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Interview : Chuck Fender

Interview : Chuck Fender

Interview : Chuck Fender

By on - Photos by VP records - Comment

"The fastest thing to reach the people is music so that's what we have to use to reach the people."

Chuck Fenda (born Leshorn Whitehead, Brooklyn New York) first came to attention recording for King Jammy in the late 1990s. He then joined Fifth Element records at the turn of the millennium, dubbing himself "The Poor People Defender" and embracing a conscious Rasta path. His 2004 debut album Better Days was followed by The Living Fire in 2007 (which contained the controversial and hugely popular single Gash Dem which was banned by two radio stations in Jamaica). Angus Taylor spoke to him in Jamaica about his recently released third record Fulfillment (for VP) - which has garnered a very positive response so far...

Chuck Fender

Tell me about your new album 'Fulfillment'. Would you say it's a more spiritual album than 'The Living Fire'?

This album is a very spiritual album. My albums are always spiritual but this is deep deep spiritual you know what I mean? And it's about what's happening right now, the meltdown that's happening in the world. The war and crime locally in Jamaica and in the US and the sufferation that people are facing all over the world with people losing their jobs so there are a lot of songs that are touching on certain topics that are happening right now. So, yes, it's a deep spiritual album and I'm always out there speaking for the less fortunate and speaking for the kids, for the undermined and the unnoticed.

With the world economy in crisis many people are suffering due to the greed of the wealthy. Do you think more people are receptive to your message as a result? And what can be done to help them?

Yes. As long as people as facing tribulation my job continues. Because living in Jamaica, in Spanish town where I used to live with my grandparents, I grew up around that. Even though I was born in the US I grew up in Jamaica. I didn't grow up uptown, I grew up down in the ghetto so I saw a lot of stuff. I saw the shootings, I saw the sufferations and the struggles. I've seen everything. So while I’ve just broken out in the music business now and I elevated myself out of the ghetto but I still left a lot of my friends back there. So I have to speak of them and try to shine a light on what's happening to them and see if they can build up some infrastructure, like opening up some workshops so people could get a skill. A lot of kids leave school and they don't know where to go. They don't have a direction and a lot of them can't afford to go to college and all of that. So I'm lobbying to help get a lot of these kids into college or into these workshops to get a skill.

How are you going to generate the money for this project?

What I want do is set up a fund, like a trust fund so that when I tour I can tell people, "donate a dollar to this fund" so it could father a couple of kids and send them to school. Because right now there are a lot of kids I see not going to school and their parents can't afford to buy books for them. This is crazy right now in the world today - a lot kids not going to school. A lot of kids on the street wiping car glass. A lot of kids are on the road right now selling juice - and these kids are seven, eight, nine. So if we can afford for this to happen then a generation is going to go backward and we're not going to be able to have any lawyers, no doctors, no engineers, no police officers nor soldiers if these kids are not in school. Because education is the key. If you don't have an education then you are lost in the world right now. The world is getting so modernised with computers, and these kids don't have access to those things. Because they know me as the Poor People Defender here in Jamaica and a lot of times I have to help out a lot of kids and put money towards things out of my own pocket and help people. So if I could go on tour or on my website and say "donate 50 cents or donate a dollar to this website" and then I could transfer this fund to the schools and try to help out.

Your approach to music has changed a lot since you first started.

I try to eradicate gun violence in my songs. I never sing about the gun. Because I used to when I started out back in the day in 1998 at King Jammys. I used to sing songs like Shut Yuh Mouth When Badman Talking and people react to those songs. Man start firing shot at dance and packing guns and all that. Then as I got older I grew up. Jah gave me the inspiration and I found Rastafari and started praying a lot and Jah said, "OK you have to come and save these people". Now when I do songs like I Swear, Oh My Lord, Rough Out Deh, All About Da Weed, Better Days, Gash Dem and all those songs, those spiritual songs, people are telling me, "Yo, Fenda man, you helped me stop shooting people, you let me put down my gun, you let me get an education, you let me want to get a skill, you let me look a life differently". So if my songs can have this type of impact on people and let them do this stuff then I'm saying lives you know what I mean? So that's the type of stuff I'm really on right now.

At what point did you decide to change direction?

