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Interview: Jah9 (Part 2 - The Arrival)

Interview: Jah9 (Part 2 - The Arrival)

Interview: Jah9 (Part 2 - The Arrival)

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"When I sighted Rastafari every door opened"


Read part 1 of this interview.

In part two of our exclusive interview-meets-biographical-record with Jah9 we hear about how she came to be involved in music professionally. How her live performances gave rise to her unreleased first album with Beres Hammond, and how, with Rory Gilligan’s project 'New Name', she became one of the new roots movement’s brightest stars.


On having a live music rather than a sound system education

(laughs) No! No sound system. Because of how I grew up I wasn’t exposed to the dancehall culture. So it wasn’t until I went to university that I heard a lot of these things for the first time. I’d always loved music but my background was traditional or contemporary gospel music, old jazz, negro spirituals; or through choirs I would sing classical music, learn Latin songs or memorise folk songs. It was all traditional. I didn’t go to parties until I was in high school. At university I had all this time and all these personalities forcing me into it so I had access to it now. It wasn’t going to a party. It was going over to the student union. I would sit and hear all this and because I learn music so quickly – if I hear something put to music I can learn a song in no time. That’s why I used to put my studies to music! When I was exposed to this music there was some music I would enjoy and just watch how certain dancehall songs would affect me. The culture was really sensual and it was something completely new to me so I allowed it to just carry me for a while.

I wasn't exposed to the dancehall culture

But it didn’t sustain and then came Sizzla Kalonji and roots and dub and all this Rastafari driven music and I was in love again. I heard Sizzla saying some things I thought “Oh my God! Did he really just say that?” I remember when I heard that song No White God “I have no white God, don’t teach me anything wrong, could a white God save me from white man oppression” – Oh my gosh, this man is saying this out loud and singing it! Then I just got into him. All of the brethrens I had on campus would listen to strictly Sizzla. Sizzla put out a lot of music and in that time that was all the brethrens were listening to. When he would sing “Praise Ye Jah, hail The Emperor” and I would still feel a little self-conscious about saying “Rastafari” but I was just loving the culture – it was so rich and reached me so deeply.

Then I got exposed to instrumental dub which was a whole other world because music and writing had always been two separate things for me. I remember being exposed to it up in the mountains in Kingston by a brethren Gabre Selassie who has a sound system Rockers International. On Sundays he used to play out of these big boxes out of his yard because he lives up in the hills and can play his music loud. A brethren of mine took me round to his house one Sunday and I remember hearing this music. I knew what dub was but I had never had it over and over so loud and I was high on the music. I had not even met Gabre Selassie that day. I was just at his house. So the next Sunday when the brethren couldn’t go I just reached this man’s yard, came into his space didn’t even say anything to anyone, and just curled up by the box and listened to this music until I started to hear wordsound just come into it. Because there were open spaces that allowed me to pull me from my imagination. When I started to sing what was coming out was different to me and the way I was singing was not like how I had been taught to sing. I knew this was a new inspiration so I just kept on going back until I built a better relationship with Gabre as well.”

On the live music scene

“It was through that time that I started to write the music and when I started to write the music, opportunities started to appear to perform. I ended up meeting Seretse Small who is one of our best jazz guitarists in Jamaica. When he heard the sounds I was spitting on this music and I was telling him about jazz on dub and how I knew that if I could sing on anything the roots music would pull the wordsound out of me – he would put his guitar on the reggae drum and bass. We had this amazing chemistry where he realised what I was trying to do and he heard that I had an ear for melody even though my style wasn’t what he was used to. So he started to shop it around to the different live music venues in Kingston where we’d do three hour sets where I’d put in some of my original work with some contemporary jazz and some Kalonji. I’d sing Kalonji on a jazz rhythm and do three 45 minute sets in a night. Singing all night helped to develop the confidence as well to say “I can do this”.

The response I was getting was overwhelming for me because it was not a major part of my life, just a hobby, just something I would have been doing anyway,  so people reacting like that made me confident to do it. Then you had spaces like Jamnesia where I could go and there would be a band there, no matter what I wanted to sing these youths were so talented. Inilek and Icah Wilmot – they are surfers and musicians who have their own band and this jam session out on the beach where anything I could sing they could play. So this opened another world to me I could immerse myself in. Every other Saturday I would be there till 4 o’clock in the morning just singing until I developed a reputation and people came looking forward to hearing the songs and would learn the songs. So the following developed from the live circuit and the Jamnesia circuit and while there were a lot of people who didn’t know about me, those who did were hungry for something.”

