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Interview: Kabaka Pyramid in Kingston

Interview: Kabaka Pyramid in Kingston

Interview: Kabaka Pyramid in Kingston

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"We can't focus on spirituality when we don't have food to eat"


When United Reggae first interviewed cultural lyricist Kabaka Pyramid in late 2011 he was introducing himself to the world via his free download Rebel Music EP. So our interview covered who he was and where he came from.

In 2015 Kabaka is an established artist and central figure in the collective movement termed the Reggae Revival. Therefore our second conversation focuses more on what he thinks of the world around him.

Angus Taylor spoke to Kabaka on location in Kingston at his organisation Bebble Rock’s HQ in Kencot. He had just awoken from a well-deserved lie in - having returned from the Get Together show in Miami with Stephen Marley then completed a gruelling schedule of appearances for February’s Reggae Month.

The night before the interview, campus police shut down Kabaka’s headline performance at the University of the West Indies just as he was showcasing his scathing anti-government Damian Marley produced single Well Done. The resulting discussion was politically charged (even for him).

Kabaka Pyramid

Last night the police switched off the sound as you were starting to sing Well Done. What was your take on what happened?

Apparently according to the police the show was supposed to be done by nine. The people involved in the show told us it was supposed to be done at ten so that was the information I was working with. The police have to do their job, I don’t know if it was done deliberately – some people are theorising that it was because of the song! (laughs) But they were trying to lock it off from before I went on stage. I just flipped it around and made the most of it. I think the students enjoyed it.

At the time it looked like they were shutting it off because of the lyrics. You asked for one more song and when you started talking about the government they pulled the plug. A marketing or PR person would say you couldn’t have had better advertising for the single.

Exactly! I’ve done some interviews and people have been asking me “What will you do if the song gets banned?” and I was like “That’s probably some of the best PR you can get for a song!” I want to make the most of these situations and hope that the idea of the song spreads. Even if they lock down the song it’s just the idea of it. We have to hold the government accountable as a people.

We have to hold the government accountable

Students tend to be ideological – because they’ve not gone out into the world and had to compromise. Do they will tend to react to your messages about capitalism and injustice and not just accept them as the way things are?

Definitely. Not only the ideological side but the intellectual side and the listening aspect is a major thing. They’re listening intently to the lyrics and getting the different ideas. My music is kind of a bit intellectual in the way I put my words together so I definitely love to perform in front of university students. The crowds listen and react in time. They get the lyrics and the ideas quickly.

For those that haven’t heard the song - what is it about?

It’s a sarcastic commending of the government for managing to keep the country down for so long. For limiting the development of the country and the potential of its people to manifest as an economic power in this region. I’m congratulating them for that but in a sarcastic way because I see that in the 53 years that we have been independent not a lot has been done. A lot of things have gone backward in terms of our resources and our production, our minerals, our farming – we are importing more food than we’re exporting when we don’t need to. It’s a song encapsulating all of those ideas.

In the 53 years we have been independent not a lot has been done

Sarcasm isn’t used in message music very often. Why did you use this approach?

It wasn’t something that I thought about and said “I’m going to do a song one day that’s going to be sarcastic”. The words came while I was vibing to the rhythm so I said “I’ll just go with this”. Because I like that my music is different. Terms like “capitalist” don’t get mentioned regularly in songs. I did We No Want No Capitalist and Never Gonna Be A Slave where I’m talking about the average journey for somebody with locks getting work and being discriminated against. You don’t hear people talking about the fact that you get trapped with student loans in schools. But this is just stepping it up a notch.

Are you a sarcastic person in day to day life?

Definitely! (laughs) So it’s natural for me to do it in reggae music. But it’s definitely not the norm in terms of reggae music.

A lot of people use sarcasm as a shield from pain. Do you?

Well it could be. In my personal life I’m not sure. I use it more in a humorous way but I don’t know if there are some deep underlying things behind that! (laughs) I think there is a lot of pain for the nation so I could definitely see that being the underlying cause for its use in the song.

If someone puts on a commercial show with a lot of slackness and no political content they will have no problem paying off the police to let it go on for as long as possible. But if you’re criticising the system you don’t have that option.