After I left King Jammys and did a song called Bada Bada. I was on the road and had left the US. Because before I was living in the US in Hartford and then I went to New York and was like "I leave everything back in the US". I mean, I had a good life there. I had a good job and an apartment and a car. I gave up all that stuff and put everything in the music so I went back to Jamaica and said, "I want to pursue my music career". But after I saw a lot of my friends got shot and a lot of people got killed around me I started praying and saying, "Jah you have to help me this time because I don't know what direction to go. I can't go back to America because I spent so much time in Jamaica now". So then The Almighty started to inspire me saying, "just start doing my work and speaking of me and do conscious music".
This is just me and The Almighty reasoning when I was by myself. Because I try to stick to nature a lot. I like to go to the mineral, I like to go to the beach - not when it's crowded but like early morning, five thirty, six o clock - and I pray and I light the fire and I speak with the Almighty. And Jah said, "do my work and I'll let you be one of the greatest artists in the world" so the inspiration came. So I found Rastafari and Rastafari is the true way of life. Rastafari is all about love. A lot of people have the wrong conception about Rastafari. Rastafari is all about love and upliftment and togetherness. So that's when the whole concept came.

How did that change manifest itself?

I started doing songs like I Swear That I Will Never Switch, Cyaan Stop Trying We Haffi Win, Oh My Lord, and this inspiration just started coming naturally. So that was when my whole life started changing. I don't look at things how I used to. Even if I have a nice car I don't praise it. Even if I have a nice watch on I don't think I am better than the next person. So I just look at life normally. I'm not all about fashion because all those things are illusion. When you find The Almighty and you find your true self, nothing that would excite another person means much to you any more. Like if a person has a BMW that would excite them but it doesn't excite me. It's just a car to me. If I have a watch and it's valued $3000 it doesn't mean much to me. People mean more to me, seeing people progress, seeing people come around me and elevate and feel happy in their self you know what I mean? Then that makes me happy.
I took a lot of my friends out of the ghetto in Spanish Town where I used to live and I sent them back to school saying, "go learn about this" "go learn about that". Now 'nuff of them is my road manager, do a lot of work around my career, 'nuff of them do a lot of stuff in the music in the Living Fire company that I'm running. So I try to help a lot of them. They do the bookings, take care of the website, a lot of them go on the road with me and become background vocalists and things like that. So I try to nurture a lot of them and to see them progress and see them having their own cars and having their own place and see them living which makes me feel proud.

Now when you say people don't understand what Rastafari is about, would you say the banning of your single Gash Dem in 2006 by Zip FM and Irie FM was an example?

Well they tried to see Gash Dem in a different way. They thought that I'm trying to deal with violence or I'm licking out on another race of people or I'm against certain types of stuff. But when I created this song I was watching the Seven O Clock news in Jamaica and this little girl she was on her way from school and somebody took her and snatched her away and repeatedly raped this little baby. She was only six years old and they found her in some bushes with like 25 stabs. They ripped her clothes off, the little baby was naked, they really deal with her badly. And I was like, "how could somebody in their right mind do stuff like this to a little child?" So I was trying to build a concept around it, "a big man like you rape off a six year old baby". "Big man" doesn't mean big people in high authority - I just mean big man overall because if you're a big man you're supposed to have sense and have knowledge so you just can't do stuff like this to a little baby. You're supposed to be protecting a little baby. If you see her wandering home from school you should try to bring her to the police station or bring her to a certain authority and just try to let this child reach home safely. But for you to rape a baby like that???
So that's how the song came up and when I did the song it was playing on the radio a lot. And then the first thing I heard was that broadcasting corporations say they wanted to have a meeting with me. And when I went and met with them they were like, "this song got to stop playing because it's very violent and the word 'gash' means a big inflicted wound on a person". And I was like, "this song is based towards people that are raping little kids". And I didn't say 'me' I said "when The Almighty hold you, no ifs nor buts, don't tell The Almighty about maybe, The Almighty will gash them and light them". I didn't say "Chuck Fenda says 'Gash them and light them' - you know what I mean?" Because when The Almighty says he's going to return this time he is going to return to return with brimstone and fire, so that's why I say gash them and light them. Gash them and light them means fire. Spiritual fire. So they took it the wrong way and this song had to stop playing but I'm trying to lobby against this type of stuff - the raping of kids and any raping whatsoever.

It was symbolic rather than real violence.

I'm against violent lyrics. I don't like gun songs and I never sing those songs. I did a press conference where I asked all the sound selectors all over the world to stop playing my gun songs that I did in the past because I see they have a certain effect on the people. I said, "please, I'm asking you. I'll give you other songs but please don't play this gun songs that I did back in the days". I don't want to hear them anymore because we're trying to fix back the crime rate, we're trying to fix back the country, we're trying to put good music out there so people can feel happy, people can enjoy themselves, my music can uplift people. So if my songs can take guns out of little kids' hands then if I was doing the opposite still then a lot of lives would be lost every day. So just flip the positive and see what you get. Because people look up to Chuck Fenda and they listen to Chuck Fenda. They buy my albums so I have to put good music out there. At the end of the day I'm not doing this for me - I'm doing it for The Almighty. I'm bringing positive music out there, I'm doing the work of The Almighty. I'm like a messenger or you could say like a preacher.