I got some invaluable lessons from Beres on how to create a timeless song

On her unreleased album with Beres Hammond

“Through Seretse I met Sheldon Bernard who is a keyboard player and flautist and the first musical genius I ever met – certified! He was the keyboard player and musical director for Beres Hammond and Harmony House. When I expressed to him what I was trying to do, he wanted to be a part of it and Jah just inspired us. So we ended up demoing some fooling around in the studio with a few of us. I didn’t even know he intended to carry it and let anyone hear it because it wasn’t my best work! He took it to Beres and I think he took it to another person of that level. Now in my mind because I was already working at that time, I was corporate by that time, I thought the only way I was going to pursue music if someone at the level of a Beres Hammond – and I remember literally calling the man’s name out of my mouth! – would have to be interested in doing some work with me.

And it just manifested that way because Sheldon took the music to Beres who was interested enough to invite me in for a conversation where we ended up reasoning for a few hours and we made a real human connection. I guess it was a cool enough story for him to be intrigued and then he heard the voice and the potential in it and asked me and Sheldon “What do you want to do?” and we told him we wanted to do an album. So he just made the studio space available and we started working. I had songs written already because since I started writing songs I just wrote – there was a period I was going through where I wrote a song every day – so I had a lot to choose from. We started to write and between the musicians that Sheldon knew and the musicians we had access to through Beres we would bring people in, I would sing the songs, and we would work harmonies and build the music around it with all live instruments. After we would lay the tracks down Beres would come into the studio and we would be there for hours. I would leave work and go to the studio and be there until 2 o’clock in the morning and Beres would be there in the early days to say “That sounds cool but try this”.

I got some invaluable lessons from him on how to create a timeless song.  I can perform, but a song can sound different every time you perform so the challenge was to translate that into one record of the song – and that is what he is the master of. So he would be like “Yeah that sounds good if people are in front of you but if all they have is your voice to hear then try this” and I love to learn and soaked up everything he told me. That was a great learning experience. And I think Beres truly enjoyed it because he is not a man who would just stick around because he has to – and he was there with me for the hours. He’s an artist so I know he enjoyed that part of the process. We finished the record. It’s at the stage of post-production and we still haven’t moved any further with it than that. They ended up doing a tour. It was almost four years in the making yet we still have not completed that record! The fun part is over and so the other part of it is more tedious.”

On meeting Rory Gilligan and the New Name album project

“During that time I met Rory Stone Love. During one of the breaks in transmission Gabre linked me and said he had a producer who wanted a female voice on a rhythm he was doing. I knew the name Rory Stone Love but as I said I was never exposed to the culture. Being a dancehall DJ it made me a little apprehensive but I just took it on faith that if Gabre endorsed this brethren then I was going to go. I ended up going to his studio in his house and was very, very serious, militant feminine and he was so respectful and so warm that it made me really comfortable and I ended up putting one of my songs on his rhythm. The whole working relationship was so easy and so effortless that we ended up doing another song together and started to develop a friendship.

I met him at the right time in his life when he was just starting a particular journey. He wasn’t cornrows and cigarettes any more – he had stopped smoking for a while and started to natty up his hair – then I came with this whole, healthy living, healthy eating, exercise livity and he was so receptive to it that it was like he was waiting for someone to come and tell him these things. If you talk to him he is very open about how I affected him and it overwhelms me sometimes how he talks about it too! He understood how to translate the music that I wanted to make because he understood and loved roots music and was true to that tradition. Because he isn’t a musician he doesn’t look at music like it is interesting chords or trying to be fancy. He looks at it like there is a sound that is roots. So when he pulls musicians he knows the sound he is going for. He is not communicating in the language of music. That, coupled with the vocal style and wordsound I was spitting, meant it got to the point where there was nothing I could bring him that he didn’t like, so I was worried I needed another opinion because Rory likes everything!

