia. Even His Majesty proclaims that so I see the importance of us as a people in that way. But in terms of patriotic? Patriotic has to do with politics. I have nothing to do with politics. I have nothing to do with it – I am not interested in their divide and rule colonialism bullshit at all.”

On Rastafari

“The real turning point in my whole journey in terms of Afrocentricty came when I started reading about His Imperial Majesty and being exposed to Rastafari culture. I don’t mean those Rastafari people you hear about who say “Burn this” and “Burn that”. I mean those real Rastafari people who adopted this livity of simplicity and humility – the highest form of livity. Because you’re not taught that Rastafari is anything divine; you are taught about “Dutty Rasta”. I wasn’t even taught that by my parents. I don’t know where I got that idea. It’s almost like you’re subliminally programmed to perceive that Rastafari are dirty heathens and dangerous. And when I was really truly exposed to Rastafari I started to wage battle within myself because I was so extremely drawn to it and at the same time there was something within me that was so opposed to it because I felt like I was betraying everything I was ever taught. But I couldn’t help it.

When I was really truly exposed to Rastafari I started to wage battle within myself

This was at university and at the same time I met a professor who was a doctoral candidate. He was so intelligent that it was almost like he spoke a different language. He would use words the way a Rastaman would change around the words. So a fruit like Mango would be I-Trod and Ackee would be I-KI and everything had a new name. I was like “How do you do that?” and he explained it was a kind of defiance as well as putting the essence of I into everything. He explained so beautifully and when someone can explain something and express it with good language than I am sold. I found myself around him so often and found my own ways to use the words as well and it became something beautiful to me.”

On diet

“I would see how these men would eat – no meat, no fish, and would prepare all their food with live ingredients. There is a fruit called Stinking Toe and when you grow up you heard Stinking Toe stinks when you crack the shell and no one would want to eat it. But that is such a nutritious food, it’s a nerve food, so I have seen this Rastaman collect  enough Stinking Toes, breaking the shells and putting them in a calabash and mashing it up with oats and nuts. I watched him put it together so effortlessly while he was reasoning with me and I was so intrigued like “I don’t want to taste that” and at the same time “I really want to taste that”. So when I started to eat from these ones that changed me.

I remember, little by little my own diet changing, and that was when I was exposed to marijuana. It was always something I was excited about but I wasn’t exposed to it. I got to sit with a steam chalice for the first time on one of the halls of residence. We would have a fire space and fire pit with logs around it and there would be upward of about 8 of us around the fire. Everyone would have their own steam chalice because there were calabash trees growing on the campus and bamboo growing and there were people who would built our little kutchie’s down in Papine so everything we needed was there. To sit with the herb and taste it and reach to the particular heights of meditation and hold certain reasoning under that meditation – there is no way you can not be moved. It opened up my mind, removed some of the inhibitions about not wanting to hear certain information and I started to absorb and to read – because when I hear something I don’t understand but my spirit believes it I will go search it out.

And that is how I found Rastafari – by reading about His Imperial Majesty. Because you hear propaganda about HIM but reading for myself I found The King wrote his own biography in two volumes in his own words – apart from the fact that it’s translated - so that nobody could make up a story about him. And there are volumes of speeches he wrote. So that now became the journey and I fell in love with The King. I grew up in a family where my grandfather and my father were gentlemen and this ill prepared me for the world because when I went out into the world I realised “Man no stay like your father”!”

The greatest gift my parents have given me – is the space to be myself

On leaving the church

“As I continued the journey I found I outgrew the church environment because I came to realize how person-centred it was. It was a lesser livity but my connection with The Most High was still the same since I was a little girl. Because that introverted nature was me knowing the difference between my personality and myself – being able to look at my personality and correct myself. That is something that the Bible will train you to do too. But I remember releasing even the Bible when I started to read certain things and find out where a lot of the information in the Bible comes from. That it is really an African story that they took and pieced together. I remember I became angry at the Bible and put it down. I stopped going to church and shut out all of Christianity from my reality. I decided that I was just going to have to find it. Jah was going to have to show me something because none of that was real. I struggled with it and talked to my dad about it and he understood that I was on a journey. He understood it was not my spirituality or him that I was turning my back on. He gave me the space. That is the greatest gift my parents have given me – the space to be myself. Especially as a young woman. People always want to determine what the girls do and watch what the girls do extra carefully. But my parents really took a lot of chances and gave me my space. That journey was really instrumental in me being able to spend some time with some elders who I would sit and listen to for hours as my mind would just blow wide open.”

On coming back to the Bible

“Learning about His Majesty from his own words really helped to ease some of the anger and some of the tension that was in me – to the point where I hardly even read about history any more. I’ve been so saturated with that information that I have learnt that it is only in releasing it that I can be free. It’s only through forgiveness of everything including myself that I am going to be able to grow and evolve and self-actualise. That was the message His Majesty brought and it was His Majesty who brought the word about reading the Bible – or I would never have taken up reading the Bible again. When the King said “Read it” I realised there was something beyond just the stories. This thing is a science. This Bible reading thing is not even about the physical book the Bible. There is a particular way I had to read it. Just like any other book I had to approach it the same way. I had to read it from beginning to end. I had to take it in particular dosages. And I had to approach it with humility, knowing that I am not dissecting it, just absorbing it bit by bit. And it is in doing it over the past year or so in small doses, one chapter a day, that I have realised that this is my story. This is the story of being a human being. This the challenge. It’s difficult to put that journey into words because I haven’t completed it yet. I have opted not to read ahead. I have opted to do it in this particular way was a ritual and as a reverence. There are a lot of rituals I employ in my life including the steam chalice which is a ritual in and of itself – it’s not just crushing up herb and rolling weed. It’s preparation. Just like the other elders who would burn the chalice and cut up their herb and have that whole ritual space and burn their kutchie every morning – as African people exiled in the west you will find those of us who are closer to our roots will create rituals for ourselves. That is what I have done within Rastafari.”

As African people exiled in the west... those of us who are closer to our roots will create rituals for ourselves

Read part 2 of this interview.

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Read comments (1)

Posted by fyahredball on 04.28.2013
Love Jah9, she is a beautiful sister but we must never judge seen the part of her reasoning where she is saying I am not talking about those rastas that is saying burn this and burn that I am talking about the real rastafarians... That statement is wrong love her she is a real artist but we must speak without offending especially, regarding our rastafari brothers and sisters this fire must burn if you have a different approach so what???? Everyone does there thing different we just need the oneness the togetherness and always show the love Jah bless.

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