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Interview: Jah9 in Kingston (2016)

Interview: Jah9 in Kingston (2016)

Interview: Jah9 in Kingston (2016)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"This record is even more personal"


Roots poetess Jah9 released her second album, ‘9’, on 9th September. As you've probably guessed, the date of issue was no accident. The number is the central to the 9-track record and the life of the woman who recorded it.

Back in February, Jah9 played United Reggae an exclusive album preview in her Kingston front garden. Most of the track-list remains unchanged – although a couple of potential songs didn’t make the cut.

There had been prior speculation in the media about whether she was going to release a follow up project with Rory Stonelove (who oversaw her debut New Name) or her long-shelved older venture involving Beres Hammond. Instead, ‘9’ comprises 5 of Jah9’s own productions and 4 collaborations (with Laurent Tippy Alfred from I Grade, Kevin Campbell, Puraman, and Franklyn “Ben Up” Irving, who built her hit Steamers A Bubble).

An industry insider once advised that dancehall deejays are easier to interview than roots reggae artists "because you can talk about anything". Said person obviously never spoke to Jah9. She might have an intimidating air on stage but having quizzed her a few times there is no need to fuss over perfectly finessed questions: you'll get an interesting answer whatever you ask.

In her preceding United Reggae interview she gave a lot of opinions - this time we skipped the Kingston trip’s stock topics - "is reggae being stolen", "election in reggae month" - for a personal slant. “More feminine” was how she characterised the experience, another central concept in her art and life.

This conversation was conducted while eating sun-cooked vegan cuisine from Mi Hungry on Constant Spring Road. We started talking about food and then took it from there.


Naturally cooked food

“You have to make sure that you are eating well. And with raw food you still have to be careful about who is preparing it, especially in a place like Jamaica where you have things like ackee so you have to know who you are getting it from.

The Rastaman has a culture of incorporating live sipping into their life. They call it “bird sipping” - meaning that one trods as a bird. They eat like a bird. They only eat raw live seeds and fruit and nuts that don't have to be cooked. And even in the vitamix era it's easy to go that way.”

Going 100% raw

“Not yet. But that is an aspiration. It is something that comes with your environment. Your whole livity has to be conducive to it. You have to be where food is growing so that you have access. When you live in a city it is not as easy to eat raw. You’d probably end up spending a lot, paying somebody else to prepare your raw food. But yes, that is an aspiration.”

You have to make sure that you are eating well

Whether she would bring her own chef on the road one day

“That is definitely an aspiration. Not even to say they're coming as a chef but just bringing more of the community on the road. Because there are talented people. Some of them do other things, some are musicians, some of them are yoga teachers but that is how they eat. So it's not as though they are raw food chefs but it makes it easier, because then the mind-set is that way we shop. We're asking for a lot of things that are probably harder to find so they will sort it for us when we come if they're in the dressing room. We'll have some nuts and some almond milk!”

The difficulties of finding the right food on the road

“It doesn't happen a lot these days but it has happened where the food at the show… I just can't have it. But I would never show up somewhere and not have something to eat. I might not get to have a whole meal but I will definitely have something to eat. I will be able to find something but I won't be able to have what they have provided.

But I find that less and less now because of the great relationships I have with the agents that are working on my behalf. That is something that I'm very, very clear about. The things we ask for on a rider would be different from somebody else.”

The best food she’s found outside Jamaica

“It was a fruit that did it for me! They have these peaches in Spain that are flat doughnut peaches? The first time I had that was like "Oh my gosh! There's a fruit in foreign that taste good!" I don't really like a lot of the winter fruits but those were delicious.

Italian cooking is something special too. The way Italians prepare their food. We were coming off of the road where the food was not that great and we were with Mellow Mood and they invited us to an Italian space. The food was pizza, traditional pizza, and it really was good. No cheese! They didn't even put cheese on it. I had all these extra requests and even then, how they did it, how they use the oil with the dough and the garlic, the oregano - yeah!

I went to France and there was one brethren who was a chef who invited us out and that was good. A white Rastaman from France. I don't know if that was because of how awful the rest of the food was but it was like the best thing I have ever tasted! Comparable to some of the best food I have here in Jamaica. Exceptional food.