I met Rory at the right time in his life when he was just starting a particular journey

It worked to the point where I said “Rory, let’s do a project. Let’s do nine songs and see what happens!” As we started to do the music the relationship grew and the potential grew and we started to understand each other and he started to know the kind of sound I would like. He started building with me in mind without even knowing it and it got to the point where the chemistry was amazing. So our project was less about Rory producing this album for Jah9 and more about Rory and Jah9 producing these works together. He started to trust me in a way that really gave me a lot of creative freedom. New Name is the product.”

On there being no crossover on the album

“I haven’t even thought about it that way but you’re right. I guess when people are putting a record together, if you are going to have a sound like that on it you go into it with that mind-set. You do it with that in mind. But what Rory did was give me the freedom to express. He wasn’t worried that I didn’t have any song for the radio. We just wanted our sound to be authentic. Our goal was to be true to the roots. So it’s almost like I’ve never thought about crossover. I never grew up wanting to be an artist and studying it like you have to have this or do that. I’m a poet so my thing was just expression. I would look at it like: “How many themes have I tackled?” I wanted to make sure that it has enough themes that it’s like you’re reading a book so it has to flow in a particular way and it has to touch certain things. I remember when I had the nine songs down I would say “Ok, these three are more militant, these three are more love themed and these three are more aspirational.” I had no thoughts in my mind about what’s going to play on the radio. As the songs developed Rory would say “This song is leaning toward…” and he would find those things within the song but it wasn’t an ambition to try to cross over. We really went out on a limb with this one to try to be true to the mission and just do this. We had no idea what kind of impact it would have. We still don’t know what kind of impact it would have because we’re getting good reviews now but you never know! I didn’t want it to be “a female album”. This is just an album. This is wordsound on dub music. I got that space and once you give me the space I will give myself space and the wordsound will flow.”

I didn't want it to be "a female album". This is just an album. This is wordsound on dub music

On the songs

“Even though we intended to have nine songs some other songs came up and we are like “No, we have to”. Even Jungle, because I didn’t write Jungle for myself. I wrote it for Bunny Rugs and when Rory heard it he was like “You can’t give him that one” so it ended up being on it!

New Name was one of the last ones I wrote when I was at the peak of my journey with Rastafari – the highest point I had reached at that point where with His Majesty it was just clear in my mind who this man was and what my mission was going to be. I had listened to the songs I had written before and they were all about The King even if I was afraid to say His Name. Because I would have put him in a song until I had met him in my own heart and seen it for myself. I didn’t want to be one of those artists who just say “Rastafari” and it doesn’t mean anything. I wasn’t even sure if anything on my spiritual journey was going to manifest on this record. I didn’t know this was the direction it would have turned to.

But that song came to me when I was working on Preacher Man, which was written maybe seven years ago when I was going through that whole journey I was going through before where I was pulling away from the mould I was being fitted in to. When I met that song New Name it was like an echo in the back of my head which got louder until I had to stop working on Preacher Man and express. When I wrote it, it just all came out at once – everything. That second verse “Young mama frightened as she wraps her brain, around the work she has cut out for her she must maintain” – those lines, those bars were written maybe three months before, without me knowing where I would put them. But after I finished the first verse and sang the chorus I knew “That’s what that’s for”. I put it there and everything else unfolded around it. It was beautiful to me and I was singing it all day. When my parents went to church I was singing it and when they came back I was singing it still. That week I trod around with the CD with the rhythm on it showing it to all my Rastafari brethren saying “Listen to this”.

Reading the autobiography and a chapter a day just opened up a whole heap of something in my spirit to just let these things flow. And since I wrote that song I have not been able to keep him out of my music. Unafraid, unashamed, confidently proclaiming that everything can be tied back to him as the example. It may sound like a preaching type of thing, but in the time we are living in, there is nothing more relevant to life right now than hope – and that is what His Majesty provides for us, not just as black people but as human beings. He provides hope that it is possible to live like human beings in a way that is exemplary – you can aspire to be better than you are. His words are impeccable. Everything is there for us to see as example. So you really and truly have to not want better for yourself to not get better.”