Some cultural deejays are happy to still sing their older, slacker material.

I stopped doing it in '99. When I touched 2000 I did I Swear. I Swear is nine years old. I did I Swear when I just came into the music business. I'd just started developing because when I was at King Jammys I was a little child. I was just growing and learning like I was in primary school and then I went to high school and when I went to Fifth Element it was like I graduated in the business. That was when I started getting the full attention. I cry for my people because it's what I see that I sing. People don't have to be suffering like this. People don't have to be going through this type of trauma every day. People want to live a good life. When I travel in the US I see kids of 23-25 having their own car, having their own place, having a good job, having a good education. I don't see that in Jamaica. You hardly see that in Jamaica. If your parents are from uptown and they have a family business they pass it down to their children but in the ghetto kids are most likely to gravitate to the negative things like it being cool to carry a gun or to shoot somebody or not go to school. We want to change that concept and the music is the thing that reaches fast to the people. The fastest thing to reach the people is music so that's what we have to use to reach the people. Chuck Fenda is all about truths and rights. That's why a lot of times they don't really like what I speak. Because when I speak I lobby against this type of stuff. I'm different. I'm not going to come and say "I'm going to give you a little gun, I'm going to give you a little slackness and then I'm going to give you a little righteousness". Since I did I Swear in 2000 I never went back and did a gun song or a negative song or something that the media is going to pick up and say "Chuck Fenda said 'I Swear that I will never switch' - see what he go back and did?" I never did that stuff. So no matter how the time gets rough on me (because you know you have good days and bad days no matter how powerful you are) I'm still true to my words, I'm still praying hard, I'm still holding on to The Almighty and I'll never let go.

Do you think, as some artists have claimed, that the powers that be would prefer music to be slack and violent?

Not really. Certain types of people like certain types of music. Certain people want it a certain way and certain people would go slower. When you come with righteousness they maybe think it won't sell. But look at Bob Marley - Bob Marley is the biggest reggae artist in the world. Bob Marley never sang a gun song or sang a slack song and what I'm doing is carrying on the work of Robert Nesta Marley because he set the foundations for me as a young artist to come and carry on that work that he set. He went through a lot of tribulation when Rastafari couldn't take a plane or they used to trim Rastafari and all of that. So he'd already been through that sufferation to make my day better for me. I can go into Europe, England, the US or whatever and people can accept me because they know Bob Marley set the foundation. So I'm just carrying on the works of those great icons: Burning Spear, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh. They've been through all that sufferation and those guys are great. When you do a certain type of music you are limited unless you take it on an international level like Shaggy and all that but Bob Marley is the real icon in reggae music and we still have to respect him even though he is not here because he set the foundation for all of us.

One other veteran that you collaborated with for this album is the foundation dancehall singer Sammy Dread? How did this come about?

Sammy Dread is a real original rude boy - not a badman - but, you know, a back in the day rude boy singer. He is an elder in the business from Greenwich Farm in Jamaica. So I saw a lot of people are running off wanting the new artists that are coming up, all "I want to do something with this new singer" but they're leaving the elders out of the business who set the foundation. So I'm saying, I want to this song called Bad Boy - I'm against gun violence and negativity - but Sammy Dread is one of those guys who set things back in the day, so I think I should go back for an elder and bring him back on the forefront. Just like when I was Fifth Element and I did combinations with Richie Spice: because Richie Spice was there for years but when he came to Fifth Element his career resurrect back up you know what I mean? And Cherine Anderson with Coming Over Tonight, all those combinations that I did, I said I didn't want to go for a new face, because it is a different generation now, so I said, "OK, I'm going to bring back Sammy Dread". And now he's happy because that's one of the biggest songs in Jamaica and in America right now. In Miami it's on rotation and we just completed a video for it in New York and it looks to be a great song.

OK, let's talk about the producers you worked with on the album. The majority of the rhythms come from Kemar Flava McGregor. What is Flava like to work with compared to say Jammy?

King Jammy is like the general. He is like the godfather for reggae music. But you know I have to respect Flava as a producer because I've never seen him say "Chuck Fenda - have a dancehall riddim". He's a young guy and he still carries on the culture vibration like Jammys used to carry and Bobby Digital and all those guys used to carry back in the day. So I said, "OK, I like Flava. I'm going to do some work with Flava" because we did a song called Herbalist Farmer (sings) "I'M A HERBALIST FARMER!!!" and I got a real buzz so then I did another song saying (sings) "GONNA TEK DEM PON A HEIGHTS!!!!" so then I did three songs with him and I just had a vibes with him. In the end I'd voiced like six or sven tracks for him so he said, "why don't you just do an album?" So I started voicing for him every day, voicing voicing voicing, and he just kept giving me riddims. Then VP stepped in saying, "we heard some tracks you did for Flava. We want to put out an album for you" and I said "OK fine" so that's how it materialised like that.

