Duane Stephenson Works for A Better Tomorrow
04/18/2011 by Justine Amadori Ketola
Duane Stephenson is a rarity in music. He has the songwriter's innate ability to formulate a storyline, a concept that takes flight, asking questions, studying the outcomes, weighing the reality, inviting the listener to join him on this truth telling story and journey. A man whose career is devoid of hype and controversy, his understanding of the world and his livity come across through his songs in an honest, wholesome way. He often peppers his conversation by leading with "the truth is" which serves to emphasize this honesty.
He is aided by a most powerful singing voice and range, one that produces melodies that are not predictable, but that are in a class by themselves. His songwriting has been enlisted by artists such as Tarrus Riley, Luciano and notably with Jah Cure. His work with the Rehabilitation Through Music program in the Jamaican prison system resulted in Jah Cure's "True Reflections" which became the theme song for the program.
Duane's mission is positive, showing the way toward hope in action. And as "Nah Play" the lead track from his second album, Black Gold states: "Let's sing some more songs of inspiration, that the people them want, a them a wait 'pon." He makes the case for hope throughout the following interview, given while he on tour in the U.S. as a special guest with the legendary Wailers, led by Aston "Family Man" Barrett. "Nah Play" uses a Black American idiom, "play" to say, 'if you look into the eyes of them yout' here dem nah play.' As in, this is a serious time, gun violence, especially by teens and early twenty-something males in Jamaica is real, and as a man who walks these streets on the regular, living his days while not on the road, in his native August Town area of Kingston, his commentary serves as that of the griot, one who sees the true meaning of this reality and his responsibility to help shape the future.
Duane co-wrote “A Step for Mankind” with Boltar Solomon aka Mystic Routes and produced with the Wailers to benefit the United Nations World Food Programme. The track has become the anthem for global hunger eradication and is featured on Oniric Records' Solutions for Dreamers: Season 3 which directly benefits the World Food Programme. The song is a call to action for everyone to stand up against hunger and truly help mankind take a step in the right direction. His work with the WFP continues through advocacy, awareness and outreach on the WFP fund-raising social media site WeFeedback.org and as part of live concert performances with the Wailers, where funds that are gathered benefit World Food Programme efforts in Ethiopia.In the song "Sufferer's Heights" the current single from Black Gold, Duane Stephenson rises to new levels of consciousness, urging us to take stock in what we have, respect the needs of the under-served. "Don't have a thing to give to the poor, you got a little, but you still want more. You say it can't get no worse? In a Sufferer's Heights, poor people go to bed with no shelter, them can't find no love....and Inna Sufferer's Heights, dem can't get no dinner and pure old clothes them dress up inna." Real talk and real heights, from the heart.
Duane's work as a solo artist began after a ten-year stint as the leader of the group To-Isis.
How do you feel this experience as part of the group To-Isis may have shaped you as an artist today, in terms of your work touring, recording, collaborating with others in the industry?
In terms of what I learned in To-Isis, you definitely have to be a team player. Part of sharing the music and sharing the different ideas, being part of a group, everybody has their own mindset, their own view on how music is supposed to go and you have to strike a compromise. So it definitely prepared me in that sense. You learn to appreciate the views of the artists not only their views but especially if you are writing the song (for someone else), you aim to look at what the artist represents himself and you get a feel for the artist. You have to incorporate all of that in the music, it definitely prepares you a lot in terms of collaboration.
Your new single "Better Tomorrow" moves in a pop direction with a sound that is represented on many songs across your two albums, FROM AUGUST TOWN and the latest BLACK GOLD. What music do you listen to and what songwriters do you find interesting?
I listen to music from all genres, I have been in tune with Michael Jackson's whole movements, he did most of his own writing. Bob Dylan has always been a great influence, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, who was kind of a darker shade of an artist, as well as an excellent songwriter who has done writing for other people as well as for himself.
What is the meaning of this message presented in the song's lyrics?
Better Tomorrow as a song is relevant, to me, especially coming out of the year that we had last year, and this year hasn't started much better. If you tend to reflect on what is happening in Japan, New Zealand, all of these places. The last thing we need is somebody reminding us how bad things are. It is just another step in the healing process but it is not necessarily a pop song.
You did some work with Jah Cure, during the time that he was incarcerated at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre (also known as the General Penitentiary) and you were part of the initiative to allow inmates the ability to record in the prison system.
The Rehabilitation Through Music program was the brainchild of one Police Superintendent Gladstone Wright, now retired. He is actually the one who founded the program and the one who invited me to be a part of it, which was an honor for me as this was the first artist (Jah Cure) for me to write songs with. Jah Cure was already a voice that was out there, I love his music. We got a chance to say something to the youth at the time, because, it was the beginning of a rough time in Jamaica where the a lot of the young people had this thing going around where them wan go a prison, the thinking is, 'I will do something to you to go to prison, cause I'm not afraid of going there' and it was a popular thing. But until they know of it, they didn't really know what they were getting into. He was a person that people looked up to because of his musical abilities, so that was an opportunity for him to do something good, for him to speak to the youth, saying, 'I am in that situation and I am telling you, that it is nothing to aspire to, nothing to think is cool.' I had the opportunity to write the song (True Reflections) that was the soundtrack to the whole thing, that was great for me.You have also collaborated with I Grade Records out of St. Croix in the neighboring Virgin Islands on the JOYFUL NOISE compilation, and your song "Hard Times" was chosen as the lead track. The song "I'm Fine" was also included on this four rhythm compilation from the IGrade/Zion High/Lustre Kings collective, how did this project come about?