France is rough. You go into a space and you're like "Do you have anything on the menu that doesn't have any meat?" And they're like "Yeah" but it has cheese. And then you're like "Do you have anything without cheese or butter or milk?" And they're like "What?" Like you're not even eating food. You've just taken out all of the food groups. Culture shock! And they eat so much bread!”

Malta was a special trod

Going to Malta and meeting African refugees in 2015

“Malta was a special trod. Because even the brethren who invited us to be there, Nicki from Juuls Bar is a brother - who has a love of Jamaica too. A hard-working man who has come to Jamaica, loves the culture, loves the music and invited me to be there as well. Another elder sistren and I and I wanted to go because we were told about the situation in Malta. It's kind of a point through which the refugees flow. I left Italy to go to Malta. It just so happened that when we were there they had a huge accident on the sea when 900 were killed. At the time it was on the Italian national TV right before I was about to perform. They had this animation showing the people drowning in spirits rising. It was a real solemn moment, a really intense period.

Going to Malta with an understanding that these are some of the people who might have been rescued off that very vessel or were in a similar vessel days before, that was really intense for us. I think we were there for two days. We met with the brethrens separately from the females. And to see the conditions they were living in. They set up a mock community with tents. It looks pretty clean because it was still pretty new but the people were in a suspended state of trauma. Some of them were new to the area and to the environment and you could feel the tension. There was a pregnant lady there and she had lost her husband on the trod and didn't speak any English. She was there by herself and she was pregnant. I mean you can only imagine that kind of trauma.”

The big questions

Jah9“Going there as an artist when you've come to do a show but you still want to serve, you want to learn about Africa from these people. What are their perspectives? Why is it that they felt it was so important to leave? Hearing some of the stories of what is going on. Understanding the world politics of why it is that people are pitted against each other. People who are born in the same space and they are against each other to the point of killing each other because it is not necessarily outside forces doing this. It is internal conflict a lot of it. It was a really heavy experience.

But it was also really beautiful because these people go through all of that and they can still find a space in their heart to laugh and to breathe deep. You carry them through a little yoga exercise and you watch it move, you watch it help, even in the moment. Just to calm them down in a moment. We try to do that as much as possible. Malta was the first time I got to do that. Because of Malta, the next time I was in Europe I connected with an Italian group who were also working with the refugees passing through Europe. You get to meet people who feel very impassioned about it. You get to meet the people who came out of some really adverse situations and within a very short space of time they were integrated and they were looking like European so to speak. Just fitting in.

And it raised a lot of cultural questions and it always does but it is a part of the mission. Because I was in Africa about a month ago for two weeks. Not performing, just there doing recognisance, observing what's going on, seeing who the groups are. We did some press as well but it was just meeting the Rastafari groups and meeting other groups too, a group in particular who are in Hebrew Israelites. It was seeing what all these groups of people from the diaspora have in common. How they are able to really refine their community model within the rest of their group, moving towards getting an opportunity to have a voice in the politics of their country. Which is a brand new thing. Not standing up as a mansion of Rastafari but under the banner of Rastafari in the face of politics and governments. Saying "We have our voice too and we want our culture. We are not looking for money, we want an opportunity to help ourselves." And when people in Africa say “being themselves” you know what they mean… “You can't say that slavery and apartheid are over but I have to cream my hair and do a particular thing in order to visit your society. That is not my tradition.”

Those are some of the struggles and it was really awesome to hear them talk that way. And then knowing that my first encounter with the refugees, they are proud of where they come from. They understand the political climate and why they have to leave but it’s not as though they're running like "Oh I want to come to Europe to get a better life". That was not the impression I got. Even though the media will sometimes give that impression my personal experience of the ones that were there was they wish they didn't have to leave. So it really makes you look at the bigger picture like there is a hand at work forcing these people out of their space. It is just wicked and evil and the more opportunities I have, then I must go and remind people to keep their eyes fixed on home. These things will pass. Political upheaval. Look at Rwanda. Rwanda was a great tragedy but right now there are some awesome things happening in Rwanda. The women have really risen to the occasion.”

European attitudes to refugees

“I heard the discussions on the radio. It's always interesting to be in Europe and hear the local people talking. Everybody is so politically correct that no one was going to outright say "They shouldn't be here". They couldn't possibly say that even if they thought it. But you hear these discussions and they talk about it in this sense like "Oh we're doing these people a favour. Let's see how many we can help". And in my mind I think "Europe completely underdeveloped the continent, does not produce for itself and only eats from that continent. The richest landmass on the earth.”