On saying “I know” not “I believe” or “I think” in her lyrics and where that surety comes from

Jah9“Wow. I guess it’s just how my journey has progressed. Seeing things manifest. Not just believing things but knowing them through my experiences. Some experiences that I’ve had I couldn’t even share because you wouldn’t believe in the spiritual journey. Because that is the journey. It has not been a musical journey. It was been a spiritual journey – the moment my eyes were opened in a real way. Till now, that has been the journey, that has been the struggle, that has been the battle that has been within my spirit and for my soul. So when I say I know something it means I have had an experience where I have found the truth. So when I say I know that Haile Selassie is The Almighty it is not because I have been told. It is because of my experience with His Words and how they have taken root in my own heart and how that reality has made it so that with the experiences I have afterward I get to see the signs and see the universe communicating with me.

And there are those that will understand and there are those who will think “What is she talking about?” But trust me, if we are open, then the universe can talk to us. The Most High can talk to us. In our African tradition, our ancestors are real. There is no word for supernatural in the African context. It’s all nature. That is the kind of mind-set I have always - battling with the things you are programed with in the west versus what is innate within you. Because all of us know these things. That is why when you hear certain things it resounds in your spirit. There is information that we learn and there is information that we remember from our cellular memory. Thing you don’t even have to be taught and when you hear them they resound in your spirit as truth. When you learn to recognise that inner voice and recognise when it is your spirit that is talking versus when it is your brain and your programming then it put you in a position to know. Because now you hear this and you prove it and you test it in reality and you realise “Wow that’s true” and you read and you study and you find information or something happens in your experience to justify it – then you know it. So over time you begin to realise “When that happens, that’s something that I know as opposed to something I believe”. It’s like a different place in your mind and your body that you know from. That’s as best as I can explain it!”

In our African tradition, our ancestors are real. There is no word for supernatural

On Protoje

“You know when you meet somebody and you don’t know what purpose they are supposed to serve? Then years after it’s like “This is why you came into my life”. It started off as a creative link. I really appreciated the work he was putting out. I loved the fact that he approached the music like this was what he knew we wanted to do from a long time. Me, I just had the raw talent. I knew I could write, make music, and sing but turning that into industry and presenting as product to the world? Oje knew how to do that – certainly better than I did.

I met him close to the end of my corporate plantation journey and just seeing him as someone who had never gone through that plantation life helped to give me the confidence to say “That security doesn’t necessarily have to be. There is a whole world of other things people do than work. There is life happening while you are locked up in the office”. So that helped me at a crucial time in my life to ease into my transition away from the 9 to 5 into 24 hours of life.

He was a good writer. His style of writing was different and he had this country accent. I just love to hear country people talk. People from rural Jamaica. It’s a different sound from the city people. He was sounding kind of hip hop, kind of reggae but he was still holding onto that country accent and that made me rate him because that is different! He was confident with his accent and I just love to hear the country accent because it sounds like it is African they are talking. He incorporated that.

He really did come at me really hard because I was more of an introvert and never had a great circle of people who I would talk to every day. But when he heard me perform at Jamnesia that was when it really connected with him because he’d never heard a girl do that. I think it was Warning I was singing which had a lot of chopping on it and he approached me. I was always jamming with the brethrens down at Jamnesia or finding musicians for the sake of playing music so I kind of brought him into that jam session kind of space too. Because he wanted to have a band but he hadn’t started to put the pieces together yet, whereas live music and performance was my thing. So I kind of opened up myself because I realised he was hungry for something and it was like it was through me he was being fed this thing. It wasn’t even like it was me he was having this thing for – it was just music. It enlivened him and because we both had that in common we ended up doing a lot of work together, just building. And he trusted my ability to write so when he was putting things together he’d involve me. He rated my music highly and sometimes he would remind me that he rated me. People don’t come at you that hard just like that. But it was straight because our relationship was creative. I had never had a creative relationship like that before so I didn’t hold back anything.