We went over there for a show that we had organized, and we went to the I Grade studio and they showed me some tracks. I liked the rhythms, they had moving chords not just one and two changes.
What is the World Food Programme initiative work that you do saying about your life experience or world view?
The truth is, what I found out was that I was actually one of the beneficiaries of early in my life of the whole World Food Programme. In Jamaica it was called the Nutrition Movement. I didn't know until recently when I became a part of WFP, that I had benefited in earlier days. Every time I get an opportunity to do something, worthwhile and meaningful, I try to jump to it. Because, many times we are so consumed with trying to just stay above water, that we are all caught up in what we need just to live. I am no different, so every time I get an opportunity that goes beyond me, I always do it. This opportunity presented itself from the manager of the Wailers, Jennifer Miller cause the Wailers have been a part of what the World Food Programme is doing. So when I was invited, it was another opportunity to do something that would benefit someone beyond my immediate family or myself.
Your songs sometimes reflect a note of truth or tragedy in terms of violence in our society. How has your personal life in August Town affected who you are as a songwriter?
Most of what I write is based on what I either think or been through personally or experienced through a close friend, and your environment if you are that kind of person, will definitely reflect and I take everything to heart. Everything means something to me, and a lot of that reflects in my music. and will definitely be a part of my write..... the way it comes out is how I see it.
You don't adopt a lot of the hype or do things to grab any negative publicity. Where are we going in the reggae today and how does this music or your mission aim to fix or repair some of the damage which is pretty serious in my opinion. In terms of damage that has been done, and how certain individuals in the industry conduct themselves or how they do things to get attention or behave unprofessionally?
You can decide what you want, but at the end of the day, is it really worth it. I was never the type of person to go out there and get myself in trouble. I have always been a person that has avoided trouble. I always think before I act. You can always find trouble in the spotlight and people like to forget bad things. So if you are a bad memory people people are trying to forget. So that is when people are going to counseling, they are trying to forget bad memories, you don't see people going to counseling to try and get rid of good memories. It is really a reflection of who the person was prior to music. And music is secondary to them, a lot of times people do stuff like this because music is secondary to them. I was telling someone the other day that people sing for different reasons. Some people sing for fun some sing for life, I sing for life. Because of what I have riding on me as a person, this is not how I live, it is not necessarily for fun, it is fun. I sing for more than that.
At what point did your relationship with the great Dean Fraser take the form of a production partnership?
I knew of Dean Fraser, from before, but not personally, but through my uncle. (Duane's uncle, Michael Rutherford was the lead singer of a popular group known as Sunny Bradshaw and the Big Band) The first time I met Dean Fraser was a result of us watching Entertainment Report one Friday night, Dean was saying that at this point in time he was looking for young artists to grow and work with. My uncle and I were watching together, and so I got his number from a friend of mine and we met up with him (Dean) and he invited us to come to the studio. So I always have been working with Dean, even when I was with To-Isis. Sometimes it helps when someone knows you, and when you have been writing for other people, Dean was the one that got me to write for Luciano and for Tarrus Riley.What's it like to work with Dean Fraser in the studio and on stage?
Any occasion that you get to work with Dean Fraser, is always great, if nothing else it is going to be great fun. His production and writing, even the way he turns you and sends you back to the drawing board. Serious, but you cannot take it personally, even if it is hard, it is good for good music.
And now with this new single, "Better Tomorrow" you are working with some new people in your career including the great Handel Tucker who was the genius behind songs for Maxi Priest, Diana King, Shaggy, Patra, artists who crossed over and whose songs continue to tally royalties. What is it like to work with Handel Tucker?
His approach to things is a little bit different from Dean, he does a lot of different stuff. He is a man who is very passionate about what he is doing. Because of how passionate he is, he is constantly fixing and running around, building an idea that can transfer itself to you. So he is always working to try and get the song better and better. In any great music, when they are excited about the music, it makes you excited about the music and try for better. He has definitely done that, through the volume of hits, and from where he is coming from, he has such great history,
What about working with director Ras Kassa the Guru for the Better Tomorrow video?
I have known of Ras Kassa, not as my own act, but supporting and working on more in corporate type of projects, working with many different choirs, we did two songs on a project. Ras Kassa is such a great person, he is another person again that is really passionate and he gets caught up in everything that he is doing. He motivates you and he gives you that edge, and he always tries to get you to put yourself into what he is doing. Cause you know he is a good salesman, the man should be selling cars. You really put yourself into it and the result becomes excellent.
