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Interview: Hezron

Interview: Hezron

Interview: Hezron

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"Some people say I’m stubborn. People say I’m a rebel"


Jamaican reggae and American soul have long had a reciprocal relationship. In the 60s the high voice of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions inspired Pat Kelly, Slim Smith and Cornel Campbell while the rougher, deeper Otis Redding found its equivalent in Toots Hibbert. But as soul became slicker and increasingly sophisticated in the late 70s and early 80s Jamaica’s dancehall revolution exploded and gritty voiced deejays ruled.

Cultural critics such as Professor Mark Anthony Neal have observed that since the 80s the likes of Teddy Pendergrass and Barry White have been replaced by higher registered, more sensitive sounding singers. Yet the lower, traditionally masculine tone is still popular in Jamaica as evidenced by Beres Hammond, Gramps Morgan and now Hezron Clarke – who recently released his debut double album The Life I Live(d).

Clarke had a tough upbringing in a small village in St James Parish before migrating to Miami to join his father where he began a career singing R&B. He returned home as a reggae artist – and The Life I Live(d) (like Singing Melody’s 2012 They Call Me Mr Melody) brings together reggae and R&B in one package. And although his music might sound sweet, Hezron mixes love songs with reality themes based on his own experiences of poverty. Angus Taylor discovered how his unique mix of strength and sensitivity, music and poetry, and diligence and rebelliousness came to be…


Where exactly are you from?

I’m from a place between Moy Hall and Tower Hill. They call it True Gully because it’s between two known places.

Would you say you were from a poor background?

Definitely man. Growing up there were four of us brothers in a family yard with uncles, aunts, grandparents and mother and father. One big land with three different houses on it in close proximity. So when one was hungry the other one brought food over and we shared it. Music was the same too. I heard a lot of kinds of music because everyone was playing their own music. I experienced poverty there but when I moved to the US I experienced poverty too – it wouldn’t leave me alone.

Your Grandfather’s first cousin is Lee Scratch Perry. Were you in contact with those Perrys growing up?

Yeah. How did you know that? My grandfather used to always tell me about them while growing up. Then later when things started happening for me in Jamaica and I became this local star they started popping up! (laughs) I saw them and they look just like my family. They can’t hide.

I used to study Shakespeare

You’re also related to Queen I-frica’s family who are based near Mo Bay?

Her stepfather is my cousin. He just died recently. Bongo Iyah. He was one of the elders in the whole Rasta movement. From 1963 he was one of the founders.

You started singing in church choir from about age 7. You also wrote poems. How did music and poetry come into your life?

I was singing and reading poems in church. The music part was natural in my family from my grandfather being a singer and my uncle and my mother and my brothers. Me and my brothers would sing and do our little thing but I didn’t stay too deep in it because I was more into the worldly kind of music. More dancehall vibes. The poetry was just a natural thing. One of my uncles used to play Mutabaruka every morning. I guess that contributed to my poetic talents. It’s just a natural thing from God – just a way with words.

How much was sound system a part of your background?

In my area there used to be a sound called Wicked Force. When I was studying for school at my parents’ I used to hear it through the bushes. Some of my friends were doing deejaying and stuff. In my mind I would critique them if I didn’t like the melody or the lyrical content was weak. So one day I just walked up the road to where the music was playing and just started toasting on the mic and everybody was amazed. So Wicked Force sound was really my training.

Were you singing or deejaying?

Both. I could sing from a long time but I did more of the deejay part because the deejay thing was happening at the time.

Your father migrated to the USA and you and your mother stayed in Jamaica. He got into some trouble with the law.

There are still struggles and the hardship in Jamaica but it was worse then. He got the opportunity to leave for the betterment of us. While he was there living in America he got caught up in a lot of stuff. All Jamaicans are hustlers because of the system so he got locked up while I was still in school. He was my hero but he went there and that happened.

At school you were very good at mathematics. You were studying to be a maths teacher.

I went to Sam Sharpe teachers college. I left there for about five months and went to see my cousins in England and when I came back my father was filing for all of us to get a green card. So I didn’t really get a chance to teach and went straight to the US.

What did you think of England when you were over there?

(laughs) It was good and bad because I remember to survive I was scrubbing some pots over there that were as big as me! Even though I am a big man I could have dropped in those pots! But what I liked as the vocabulary and the literacy over there. I used to study Shakespeare all the time. I am a natural poet so I used to like how he put the words together. England for me was an edifying inspiration.