It’s just one of the things with the business and how the country is run. We definitely support derogatory music in general. When you look at the big corporate entities that sponsor artists or have artists sign to them, their music is in majority derogatory. At the top end it’s just party music with no message really. The low end is all about money, fame, vanity. So those artists are not revolutionary, they are not going to incite anything that is going to stop the progress of these governments or these capitalist entities, so they sign these artists and they support that whole process.

Kabaka Pyramid and Police

You are anti-capitalist but what are the alternatives? Socialism? More pluralism? Theocracy?

I haven’t really decided on a political “ism” that I would support. But it would definitely be something community based. Sharing of resources is a fundamental thing. The idea of ownership is the root cause of capitalism. I own this. I need to acquire this for myself. There were certain times places and lifestyles where it was more of a sharing community kind of vibe. And we find the overall level of peace and happiness for people is higher under that kind of setting.

In the modern world it would be difficult to just somehow end capitalism. I can’t really see that happening. But at least the CEOs and directors of these companies should have a mind-set of “Look, we need to even out this whole poverty thing in the world”. They are the ones who have the capital to establish things where people can work for themselves and create value for themselves instead of just selling them something disposable and sucking the life out of people for your capitalistic gains. In smaller and larger scales within communities - self-sufficiency is necessary. Whatever the political system is it needs to promote self-sufficiency. Producing your own food and your own clothing. Whatever it is you need – food, clothes, shelter – people need to be able to provide these for themselves. Then you expand based on your needs from that.

The idea of ownership is the root cause of capitalism

The song Well Done is produced by Damian Marley. In our previous interview we discussed his influence on you as a youth. How did you link with him?

He reached out when I was in Miami over a year ago. He sent word that he was interested in what I am doing and possibly doing something. I went down to the studio and Julian Marley was working on a project where he was playing every instrument, which he is still working on now. I loved the energy. Just being around them and seeing the work ethic and the approach to the music was incredible.

So about maybe ten months later a brethren who links with Damian called me and said Damian had a rhythm and that he’s voicing up a lot of the young generation of artists. He gave Damian my number, he called me and we reasoned. I got the rhythm, wrote and recorded the song in Jamaica, and then sent the vocals to him.

I went to Miami when Protoje had a show The Get Together. I flew up to feature on the show and we had some works to deal with including linking with Damian. I was at the studio regularly and we mixed down the song and got it mastered. The vibe was really down to earth and everything you could have asked for in terms of linking with one of your inspirational idols. From then we’ve started working on some other music.

So there will be more collaborations coming?

He’s trying to keep it under wraps for now but we did start some stuff. It’s great working with him, building the rhythms from scratch and writing. Very cool, down to earth person.

As one producer and lyricist to another how do your processes compare?

We definitely relate in terms of the creative process. It’s very similar. He takes a more standard approach to most of his production. Me, I would start with a guitar or bass line sample but in my experience he always starts with the drum pattern. Just subtle little differences like that but since then I’ve been working in that mode because I can understand how starting with the drum and the bass gives you a real foundation. Especially with reggae – even if it has a hip hop feel which both me and him do – it still gives you a good grounding.

The Marley family is a high profile example of a reggae entity trying to navigate through capitalism. Some members have faced criticism for being too capitalist yet there is a revolutionary vein to their music.

At the end of the day the Marley name is a brand. It’s an economic entity and you have to find the best way to manage and expand that suits you and the family. It’s a big entity and their foundations – the Bob Marley and the Rita Marley foundation – have done a lot of good works. I know for a fact that Damian has sponsored the Rastafari Youth Initiative Council which has done ground level works in Jamaica and he is looking to do more things like that. So it’s really not acquiring this capital that’s the problem – it’s what you’re doing with it.

It's not acquiring capital that's the problem – it's what you're doing with it

In the song you talk about the - ostensibly communist - Chinese government loans to Jamaica.