And yet when the people who have been treated this way reach out to say "Hey, have my back a little bit. Give me a little space because the Earth is for all of us". Clearly Europe believes that because Europe is trodding through the earth. So when African man stands up and says "The Earth is for all of us. Things are getting a little tense. You know why. Give us a little space.” Space must be made, that's what I think. And when I hear Europe still has this "We're doing them a favour"? You see me? It’s going to cause a problem. Because they can't stop what is coming.”

On whether yoga is a solution to all problems (last time she talked about it as a solution to police brutality)

Jah9“If we look at the principle of yoga it is using the breath to enliven, to move the life force through your body, to increase your circulation to move toxins out of your body. And when you think about what toxins do inside the human body; about even your parasympathetic nervous system and having stress inside your body; what the release of those hormones does to your mind and how it creates stress and affects your body weight and your mental state; then you can understand why you would be applying the principle of deep breathing, so fully oxygenating your blood all the time. It’s proper detox, even just the breath is detoxification, and incorporating particular stretches insures that you're sending this life-force all through your body. You can work from the tip of your fingers to the tip of your toes, all of your joints, making sure that there is flexibility in your body. These things promote release of endorphins. These things promote positive feelings in your body on every level.

So if we look at all of these problems as having a root source which is dis-ease, at some point your mind is disturbed. Whether it is in your body that you are disturbed and it causes your mind to be disturbed and you realise that you're sick, it's kind of changing up the mind. Changing the mind through the body. Using the breaths to calm the mind. The talkative mind. Using the breath to silence the mind. Because no matter what you are thinking about, when you are not thinking and you are in your original state that is when there is oneness with everybody. That is when you're just another human being sitting beside another human being. When you’re just breathing there is no thought of your race or your issues or your anything. You are just breathing. And the more we can remain in that original state I think the more we are able to deal with the situations that come to us. When you are a refugee or you are a billionaire. Yoga just brings you back there back down to your human level.

Yoga brings you back down to your human level

So when you're in a room with people translating, as part of an organisation and refugees, when everybody's breathing together, there is something spiritual happening. There is a return to an original peace there. I try to promote that. And I've seen that change people in a moment. Even just tension and anxiety releasing. You see their heart open. You see their shoulders fall back. You see the tension fall out of their face. You watch them be able to get their breath. If someone is congested in their sinuses, that means in their meridian or the level of their chakras, you put them through certain postures where they are forced to breathe because they are working. But they're not exhausting and jumping around. They’re breathing deep because the act of getting your hands down to the ground is a lot of work but in small incremental movements, allowing it to release. Allowing your back to release. Your hamstrings to release slowly. These things teach you about yourself. It is hard to explain if one has never really attempted to do that but once you have surrendered to your breath and to the fact that "Alright, I am doing this thing and I am stretching now and I feel that pain. What am I going to do? Am I going to go into it or am I going to back off of it and resist?" These are questions that are good for people to go through because it is like a microcosm of their life.”

Going to Kenya in December 2015

“Kenya was… I don't know... It's hard for me to talk about it since I got back. It was one of those experiential things like if I describe it to you, you wouldn't understand. It was driving through the streets, being in the city part of Kenya in Nairobi and seeing traffic and road, some of the things I hate the most about Jamaica, like Halfway Tree and rush-hour when everybody's walking and driving and selling at the same time, it was amplified there to the point of where I was terrified when I was driving on the road. But at the same time, the longer you are there you start to see the culture of the drama. You start to realise "This isn't road rage happening." Two people are right there and they're playing chicken for a space! Nobody is upset. People just know that this is how it goes. They have become used to it and accept it as the norm.

But yet, beyond the city it is just the vastness. It's like, yes, the city is happening here but if you turn your head to the left or the right there is land as far as the eye can see. Just a vastness that makes you feel really small and really humbled. I wasn't close to the rivers or water but seeing the mountain-scape and the vastness of the land. Especially living on an island where the idea of land is different. You have to know somebody to get land and it is really expensive. Being in a place where, if I really wanted to, I could have stayed and probably found land to live on and to plant out.

