Jah9 ADD

Interview with Janine Jah9 Cunningham [Part I]

02/25/2013 by Justine Amadori Ketola

Interview with Janine Jah9 Cunningham [Part I]

Janine Jah9 Cunningham has been credited as the creator of the Jazz on Dub genre. Her vocals blend the Jazz melodies of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone with the Dancehall attack of Sizzla Kalonji above the heavy Dub rhythm akin to Augustus Pablo... Jah9 developed her sound in the underground poetry/live music scene, but now intends to take her word sounds to the world. Her signature sound has led to collaborations with platinum producer Donovan Bennett of Don Corleon Records, dancehall pioneer Rory Gilligan of Stone Love International, Sheldon Bernard and living legend Beres Hammond of Harmony House Music. She was born in Montego Bay, Saint James on May 23, 1983. With a Baptist minister for a father and a teacher and social worker for a mother, young Janine Elizabeth Cunningham lived much of her childhood in the town of Falmouth, Trelawny. On moving to Kingston in 1991, Janine was immediately struck by chaos disguised as order in the nation’s capital. Concepts of community were seemingly misrepresented by political endeavors. It was only a matter of time after leaving University that she would sacrifice financial security to satisfy her true passion. Reggaeville met up with Jah9 in advance of the release of her debut release NEW NAME. The album release party, to be held at Red Bones Blues Cafe in Kingston 2/26 will feature a full band performance of the entire album. As the interview reveals, the culture of Jamaica, its reggae birthright combined with the teachings Rastafari, so deeply rooted in the land of wood and water have all been planted and nurtured in Jah9's consciousness and ultimately in her creative expression. She may be influenced by American Jazz, but she is a bonafide Jamaican Reggae artist, one like her predecessors, who innovates, makes the style her own and seeks to uplift consciousness.

What is your writing  process like, do you find yourself influenced by every day events in your life, or others, do you make themes a priority or is it really more of a freestyle that you start with, a punch line, what type of process do you have?
The process has evolved over the years and it includes everything that you just mentioned. It really is dependent on what I am going in for. Sometimes I will get new music like from a producer and I will listen to hear which tracks inspire me. If I am inspired by the music of it, a melody might come to me first and then depending on what is the most dominant theme in my mind at a particular time because of what I am reading, because of something that happened, everyday events, something will come to mind. Sometimes I will go in knowing the theme that I want to address because it is so heavy on my heart or sometimes something will just come to me at three-o'clock in the morning and I have to wake up out of my sleep and write it down, before I hear anything else or before I forget. I remember times where every single night for like three or four days, I would be woken up out of my sleep at the same time and I would just have to write. I couldn't even move, I would just have to grab the phone and type it in so I could remember. It really is an inspiration that brings the word-sound, sometimes you'll write from your intellect as well, because you can put words together. You put it together and it will be clever and will become a particular way. Because of my background in poetry, I have a relationship with words since I was very young. So just playing on words and writing as a story and then turning that into either a song or a poem. Sometimes it will be a poem first, and then you will get a melody, or you will get music and you will put it to that. Or sometimes a bass line will come to my head, and you hear the bass line and the bass line brings the words. But it varies, because I have been writing so long there are so many different ways that it happens but, the consistent thing is that when it does come upon me, its like something you feel about to happen. You can just sing it out of your mouth if you are not getting to write it down and you miss the opportunity to share it with anyone else, but it still comes out you know.

You had your start in the spoken word underground scene while you were at University in Kingston. Take us through the process of how you evolved, how you started meeting producers, your production time, how did you link and begin this journey shifting from a poet to a songwriter/vocalist.
As a vocalist, I was singing since I was maybe six years old, are the earliest memories I have of singing and it's in church..sitting beside my mother and reading out the hymnbook and learning the melodies to the hymns and learning harmony and singing with my whole family, with my sister and my mother. Then as a I grew up, went to primary school and high school, I was always on a choir, always singing, learning all the parts, playing the piano by ear, and trying to just know everything thing there was, this kind of ear training, with the choir. But I was also always writing. I started reading pretty early, I had already started with words, since I was pretty young. Then when I came to Kingston, I remember being in class, and teacher introducing us to the formal process of writing poetry and at that time I had started to play with words, I wrote my first official poem for my teacher. She didn't even like it! But I was so excited I was like, 'this lady doesn't even know what she is talking about.' So I just continued to write, and it was kind of therapy for me, I went through the loss of my brother and moving to a new city and a lot of changes that I couldn't necessarily talk about but I got an opportunity express through the words and through just filling books upon books of poetry.