Do you prefer working with one producer on most of the tracks for an album than taking a single each from many producers?

It's good in a sense because he knows my range and he knows much about me. He knows Chuck Fenda and he knows what to put on my voice. He'll say, "Chuck Fenda has this sound. Chuck Fenda will sit good on this riddim. I could a put a little reverb on his mic". He knows how to set me up in the studio. He knows how to mix my songs to make me come out sounding good.
Just like Shane Brown, because I'm always good with Shane Brown too. Shane Brown has a track on the album because I didn't want to leave Shane Brown out because he gave me one of my biggest songs in Gash Dem And Light Dem.
And there's a young guy on it named Marvin who's just coming up who has a song called Why Should I Be Afraid. He's a young guy who's just coming up, twenty something years old and he's into cultural music too.
I'm not a dancehall artist. I'm a cultural artist so I have to go to cultural producers. If a guy does dancehall he's not going to know Chuck Fenda - what Chuck Fenda likes or what I'm going to sound good on. This is not about selling. Flava is all about getting the message out there. Marvin is all about getting the message out there. Shane Brown is all about getting the message out there. I don't want to voice for everybody that don't understand what I'm really about. I'm all about righteousness, I'm all about getting the message out there, I'm all about doing quality music that's going to live on. I Swear is nine years old and I've seen a lot of songs after I Swear dissolve away and I Swear is still powerful. These songs cannot die. Just like a Bob Marley - (sings) "ONE LOVE!!!" - those songs were created before I was even born and now those songs are still selling every day. Those songs are still powerful. We want to do music that's going to live on forever so that when I get older, fifty, sixty years, my kids can live off this music or they could say, "my father left this stuff for me or set up this infrastructure for me and I'm going to carry on the works of my father" - just how I see Julian Marley and Stephen Marley and Junior Gong doing. Bob Marley set an entity for them so they could carry on the work of their father.

Now as you were born in Brooklyn and I asked this question of Morgan Heritage I'm going to ask you the same thing: Which do you prefer - Brooklyn or Jamaica?

(laughs) Well I would say Jamaica (and I'm still not going to leave out Brooklyn neither!) because when I was born my mother brought me back to Jamaica when I was six weeks old so all my life I grew up in Jamaica. I went to basic school, I went to primary school, I went to high school and then, when I was like fifteen-sixteen I moved back to the US to go to school again. So I didn't grow up from a baby and go right through school in America - I just went over there in my teens. So I still have a real love for Jamaica because my grandparents are the ones who nurtured me and all of that. My grandfather is still alive (my grandmother passed away) so I have a love for my grandfather and a love for Jamaica still. But I was living in New York for a while and I still have friends and family out there still so my passport can't change. I was born in the US but my roots are in Jamaica because that's where I was growing up. I mean, I don't know much about the US but that's how it is and that's how Jah wanted it to set. Because when you sing certain songs or when you stand for certain things, if you slip, they could take away your papers or deport you or whatever. With me, now, I'm a citizen of two countries. I have an unconditional stamp that shows that I'm a citizen of the US and I'm a citizen of Jamaica.

Do you have closing message to your fans?

I just want to let them know - don't give up on Chuck Fenda because Chuck Fenda is real. This music I'm doing is real. Just stick with me out there through rough times and good times. I never let down my fans. I never try to turn down an interview. I'm always trying to push for consciousness and push for unity. I'm all about love - no matter what race you are or what colour you are - it's all about love for me and enjoyment and good music. Letting my music make people feel better. I want the people out there to know that they must put The Almighty first and do a lot of praying. Never forget The Almighty in what you are doing. It's all about love and respect and putting The Almighty first. Pray because we are living in some rough times now. But it's going to get better because if the rain is falling for like two or three months there must be some sunny days ahead. So we might be feeling kind of worried right now and frustrated because people are losing their jobs and people can't make ends meet but it's only for a matter of time because Jah goes through a lot of tribulation for us. So who is us and who are we that can't go through certain tribulation? Just hold on tight and have faith because Jah says if we have faith we can move mountains. So just have faith for now and everything will be better man. But it's all about good music from me and righteousness and love.

Thank you very much for your time.

It was a pleasure. And to all my fans, you can reach me on Facebook and if you want to get in touch with me you can just email me at chuckfenda01@hotmail.com.

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