Basically we are an island in debt. We keep borrowing more money from the IMF and from the Chinese. When the Chinese came and built a road the plan that was established to pay them means we’ll never stop paying them back. We hear they are buying up more and more things. I heard that they bought Goat Island. The whole tourism aspect is being bought and sold out between the Spanish and the Chinese and all these people. When there is a big project going on in terms of construction you see all these Chinese people around. They are proactive. They are thinking about their progress so they go around the world because they have the capital, the means and the work ethic – they get a lot done so I respect them for that. But I don’t respect our government for just selling out and not establishing something in our country where we can do that for ourselves.

At the same time foreign investment in Jamaica is historically nothing new. Whether an Irish telecoms company that we used to arrange this interview or an English shoe company like Clarks. There has always been a culture in of embracing things from outside and putting their own spin on it. The music is a big example.

Kabaka PyramidBecause when we talk about Bob Marley or Sean Paul – all these guys were embraced abroad first. Even in a sense myself because I did a little tour in Europe before I had any songs playing in Jamaica. We’re definitely foreign minded because there were a lot of things imposed during slavery that affect the mentality of the people. There is a lack of trust between ourselves. There is a lack of support for what people are doing individually. We don’t tend to keep money circulating within ourselves. We’re always looking to spend money abroad and the money that comes in from abroad doesn’t necessarily circulate.

When you think about a big company like Digicel taking all this money from Jamaican people yet the owners are Irish, you wonder where is this money going? Is it just coming out of the country and going into some Swiss Bank account? These are the questions we ask. Clearly one person can’t make that kind of impact so my job is to let the people start thinking about these things. Really consider what is actually happening. Getting the people out of poverty has to be the main focus. I don’t see what all of the effort is for unless we’re talking about a spiritual goal or spiritual ideal. But we can’t even focus on spirituality when we don’t have food to eat. All of my efforts have to be directed towards the people.

Bob Marley or Sean Paul – all these guys were embraced abroad first

As mentioned, you and the other artists in this new reggae movement were embraced abroad before the media started paying attention. But it’s clear being here now that people at Reggae Month Events and UWI Events know you and your songs.

It just took some time. People like Chronixx and Protoje did a lot in terms of making the people of Jamaica aware of what’s happening – and myself and others as well. But it’s picking up and people are becoming aware of the music and the fact that there is a collective. Whether it is planned or not there is still a collective and there is still unity amongst the group of us. I went down to Seaview Gardens last night and people loved the music and the energy. We go Trenchtown and the people love it. We’re not just going to the universities and places uptown. We go in the ghetto and it’s being embraced. Every interview we do like On Stage and ER they are asking about the movement.

So far you’ve had a career with EPs, compilations and mixtapes. Is the album dead or is one coming?

(laughs) You’re right. The whole idea of an album – I wonder if it’s going? But I think it’s still important to do albums to really show where you’re at as an artist and that you can complete a full project. A project that has the mind-set of an album right through it. A compilation is just putting songs together. An EP is a shorter version of an album or just a promotional tool. But I think we’re getting to the point where the fan-base is getting large enough where an album makes sense. Because I don’t really believe in just dropping an album when you’re still making your name out there – especially as an independent artist. I believe there’s still a lot of groundwork – people want to know who and what type of person you are before they go out and buy your album. We’ve been doing a lot of groundwork and I feel like this year could be the year.

If that album came out which producers would be involved?

I’d definitely do a lot of the production myself. More than likely a song like Well Done would be on it. I have some other songs with various producers. Notis Productions, I’d love to do something with Winta or Winta/Protoje because I really like the vibes when those two collaborate. I like to get people involved in my productions too. I would call over Chronixx and say “Mek we build some riddim” and collaborate like that. Members of my band are critical in the production of my rhythms too. Maybe I’d do another song with Damian too.

So the way you’d put an album together with lots of producers and avoid it sounding like a compilation is to have multiple producers working on the same rhythms.

Exactly. So I could guide the sound and the feel so it’s not all over the place.

On two different songs on your Lead The Way EP you talk about Mussolini. Why is the battle of Adowa and the defeat of Mussolini such an important image?