Even relating to the people in the ghetto, in the inner city, I had a really interesting perspective from a brethren. He was telling me about the ghetto Kibera which is 2.8 million people – that’s like the population of Jamaica. That is just one ghetto. One area. And when you look at it on the outside it looks like a ghetto. But I was talking to one of the brethrens who live around there and he was like "The people here, even when they become educated and go to go to university and get good jobs, they still live there. When you go inside their houses you will see. They are living well. They are clean. They are well taken care of. Even though the outside of the house is looking like that.” And I said "That's interesting" and he said "Imagine if we started cleaning up the place too much and people started seeing the potential of it that. They will come down there and gentrify it". So it's like they are okay. When you see them and they can still find joy there is a level of contentment. Even though they are aspirational they are still content to be among one another. They understand the preserving that oneness and "This is our place" is important. By any means necessary!”

The first record New Name was the declaration

The concept of the ‘9’ album

“The first record New Name was the declaration. And it was important to put His Imperial Majesty upfront. So a lot of the songs weren't specific to me as a female. It could've been a man that was singing them. It was important to identify myself and my context as black woman, as African, as Rastafari, as light being. Having done that and having proclaimed it and worked with that for the last three years I am now more comfortable in the space where I can show a more feminine side of myself and I will not be misinterpreted. Because I have already set up a serious foundation.

So this record is going to be even more personal. It is nine songs. It is talking about how I am nine but at the same time, I, meaning all I and I, represent nine. I is the ninth letter of the alphabet. Nine represents change. Nine represents the unfolding of life. The Fibonacci spiral. Also it is the highest number. It is the number which means a thing is complete and that it will now begin anew. And it also represents the feminine. So as the feminine I wanted to make an album that spoke to not just the feminine meaning “You are a girl” but the darkness and chaos and destruction that is the feminine. That is the balance. In yin and yang it is woman who is represented by the darkness. The darkness contains everything, every possibility. Just like destruction brings new possibilities. And it is perspective that dubs a thing wrong or right or bad or good. We are in a world system, and music industry where things are very structured and it is a very patriarchal kind of setup. It is a very competitive kind of set up. All of these are masculine principles.

In yin and yang it is woman who is represented by the darkness

So this album, I wanted it to speak about themes that touch on the feminine. I wanted to be in the aggressive of the feminine. I wanted to bring water and fire. I think you have to hear the songs so that you can understand it. I would be interested to hear how you describe it when you hear some of the songs. Because every time I try to describe it I have trouble with trying to keep my response on a level that I can relate to people. Musically a lot of it is my personal production.”

The inspiration for the lyrics of Unafraid (on the Gladiators Can’t Stop Righteousness rhythm)

“This was triggered off an experience that I had where my nephew was not treated very well by a teacher. Some of my mind went to the extreme of it. It is not a true story in the sense that somebody molested my nephew. But that is still so close that these are issues you hear on the news all the time period of children being molested and being taken away. Missing children everywhere every week on the news you're wondering "Is this just randomly? Or is this somebody taking the children away?"

And as a woman I know this is something where I and the other sisters who have children sit and reason. These are some of the primary concerns that we have. The safety of our children. Not even wanting them to go to public school because you don't know where they're going to be. Especially girl pickney. So these are some of the issues you don't hear spoken of in that way. If a man speaks about it it's going to be like "Oh he's just burning whatever" but if it's a woman I have the space to be that aggressive with that discussion because I am the same woman who will come and embrace and nurture again. So mummy can bring some of the argument that daddy can't bring. Because she is the caregiver, the lover.”

I definitely will be doing more productions, for myself and for other artists

On producing her own music

“The song In The Spirit I had for a long time. I was going to do it on a rhythm but I decided that to get it in the key I wanted at the tempo I wanted and the vibe I wanted I had to produce myself. I definitely will be doing more productions, for myself and for other artists. There are some really talented ones. Young people, older people who are just brilliant who never got the opportunity to let the world hear what they have. I feel very fortunate that I know some of these people so I just want to give them an opportunity. A lot of the time, with the whole deejay thing in Jamaica, people sing on rhythms. I believe that when people are given an opportunity to express their music, to be with musicians and to make music around them, special things can happen. I want to make some music and I will be making some more music going forward.”

Tags: Jah9

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