As I grew up and went to high school, that process refined, and with new experiences and was exposed to new things, my mind expanded. So the content did expand and the theme did expand, and then when I was in University was probably the first time I performed for an audience of people who didn't know me, my word-sound, so it was poetry that I was noted for first and then as I started to learn more about like roots music. Because my musical influences were more about Gospel, Jazz and Classical, and in the choir or in the church and learned because they were close enough to gospel to be played in my house. When I was exposed to instrumental Dub, like Sizzla Kalonji and like heavy Rastafari and roots music, it resonated with me because it reminded me so much of Jazz because it was so…there was a structure. Cause you know reggae music  has a structure, that is why you can identify it, but with Roots and Dub now, there are so many empty spaces so you get to play with a lot of words an melody within  that structure, so it gave me a lot of space to play around. Listening to the ladies of of Jazz, is kind of what stood out to me as well, they didn't really hold themselves in a particular kind of structure in terms of what the melodies were supposed to be because of what the songs were. Because even Billy Holiday might have three different versions of "God Bless The Child" and every time you hear these Jazz performers sing it is like a different experience of the song, and that is kind of how I found my own vocal style evolving over the years.

Because I was introduced to so many different genres, through the different choir experiences, my voice could pretty much do whatever I wanted it to do. So when I pulled it out of me, it was really instrumental Dub, Roots music, and I remember being up in the hills, Rockers International, the sound, the selector Gabre Selassie, lives up in the mountains and he has huge speaker boxes that would play the music on a Sunday night. I would go there before I even knew who I was, a friend of mine took me there and I could lean on the box and feel the bass moving through me and the words came and I realized, 'this is so easy to spit on', it is so easy to compose, because there is no competition with this whole heap a sounds, you are still getting this imaginative blend of tones, but it is space to create and so it was really the first time that I would put my word-sound to music immediately and turn it into a song. I got the opportunity to just flow on music and since then, I noticed how easy it was, how natural it was. I noticed when it was not Dub, it takes work to compose it in a particular way but with Dub it is easy and so natural. That was kind of where that love affair started and then the point where I become a songwriter.

We can see you focusing on themes of personal uplfitment in songs like Gratitude, Inner Voice, and in the albums title track, New Name, Imagine and Taken we hear you are a true Rasta woman, what keeps you strong and what individuals both of this world and those who have left, have influenced you in your life and learning?

What keeps me strong?  I learnt because of the family structure that I grew up, a Pastor's daughter, and pastors get a bad rap some times, sometimes its deserved, sometimes the good doesn't have to suffer for the bad. My father was one of those exemplary men to me, like I grew up watching him be like a hero in my community, watching him really show compassion and love for all the people around him and give of himself so much for his community. And to his church and the people around him, cause he is a countryman, a country pastor with traditional values. His father was that kind of man also, so when I learned from him, it wasn't so much him telling me what to do, it was me watching him and seeing 'ok, this is what a life should look like, and this is what you should try to emulate, and this is how people will deal with you if you live with integrity.'  Seeing that, it made such an impression on me, himself and my mother and it made such an impression on my mind, they really didn't have to tell me to go do, or tell me to go be anything, they just kind of gave me a space to be myself. So as I grew up and I learned about, I learned from the word, from the Bible about these characters.