It was very symbolic in terms of Ethiopia being a nation that wasn’t conquered for so many years to be on the brink and overcoming that. That is something that inspires all of I and I as Rasta and can inspire anybody. As African people we have had so many atrocities done to us, atrocities that are still not recognised as part of the culture. It’s more a part of the culture to forget about it in modern day society. We’ve been downtrodden and I think there are a lot of elements against the uprising of black people. So it’s something to take inspiration from. That this African nation, with the help of other nations, clearly showing the unity that we need, can overcome any obstacle or any enemy.

Extreme right wing ideas have been on the rise in Europe since the recession. Do you think the world is a more worrying place now? Or do you find reasons to be positive?

I find it to be both. There is a balance going on in terms of the demise and the uprising or the awakening of people. I try to look more on the positive side with the increase in spiritual practices and spiritual knowledge, and the uncovering of truths about many of the world’s religions due to access to information. But I think we are going to face some serious times because with technology people can exercise more control – what they do, what they say and how they can influence others. I think you’re going to see smaller nations rising up against the bigger ones and standing up for themselves. Governments are being overthrown, leaders are being moved out and a whole heap of things. I think it is going to get redder still.

As well as Mother Earth – we are seeing these extreme winters and extremely hot summers. We see that times are changing in terms of the weather, the climate, the environment. Robots and artificial intelligence – machines talking to you – you wonder just like in all the movies “What’s going to happen when the machines realise their own strength?” People might not think about that on a day to day basis because there are so many distractions with popular television, the music, the movies. The media controlling what’s happening in the West. So there are things happening over in Africa and Asia where we don’t even know what’s happening. But what can you do? You have to try and make a change for the better.

You have to try and make a change for the better

Yoga is both physical and spiritual – how important is it to you these days and to the movement at large?

When we talk about the movement there are many aspects to it. A lot of it is centred around reggae music but a lot of these places that are venues for the shows we do are also wellness centres. These same spaces are governed by an energy of wellness and of healing. A lot of people who partake in the movement, artists, producers, videographers, photographers, are partaking in these exercises and documenting them too. Which I think is a critical thing – documenting these things so people can see what’s going on and get an idea of it so they can experience it for themselves later.

Personally yoga for me is more reactive than proactive. Whenever I feel there is an imbalance I go and do specific type of yoga that addresses that. With the music schedule it’s hard to keep a steady routine of yoga. What we don’t realise is a lot of these Eastern traditions are more suited to a completely different lifestyle. The hustle and bustle to and fro in the West – especially in the major cities - means if you do certain levels of pranayama and deep mediation it might cause more damage than good because our minds are functioning at a different rate. There are certain things you can do to slow that down or balance that out but if you don’t know what you’re doing it can cause conflict. It’s more suited for a tranquil lifestyle and the more we start to do this the more we can start to create that reality here.

How do you approach writing lyrics?

The writing process is never the same for me. I usually write to a rhythm but there are some mornings where I just wake up with a line in my head or a melody and I formulate lyrics. There are two poles to my music – reggae and hip hop. If a song is more of a hip hop vibe then I’ll focus on the flow or the rhyme scheme but if it’s reggae I’ll focus more on the energy or the melody. My thing is heavily rhyme based so I think about how I want it to rhyme then I think about what I want to say and then I put words to it. So it might be different from a lot of artists where they think of exactly what they want to say first or they might think of a melody first. But my thing is lyrical from a rhyming perspective.

My thing is lyrical from a rhyming perspective

How did you approach a track like Choppingz with Masicka, where listeners are mesmerised by the lyricism? Was it a powerful experience?

(laughs) Yes it was. We did it down at Equinoxx studio. Everything was done in the studio right there. I had the rhythm but I didn’t write to it on my own. Me and Masicka were in the studio just vibing and I had this idea that we would go back and forth and I would start it off by talking about what we are doing. So it started saying “Wha Gwaan Masicka, Kabaka this, the lyrical assaulter this” introducing myself then basically telling him I have this beat from Gavin and I would love for us to just slaughter it. It just went from there. I knew the level I would have to start the lyricism at because I know how hard Massicka goes as a lyricist. So I set the pace and he took it up to the next level and I had to match that level.