How did you come to settle with your father in Miami?

We went to Texas first for a few months and then we went to Miami where I lived for seven years. I went to college there doing a pre-law course because I wanted to be a lawyer but the music just wouldn’t leave me alone. And the struggles we had to go through caused me to go into hustling and all that stuff. We were living in a serious ghetto again in Miami. We had cameras everywhere which at first I thought was Hollywood style but it was actually watching the drug dealers.

How did you start singing R&B in America?

It was a natural thing. I started listening to the new thing at the time like Usher and Sisqo from Dru Hill. He really brought me back into it. I really loved his flavour because he had a soul voice like mine. That’s why I like voices like Beres, Teddy Pendergrass and Sam Cooke because a young guy like me is doing that. So naturally I just started running to it. I started singing around, writing songs, doing talent shows and winning them, winning poetry competitions. Just going back into the whole art-form. I got signed by a label called Chatterbox that was run by the director of the movie Shottas. After that I got signed with Danger Zone and started working with Def Jam. Then I started working with Warner Music and they wanted to sign me but it was like a trap because they said I was a threat to Jaheim.

I like voices like Beres, Teddy Pendergrass and Sam Cooke

Why did you leave a soul music career behind and decide to go back to reggae and Jamaica?

You have a saying “home is where the heart is”. It’s beyond the physical – it’s a spiritual and almost genetic vibes, internally, in the blood. People leave Jamaica and go and live overseas for 20 or 30 years and when they reach a certain age they just want to come home naturally – it’s a calling. That’s what music did for me. I grew up doing reggae and dancehall so America was just an experiment. A learning thing like a college. I was fascinated with the new stuff vocally and that style so I wanted to conquer it and I feel like I did. The last record company I signed to said “Your culture, you have a unique thing in your voice from reggae music and you should do something different”. I said “You know what? It’s time” and I came back home. It worked but I went through a lot of struggles.

What kind of struggles?

HezronIndustry politics. I guess it’s in every industry. Some people say I’m stubborn. People say I’m a rebel. I’m true to music and there is no compromising it and I’m not into the hype – you cannot dictate my pace. And it’s evident now in the success of this album already – just the feedback I see consistently. It’s touching everybody and it gives me more strength and I’m glad I never compromised.

You have what they’d call in soul and R&B “a masculine voice”- in the vein of Teddy Pendergrass. How come that kind of voice has become less fashionable in US soul yet it’s still popular in Jamaica?

I think about it all the time. I love R&B – rhythm and blues – so much and it hurts me and so many people in the world to see what the music has gone to. I really wish they’d concentrate in the real voices and start bringing back the production and make it soul again. Because when the woman is not feeling that music with the voices that women love then something is wrong.

But what I bring is what I bring. God gave me my voice. I’m singing my story in Jamaican music but I love R&B vocals which connect to me as a black man. The Jamaican people like American vocals like Teddy Pendergrass – we grew up on it so it’s a natural thing for us. So I took it on and I know my place. Just like Sam Cooke was to his people and Teddy was to his people. But I’m more of a Sam Cooke because Sam sang spiritual music and love songs – and I sing reality music and love songs. Teddy was more love but we have similar commanding tones.

America was just an experiment. A learning thing like a college

Your new album is 26 tracks long – that’s a lot for debut.

Everything I do has to be impactful. I had to let people know I can do it consistently to the highest level. If it was 15, 16 or 17 it would be good but 26 songs it is unquestionable. The other reason is I have been here for a while. Tomorrow, May 22nd it will be seven years since I’ve been back. These songs are most of the songs I have done and when people heard I was coming with the album a lot of them said they wanted the old songs. It’s catalogue-wide.

So if in a few months’ time the record company Tad’s says “This is a hit – we have to do the follow up” – will you have enough songs left over or will you need to get writing?

I plan to milk this album. Me and Tad’s agreed that we wanted to make sure this album is embedded in the system. I don’t want it to be hyped and then disappear. I want people to know each of these songs. We’re going to do a lot of singles off this album over another two years almost. There will be the Life I Live(d) Part 1, 2, and 3 but there will be albums in between. People want me to do a cover album. I have always wanted to do some songs that I liked. But for this album it is definitely going to be maxed out.

How did you link with Shaggy for the song Two Places?