We didn't read it from Genesis to Revelation the way I read it now, the way the Christian church will teach you to read it, you know you pick out a verse and you find your own meaning to it, and you apply it to your own life and you try to…you know? The way that the Rastafari tradition, the way that His Majesty has said to us that we read it, is the same way we read anything we are trying to get substance from and that is from the beginning to the end. Reading it one chapter a day, in a particular way, that has given me a lot of strength, just to embrace the Bible again, and not just as a historical book but as a metaphysical manifest of a spirit. Because that is our story, that is an African story, even if it has a Eurocentric kind of packaging now. The story is our story, when you read about Kemet and when you read about the history of Africa and the history of the indigenous experience and you realize that the Christ consciousness and the principles run through creation and you will find these principles in all traditions. So we in the West and we as Black people in the West have been given the opportunity to look at the Bible in a new way because the King has shown it to us in that way. So it complements all of the other things that I read throughout my life. Its where I started, and I put it down when I was going through my journey learning about Africa and learning about Rastafari. Until I really started to learn about the King and until I had a real encounter with what it is and who it is that this man was and I read his autobiography and I started to really dig in to the speeches that he gave and how he traveled the world and what his mission really was. I started to feel how it coincided with the story that was being told in the Word, in the Bible. It lines up so perfectly that it is really clear for anyone who would want to see that if there's any truth to the Bible, it is that His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I is the fulfillment of the prophetic words that were spoken and coming to that revelation in my own life, I see it coming forward, profoundly impacted me.

So it kind of was a culmination of a journey that I was on ever since I was young and I initially got baptized or initially decided that I wanted to cultivate my spirit, which was something I was consciously doing since I was a little girl. So you asked me before about the producers and so on that I met. If I take that journey, I could tell the story in that way, where you know I met Wayne Armond  through Sheldon Bernard and started making music toward a record. I met Seretse Small, and he kind of helped me hone the Jazz that was inside of me that wanted to be let out because he was a Jazz guitarist. He gave me that strength and confidence to get used to performing music in front of people and the confidence to do it. I was always blessed with very talented musicians that were at the top of the game, so I just had to concentrate on my part. All of this is a blessing and alive on the journey as it is supposed to be because it is a struggle. It has never been a struggle to find the right people. It has always been as though these people were polarized to me because of what I have to do. Its difficult to give it to you in a chronological way as to how this work, but the essence of it is just that it has really been a spiritual journey to this point. 

The song "Preacher Man" points out the influence of the Anglican church in Jamaica, coming from an island with some of the most churches per capita than any other in this hemisphere, and as a child of a preacher, how has church affected your journey as an artist and citizen in Jamaica.
Being the daughter of a preacher, in Jamaica, they have a saying in Jamaica that says, 'Pastor pickney a di worst'…meaning like if you are a pastor's child, you are bound to be bad. I always found that to be unfair, because right out of the gate, everybody's watching you, even if you are normal, you are supposed to be perfect. I didn't really struggle too much with what people were thinking about me, the fact of the matter was that I really respected my father. I saw what he was doing. As I told you, he is a countryman, so when we came to the city, and I started to realize, 'OK, so the city pastor is some different people from the country pastor.'  And the city pastors are very different, their churches are very different in the way that they relate to their congregation, and their kind of on a little pedestal, you know?  Everything is a little bit of self-worship there, because I watched my own father. So when I come and I see them now, it looks like social climbing. You know, it is the pastor and his shoes and his politicians and everything, and you are like, 'Really?' It just seemed really superficial to me and it just eventually led to me not wanting to be a part of the church organization and structure. I mean a lot of the things that happened to me were the cause of even observing my parents, so it was not as though they could be upset with me because of the decisions that I made because, I was always very vocal with them about how I was feeling about the things that I was observing. In essence, when you have children, you really want them to be a perfection of who you yourself want to be.