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Most of your video concepts are your own, from the styling to the concept, to the casting.
On most of my videos, I do have involvement, but this one was out of my hands, when you are working with Ras Kassa, you try to get a Ras Kassa feel so you leave it up to Ras Kassa and I did that. The reason for that is when you are looking for a different feel, a different vibe, that is a quality that he brings to the table. So you leave him to do his thing and I did that.
In these times, we have to prepare mentally to stay strong and feel vital. What advice can you give to the reggae massive concerning strategies or ideas you use to rise above the noise and chaos, the confusion of the times?
You have to be the best you that you can be, in the business. Cause the truth is, your individuality is what will guide you along the road. There are many odd singers out there that are great singers. And reggae is not only confined to Jamaica, Reggae comes from Africa, out of California, as far as New Zealand, all these places, so you have to be the best you possible. And in trying to do this you have to come up with the best ideas for songs, you have to come up with the best words. You have to try and always be professional in what you are doing. Not just in the music, but in other areas the music has been taking such a beating. People say 'well reggae artists are so hard to deal with because they build this wall around themselves, they are unprofessional, whatever.' So you have to be the best you, right across the board. This advice I can give.
Is there a specific process that you could identify that you go through when you create a song?
Most of the time it is spontaneous, every time I try to sit and write a song, it takes forever, I am going about my merry way and sometime melodies would come by, just ideas, and I make a note of them, scratch it out and get back to them and of course you always have to build on these ideas. It is very rare that you are sitting at home and an idea actually comes and you get a whole song in its entirety. I don't necessarily just sit down and write. Ideas come, and I live, a day to day process, structures come up and I capture a little of each thing.How do you keep your voice fit? Do you do vocal exercises? Or follow a special health regimen? The wide range in your voice is somewhat natural and god-given of course.
It begins there, but I sing a lot, I am always singing, whether it is at a performance, backgrounds, so I am always singing, it is like any other instrument or anybody. It is like if you are in construction, you are built like a block. I think music, because of how active I am, it tends to keep me a bit sharp, so it is nothing special, nothing but hard work.
And no smoking
I don't smoke and I don't drink.
At what age did you start to exhibit talent, where you started To-Isis as a group, how old were you?
I was round about 19. I became a part of Cathy Levy Players when I was 16.
When you started at 19, was there any trouble from your family about being an entertainer?
I have always had good support in terms of family, always.
Do you think that is an important part of being an artist, having family support you?
Yes because if you don't have that family support, then everything is going to be pressured. For the most part you really have to grind it out and build over time.
Do you do a lot of school concerts and things like that around JA?
Whenever I get an opportunity, I love going to schools to sing, and sometimes you give pep talks and stuff like that. I am involved in that when I have the time.
It is such an important part of how Jamaica runs, I wish they would do that in other countries!
It has done a lot in Jamaica, the artists are very active socially in Jamaica.
This hit song, a collaboration with Gramps Morgan, "Rescue Me", is it based on a real life situation? How do you suppose it became so big, aside from the great song structure, or the positive portrayal of women that perhaps made it popular with the ladies?
You said a lot about the song already, so I don't have much left to say. The truth is, when I came up with this song, it was just for pure fun. Because many times us as reggae artists we take our selves too seriously. My approach to things right now is to (says with emphasis) take people out of the problems and stuff that we have and try to take them in a different direction. So they can come to a show and let go of themselves and have some fun. Tomorrow we have to become wailing dog, it shouldn't mean that you have to come to a show and be depressed. It was all good fun. Once I came up with the track, Gramps was the first one that came to mind because of what he brings to the table. And I wasn't wrong, you know it has been great fun from the day we stepped into the studio. That is why it has carried on so well. Because when people get a chance to have some fun, enjoy it for what it is worth and not think anything beyond what it is, just a good song.And is that why you don't do so many rhythms that are shared with other artists? You take those song lyrics pretty seriously, and you save those lyrics for a song that might work with a rhythm that you start from scratch and have the feeling behind it that you develop? [Here Duane makes a wonderful analogy about what we can aspire to.]
That is true you know, that is part of the reason. Plus I don't think that I am that great, to be keeping up with al these tracks that you are getting from producers. You have to decide if you want to be a Bentley or a Honda Civic, a Bentley is something to aspire to. A Honda Civic is a starter car. I am not saying that I am, you know, but I definitely aspire to be. You know what me a say? You putting everything including a wing on your Honda, it is still a Honda, and there is going to be a Bentley passing by.
You have some big shows coming up, shows in Europe this month, Sierra Nevada World Music Festival in California, SummerJam in Cologne all coming up, how do you feel about doing more big festivals as a solo artist?
This year is shaping up to be a great one for me, I hope to really use these opportunities to better myself by putting on a great show, something to remember me by.
What do you see yourself doing in five years?
I am hopefully making music at a higher level, reaching out to much more fans than I am now. I think I am on my way to doing what I set out to do.
Anything you would like to tell the massive?