The Shaggy link was through Danny Champagne. He had a juggling that Champagne Records was putting out and he heard me singing and wanted me to go on it. He was also friends with Shaggy from back in the day. He went to Shaggy with the rhythm and said “I have these guys on it and I want you to come on it”. Shaggy said “I want a singer to sing the hook for me this time” Shaggy listened to the different voices and picked my voice”. Danny called me and said “Yow, Shaggy wants to do a song with you”. We sent it back to Shaggy and he loved the song and the concept and he came in and did his thing.

How did you link your long-time hero Mutabaruka for the song the Needy and the Greedy?

That song was originally done without him. You can hear it is a full song. I wanted him because he was a voice in my household for many years growing up so I knew when I got back he would be one of the voices I would want to collab with. So I sent him it and he said “I love this song and I love this guy’s voice so I will definitely do the collab”. He came and did his things and it’s been a good relationship since. He guides me since then until now making sure I’m on the right path. He’s one of those guys we as Jamaicans have to look up to. He’s one of the lambs to the slaughter of righteousness.

The first 60 seconds of a song has to capture you

The song Can’t Take the Pressure starts as if it’s going to be a love song and then suddenly takes a sudden left turn into reality. Tell me about how that came to you.

You’re very deep in your research. The thing I have learned is how to capture the ear. It’s something I learned dealing with record companies in America. They said the first 60 seconds of a song has to capture you. While we live in this place of extreme poverty called Jamaica I know it is a vibes place and we are resilient so we love vibes and lyrics. So in the beginning I’m like “This morning I get a vibes to write a love song… I kissed the empress upon her cheeks saying ‘I won’t be long’…” so they are listening for a story and I’m bring the story to them. “But when mi reach the stop light you broke the vibes” and then the real essence of the song – what I really wanted to say started after that “Little baby girl prostituting in daylight” – they started listening because I captured them. Because even though we go through the struggle – it’s how you put it – nobody wants to hear the problem as it starts. It has to start with a vibe. That’s just the way we are as a people. So it was a strategic thing. It’s a reality that I experienced getting up to go on the road but I had to deliver it in a way to capture the people.

The rhythm to the song Message from the Grave uses some New Orleans Funeral Jazz – whose idea was that?

David Scorpion who is from England produced it because he heard me singing the song because I wrote it on the guitar. It gave that vibes where he started talking about that New Orleans funeral vibes mixed with reggae. When you hear the song it’s a story about a badman, a real gunman, a real killer that died and he’s telling me from the grave that I should tell the kids this. I try to be different when I do these things. Deep. He interpreted it and we out it together so I respect that. Scorpion did a great job on the production.

Another English connection comes through Those Days which is almost like your own version of Beres’ Rockaway - you mention Rodigan’s 1983 clash with Barry G.

It was a big clash back then. Barry G was the first to bring in radio clashes so that’s a part of history. I try to let people see – word for word and picture for picture – why I say bring back those days. Lime Tree Lane, Barry G and Rodigan. These things resonate. I choose my words carefully because I want my point to come across.

I choose my words carefully because I want my point to come across

Your lyrics are very specific to Jamaican culture with no apology. But because you combine reggae with R&B you can bring your culture to the wider world in the same way you capture the listeners for your reality story on Can’t Take the Pressure.

My advantage is I lived in the US. I lived out of the country for a while so I look at my music that the world saw already from Bob and Peter and people are complaining that they are not getting it. I understand the strategy and see my purpose why my voice is here. This is a younger version of what happened then. People understand English all over so I do it in English but I speak the culture which is Jamaican culture through reggae music. The world loves it already as proven by Bob and Peter and all those great ones. So this is just a rekindling – just a Hezron touch and a new DNA towards the same principles until you understand what Bob and those guys were doing. Some people have said to be that it’s strange that so many artists have come before me and they don’t get that. But you have to understand it and stay around it and absorb it to deliver it.

Give me a deejay, a poet and a scientist that inspired you growing up?

This interview! (laughs) I used to love and study the story of Galileo. I was deeply in science because as you know I am a thinker and the music has to be thought out. On the sound system there were a lot of deejays that I loved like Buju Banton and Ninja and Bounty Killer and Terror Fabulous. The poet was Mutabaruka initially. I just loved his delivery. And then when I went to England Shakespeare gave me something real.  

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Read comments (2)

Posted by Shani on 07.04.2014
Fabulous Album! real lyrics! deep meditation! HE IS THE NEXT BEST THING SINCE SLICE BREAD! no joke! watch out fi this Artiste!

Posted by Manote Ezra on 08.28.2014
Blessings Hezron, Love your Chunes. would love to read ur poems

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