The first song that we did was Grow, a song that we used to perform live, but it’s not on any record yet. I think it’s going to be on the next record he does. When he heard the verse I put on Grow then every time I would do something I would watch him be impressed and that helped to give me confidence too, like “OK, he’s a student of this thing and if he rates it highly then those are the little things that the universe has sent.” Like a Protoje to endorse what I was doing or like a Beres. I never struggled through the industry. Always things would happen and the right people would come and propel me in that direction without effort in terms of pushing and fighting. The hardest thing was within myself. Certain journeys and certain personality issues I had to work out within myself. It was as those things happened that the way became even clearer. And when I sighted Rastafari every door opened. I was like “Janno, look how long this thing with Beres take” but I wasn’t even ready. Not my music or my voice that wasn’t ready. Just I and I – needed to be formed in the right way to have the right message to deliver to the people so that I wouldn’t be chewed up and spat out. Now I have full confidence because I am not going out there pushing Jah9 in a way where anyone can put pressure on me. All praises are due to The Most High because that is where the inspiration comes from, that is what the work is about. That is the example that Bob gave us. Every interview that Bob did he praised The King so he did not have to absorb that tension within himself. He could pass it on and know that The King gets the praise.”

I never struggled through the industry...The hardest thing was within myself

On her writing process

“Sometimes I will be awoken out of my sleep and have to find pen and paper or grab my phone because I have to express. Other times I will get music and know I have to write something so I will just listen to the music and melody will come and I will fit words on to it. Sometimes it will be a poem I have written and when I hear the melody the poem comes back to me and I can structure the poem into the song. Sometimes I’ll hear a bass-line resounding in my own head and then hear a refrain and then a riff and all the parts will come together. Sometimes it will just be the music. Sometimes it will just be four lines that repeat over and over. I’ve been writing so long that there are so many different ways that it comes to me. It’s like a feeling that comes over me and then I know something is going to happen.”

On poets that inspire

“Maya Angelou is an inspiration. When I say poets I don’t just mean a spoken word. I consider Sizzla Kalonji a poet. I consider Nina Simone a poet and I consider Billie Holiday a poet. In more recent times Mos Def is a poet that inspires me. Common is a poet that inspires me. Mel Cooke here in Jamaica is another poet that inspire me. Miss Lou is the boss. A lot of Jamaican poets inspire me too like my colleagues in the Poetry Society – young poets like Richard Dingwall or Dingo and Samuel  Gordon and Yashika Graham. Oku Onuora and Debbie Young and Lorna Goodison. Michael Smith I am not as familiar with but I recently went to a sort of opera of some of his work at Edna Manley by Peter Ashbourne. It was through that I started to notice this man’s work. I love the themes. His themes are awesome. Linton Kwesi Johnson. Those are some revolutionary poets. Even Mutabaruka. (laughs) We have a rich heritage of rebellious poets here in Jamaica.”

On when the Beres album will be released – and future projects

“That is a brilliant question and as soon as I know you will know! (laughs) But the intention is to get this one [New Name] cleared and off the table, then jump back and attack and put my energy into making that manifest. But I have learned over the years to surrender so it may be it’s the next project but with so much music and so much work it doesn’t have to be. I am open to the leading of the spirit where this is concerned. I’ve stressed myself out about that album for a while until the point where I’ve released all stress about what’s going to happen musically, so I’m just watching to see what happens with this one. The difference between what happens last week and this week is so dramatic in terms of how some quote unquote “very important people” have heard and are stalking me now and causing a little apprehension. I’m very interested to see what happens when this one is out and the kind of opportunities and resources that can be made available so I can move to the next project.

This music is not perishable

But because of the way I write, even if that album doesn’t come out next, this music is not perishable. It is still relevant. I keep hearing how much people love Preacher Man and that is the oldest song on this record. This is just to show you these themes and the way I write means I end up writing about current events or social realities that have always been a struggle. And the solution which is knowledge of self, knowledge of The King which is the principle of the King crowning King within yourself. Understanding that His Majesty is not the physical flesh man, it is the Christ principle which you can soak up and become. Words like “God manifested in flesh” - that is all of us. All of us have the potential to be that. So to declare what happens next? I don’t even have any ambition. Somebody made me realise “You have no ambition” and they said it and I received it in the most complimentary way. I really do live in the day, living one day at a time doing the best with the opportunities I am given, trying not to aspire so I burst my heart but looking at what is coming. Sometimes you have an aspiration and you end up standing in your own way. That I’m so determined about what’s going to be next that something amazing happens and I don’t even have the space for it because I have decided what I want to do? No, I won’t get caught in that trap.”

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