Because my music, as much as it’s focused on the rhyme scheme, the message is still important. Whereas Masicka, he can sing on a topic of course, but he’s much more of a rhymer – he’ll come up with more rhymes easier because I guess he’s not restricted by what he wants to say. Because I have an unreleased song with Chronixx where I say “Gun lyrics easy but mi nah sing slack”. Because when you’re not limited by being positive or being conscious it’s easy to come up with a lot more rhymes. But I think he did a good job of not deviating in terms of going into anything too slack or negative in the song. He remained positive throughout the song so he showed his versatility as well.

It links back to what we were saying before about how a promoter who pays off the police will have it easier. It’s like football – the grace of football comes from its limitations. You can’t pick up the ball or push people over.

Exactly. You’re right. It makes you stand out more when you can show brilliance within a limitation.

In the song The Revival you say “Everyone has a part to play” - what is your part?

Just providing lyrics! I think that’s my part. But I think I end up being in a unifying role within the movement because I kind of link with everybody associated and even people not associated. You’ll come to a lot of the shows and see Dre Island, you’ll see Kes, you’ll see Chronixx a lot of the time. But if you come to my show you’ll see Iba Mahr, Exco Levi, I Wayne – people like that. So I think I play a unifying role in general and definitely I tend to go deeper into certain spiritual concepts within the music. I think my role is to bridge the gap between ancient cultures and modern life and I do that within my lyricism.

Kabaka Pyramid

Tell me about your contribution to the final track on the new Protoje album Ancient Future. You talk about pressure from your father to trim your hair.

The Flame is an incredible song. It’s about how no matter what happens we still stay the same. Even though we’re evolving and we’re learning more we still hold on to our grounding. We still call upon The Most High name regardless of what happens. It’s probably more of a personal song for Proto than even me because a lot of my music doesn’t tend to be very personal. I speak a lot in general terms and speak for people. But Proto is very personal with his music - that’s what I appreciate about him - and in that song he talks a lot about issues he goes through. I did a little bit of the same. But when I recorded on that track it sounded different from what it sounds like now. The way that track evolved was just incredible. When the rhythm starts transitioning towards the end - the emotion, the feeling, the singing and the arrangement – I never heard anything like that in reggae music. I’m glad to be a part of that whole project, man.

So there are more things are in the works with Damian Marley, more things are in the works with Chronixx. What else are you working on that’s exciting?

Koro Fyah – a Bebble Rock artist who released his first single last year New Day which I produced. I’m looking to release a second single called Eyes Red which I produced as well. We shot a video for it which is being edited now. He has been doing performances locally – he’s performed with my band and other bands. I’m definitely looking to send Koro Fyah on the road.

What’s the most interesting thing you read recently?

(pauses) Now this is very controversial. This lady from Barbados wrote an article about why people from Barbados dislike Jamaicans.

Yes, I read it too.

A lot of people were lashing out against it saying that a lot of things weren’t factual but in my experience a lot of the things were very valid. I’ve always heard that the most rebellious slaves went to Jamaica and a sistren from Trinidad who has studied Caribbean history told me that there was a purposeful disconnect between Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean because of the potential for revolution in the nature of the people in Jamaica. Growing up in Jamaica you don’t think about visiting other islands. It doesn’t really happen unless you go to university. I went to Trinidad for the first time last year and I’ve never been to any other Caribbean island. Growing up in Jamaica there is no urge for Caribbean unity. You’re taught to think Jamaica is the best, that Jamaica is reggae music, so there’s an ego attached and I can see that ego causing resentment in other islands. I don’t think the people of Barbados or the people of Jamaica are to be blamed. It is a systematic thing. When they go places in the world and people hear an accent they assume it’s Jamaican. I can see things like that causing resentment.

I really posted that article in an effort of unity because whether or not the statements made by the sistren are true, there is a disunity. I think people of Caribbean islands when we do meet up we are very friendly and very cool but there is no urge for inter-Caribbean unity and strength through trade and things like that. Whether it’s CARICOM or West Indies or whatever there have been efforts to do this and Jamaica didn’t want to get involved. Now Jamaica wants to get involved and other islands don’t. So it’s really a tricky situation but I believe in communities on all scales. Whether this community where we’re living in Kencot, or the Caribbean community, there has to be unity within that spectrum.