So my father was always a revolutionary type of man, and my mother also. They were not really trying to please anybody but the most high, they were sincerely spiritual people. That is the tradition that they left me with, so even when I went through my own struggles with, 'oh my parents are perfect' so I feel so kind of trapped in it as well. There was a great comfort in it, cause I got to, I learned very early that there is a place I can go, inside myself, and connect with myself on a deeper level. And it made it easier for me to find my imagination and to find my consciousness, because I learned to trust myself and I learned to listen to that inner voice, and identify it so I could tell when it was just the voices that were programmed into my head, separate from the voice of the Most High. I think that is why songs like "Inner Voice" and "Preacher Man" are so significant because as opposed to, it is almost like you are being told that there is a man in the sky who is in the sky and is watching you. You remember that Bette Midler song, "God Is Watching You.. "From a Distance"? With all due respect to Bette Midler, that song has done so much injustice to the people, to take God out of them and put him in the sky. Even lock him up and put him in the gender of male as opposed to the fact that for there to be a God it must comprise male and female, must comprise all life and it must be present around us in all the empty spaces, in everything within us, outside of us, the understanding of God was for me, I had an easier time understanding what it was because of the examples, as opposed to feeling like, you know, it is not my responsibility to be god, manifest god, or that I was a manifestation of that principle. Its a deep thing still, but I think the background gave me a bit of an advantage and then when I went to school I studied psychology. Because I kind of wanted to put everything into a context as well, and that kind of helped me on the journey as well.

Out of University I did a few years in the corporate world. I always knew it was going to be temporary. When I went out into that world, it was almost as though it was experimentation and observation. I got to rub shoulders with the upper echelon, and I also got to observe the people that served them, and the people that worked in the more menial, so to speak, positions and I got to relate with all of these people on the same level and really see. 'Bwoy, you know it is so many different Jamaicans'… because there are so many people living, existing and working in the same space and they are living completely different lives, different realities, different struggles, they probably will not interface with each other outside of this office space. I have always had a rich internal conversation growing up. My work is the manifestation of that. "Preacher Man" now, I was unafraid to sing a song like that. I wasn't even intending to put it on the record, its a song that I wrote and I showed it to my Dad because I wouldn't have even published a song like that if I didn't get an approval from him because it is a topic that is so close to him, but when he read it, he was adamant that yes, this is a good song. Because he, more than anyone could tell me that 'yeah, this is really the reality, its sad but its true.'  Not just Preacha man, but a lot of the leaders have just failed the people who they are supposed to serve because they don't understand that their role is to be a servant, if they are truly going to be called to lead.

Also coming from an island nation that is the heart of reggae, that historically released more singles per capita than anyplace in this hemisphere, how do you flex in the industry. You have a release party planned in a few weeks, what type of single or album release plans are you pursuing in a place where Reggae is a viable industry, featured on television, and throughout the media it is so well-exposed.
Well in Jamaica the music that I am doing is not even the music that is given a lot of airplay and mainstream support. We could go on and have an entire conversation about why that is, but that is just the reality of it. But roots and reggae music, it is more outside of Jamaica that my kind of music is appreciated, it is just very recently that people are tuning in to it. I think that is because the tide of the energies in the earth right now. People want some comfort now, it is not as if you want to dance and party, people are realizing that it is time to kind of center themselves, like with everything that there are so many uncertainties. You can't depend on the economy, you can't depend on even the climate, so you really have to go within yourself. The people want the kind of music they can travel on and go within themselves. On that note, when the people do hear it and do experience it then they will respond to it. But they are not going to be given access to it, because the media isn't going to be pushing this kind of music. But, in terms of what the plans are, we are just going to as much as possible get the music into the face of these people. On the morning programs, to get some of the writers of the local press to hear the record, to write if they are inspired, that is the strategy. We don't really have a big budget, I am not signed to a major label, or I don't have a great deal that is going to be sending this music out to the world. So it really is the phase that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing and the Most High will take it from there. That is really the current that this thing is working on, that is the current that has brought it to this point right now, where you would be calling me from Reggaeville to do an interview. Because there really isn't a lot of marketing machinery behind it, right now the plan is to release on the 26th on I-Tunes we're printing some copies and we will have them for sale at the event. We are planning to just have a great show, to talk about the record, talk about the process, talk about Jah9, just as me the individual, but as everybody that is a part of this, and the Yoga that I am a part of and the Rastafari community that I am a part of, and the entire mission, the current that is manifesting through I.

I didn't know you were involved in Yoga, that's wonderful!
Yes, I am a Yoga instructor. That is another part of the service.



"I am really glad that it was a woman that got to do this interview, just because I think there is a sensitivity that is required, not just because I am a woman, but now, approaching anything of consciousness, we sisters, we really have a serious road ahead of us in this new age that has begun"