Reggae Month and Black History Month both take place in February – which has more priority for you?

(laughs) Me, I’m not the type of person that’s going to bash an idea. Like how people bash the whole idea of the Revival - implying that reggae died – I don’t think we have to take it to that extreme. I see why they want to consider it Reggae Month. Bob Marley and Dennis Brown’s birthdays – it’s a significant month and a good time of the year to have a lot of activities around reggae. What I don’t like is that the government has not really done anything to strengthen it. The government is not putting money behind the promotion and the execution of the events. JARIA, the organisation doing it, is a lot of the time just left alone. The tourist board is involved but they could do more to promote it and make it into a tourist attraction.

As far as priority between Reggae Month and Black History Month I think reggae is a part of black history so if you’re dealing with Reggae Month you’re still within the spectrum of black history. The whole idea of having a month to celebrate something – I guess I’m kind of on the fence with it. I’m not going to bash it but these are things that obviously should be done and recognised throughout the year. Black history in Jamaica is fundamental to the education of youths for their self-awareness. If there is a month where all that awareness is heightened but then throughout the year it is still active then I don’t have a problem with that. We just have to make the most of it and during that month try and concentrate that awareness and spread it.

How popular is reggae in Jamaica really? It’s obvious that it gets played on the radio these days. But it’s hard to know how much it is made for here vs international consumption.

Reggae music is still popular. It’s just that between the radio and the dancehall is what governs the majority of what you’ll hear in Jamaica. That is where people go to hear new music on a large scale. I think radio now is probably 80% dancehall and if you go to the actual dances it’s probably around the same – maybe even less. Reggae still has its place but it’s not a priority in the minds of people who are moving and shaping the industry. As you say there was a time when it was 5% reggae music so I guess there’s an improvement. A show like Rebel Salute that has almost no dancehall on it can get thousands of people.

And if you were talking about another kind of music in another country a 20% market share would be seen as very good.

Exactly. It’s all relative.

Our interview in 2011 was one of the first interviews where we heard the name Chronixx. Whose name can you call now that we will hear more of in the future?

Koro Fyah, D Burns, Runkus, you might be familiar with artists like Shuga who are on the rise now. Exile Di Brave is doing his thing. Those are probably the artists that I’m looking for to come and be that next wave.

Chronixx did a tune with Joey Bada$$ recently – are there any hip hop artists you want to work with?

I would love to work with all the rappers I grew up listening to from Nas to Common to Wu Tang Clan. I’d love to work with Dead Prez – people who are fighting the revolution in music. I’d still love to do something even Lauryn Hill. I can’t say any of that is in the works or in the pipeline but we’re putting the word out there so it will manifest it. Maybe Damian can pull some strings! (laughs)

Have there been any overtures for you to join Ghetto Youths International?

(laughs) I don’t want to say! But it’s one link and right now I kind of feel like a part of the family in a sense. We’ll be doing work.

At Reggae Wednesdays at the Ranny Williams Centre you went on stage with Notis and Australian artist Nattali Rize.

That was the first time performing that song Generations. I didn’t rehearse it or anything. I just flew in from Miami that day. Unga said she was interested in working with me and they were working on an album together. When I first heard her I was like “Wow this girl is really blowing me away!” Lyrical and revolutionary is my type of blueprint. I did a song with her at Tuff Gong and we just went over to where they were staying, worked on music all night and started two other songs. So I have a couple of songs with them. She and her kingman who plays in her band – he is like a genius. He plays percussion, he does production, videography, photography, graphic design, everything. He inspired me to really step up back and have a direction to my production. Hopefully we can do some shows together in Australia in various places.

I like to be around geniuses

You are going to perform at Earl Chinna Smith’s Yard tonight. How important is it to connect with the foundation musicians?

It’s pivotal. We have so much to learn from them. They are the ones who had the experiences and learned and made the mistakes and achieved the goals that we want to do. I like to be around geniuses because I learn more when I’m around geniuses. He’s definitely someone that I’m interested in working with too.

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