Jesse Royal - The Royal Interview
06/08/2021 by Gardy Stein
Jesse David Leroi Grey, better known as Jesse Royal, has established himself firmly as one of the big names among the young Reggae Revival. His 2017 album Lily Of Da Valley heralded an impressive development, and, dropping fantastic singles and collaborations left, right and center, that development now culminated in an oeuvre called, simply, Royal (Easy Star Records).
The simplicity is deceiving, though. Royal is a highly complex album, both in message and versatility, and the artists featuring on six of the eleven tracks are nothing short of stunning. To understand and grasp this complexity, Reggaeville reached out to the man Jesse Royal himself with a truckload of questions in tow. An excellent story-teller, he let us in on precious behind-the-scenes moments, comments on his collaboration with the producers and explains some of the important lyrics. The conversation, which he joined with his newborn daughter in arm, was as entertaining as it was enlightening, and the best thing about it is that you can read along now:
I'm good. How are you, how is the family?
The family is great, as you can see (holds baby up).
Is she sleeping?
Wha... ts... sleeping? (laughs) I wish!
The joys of parenthood... how old is she now?
Bless her. Before we talk about your new album, I want to ask about your latest IG post... it shows you next to a footballer, Walter Boyd. Can you tell us non-Caribbeans who that is?
Walter Boyd is one of our most legendary football players! He was the crowd favourite. He had a particular shoe that he used to wear, and he made Puma sell wayyyy more pairs in the time that he was playing. He used to wear a red boot that was called the Puma King. It was full red, and he wore number 10. On the journey... you know, the one time that Jamaica went to the World Cup, on the road to France, he was an integral part of that entire process, he was like a one-man-army. If you are from Jamaica, you know the feeling of seeing Walter Boyd, and you remember those red boots running down the center of the field and taking on defenders, so it's a very euphoric thing for us.
I read the comments and he seems to be quite important for the Jamaican sports.
Yeah man, he is super important, and it is important that we always remind the youths dem of we history, cah if you don't know where you're coming from you cyaan really know where you are going.
Do you still play football?
Yeah man, as much as I can! It's a very holistic workout, you get fitness to agility to... (talking to squirming baby) chill out please! ... yes everything, so we still play football!
On a business side, you are involved with the Jacana Company. What is your position there?
I'm a share-holder and brand strategist. Jacana premiered dispensery ina Jamaica, it is one of the, if not THE cleanest herb that you can get ina Jamaica. We have research facilities and we are coming up with some ingenious ways now of servicing the community, because we really just feel like herb is going to be a big part of moving Jamaica forward. Not only financially, but socially as well, you know. It's important for it to be normalized and we start deal with the health and the wealth of the herb versus the stigmatization and the discrepancies weh it always a get.
Community work seems to be a major focus of your actions... in another interview you said it's important for you to be useful to other people and to maximize your time on earth... can you elaborate on that?
My thing is, we benefit from a lot of work that other people do. Something as simple as there will be people who are going to read this interview and get inspiration from the journalism that you did! There is plates that I use, that I didn't make, somewhere somebody in this world found it important to make a plate, and I made a dish and served it on that plate. There is somebody else who made the forks, so... if we really look around us, we are living in a world where other people were brave enough to follow through with their ideas. You know what I mean, from the car you drive to the gas station that you pull up at, these are all ideas that individuals put in place to hopefully try to make life a little easier or better for other people. So, for me it's just fulfilling that cycle of life, you know, and you use so many things that it's important for you also to find a way to be useful. That is the whole basis of that conversation, just make sure that your moral compass is always aligned and you know that in the midst of you using all these other things, remember to be useful to somebody somewhere in some way.
Some people say 'I don't have fans or followers, I cannot move things the way other people can.' so they find excuses to not do things because they think they are not in the position to do it... but as you said, there are small things everybody can do!
Yes, lemmi tell you this, I was having this conversation yesterday. There are way less excuses to not do it than there are reason to do it. So if you have one reason why you can't do it, there is twenty reasons why you can. You need to know where your focus and your energy lies, and what you are trying to do. Even if you're gonna plant one acre of land, and you can't plant it all at once, you can plant one row at a time, right, and if you plant one row for 365 days, at the end of the year you will have planted an acre.
Your focus and energies have clearly been on the upcoming album, which is simply called Royal. In the press release you said that "Reggae has a different tone, a different feeling, a different mood" and that it's just royal music. Can you tell us what you mean by that and why you called the album Royal?
All right, let's start here. Reggae is the King's music, it's the only genre around the world that is literally dedicated to the truth, whatever that may be. It might be the truth about the system, the truth about love, the truth about marihuana, the truth about life. We aren't dedicated to entertainment as much as we are dedicated to deliver the truth as message, whatever that is. So, when we talk about royal music it's because we have that responsability as the care-takers and the ones who carry the flame right now. It's important for us to know the story and grow the glory.
Why we call this album Royal now it's because it is literally the most vulnerable I've ever been on a project, where I speak on real situations from parenting to friendship to disloyalty to love and the good and bad that comes with that. So, when we listened to all the songs and we came together as a unit, people said "Hey, we never heard you speaking like that before, you clearly are comfortable with really giving people a glimpse into your life now. This literally feels like the most honest you've ever been with your audience, this feels like a stripped down version of Jesse Royal, it feels like just Royal." We had a couple other ideas of how we are going to name the album, but after this reasoning, the general consensus was that this is exactly what it should be called. This is a true representation of where I am in life, and we are very aware of who we are and who we need to be in this space, in our time, for our generation. It's nothing short of royal! Regaining the kingly side of we story, not just attaching ourselves to the idea of 400 years of slavery, identifying ourselves with bigotry or some people and perspectives that are first of all ignorant and then second of all not true. We don't have to own labels put on us by other people, the whole royal thing is just to remind the youths dem of our story. We are kings and queens, not former slaves. We're nothing short of royal!
Before we talk about the individual songs in more detail, let's look into the production of the tunes. There are a few different producers on the album, but the one most present is Sean Alaric. How did you connect and what was working with him like?
Jason Panton, who is a good friend of mine, he and Sean Alaric are friends. Jason heard a beat from Sean and he sent it to me and was like "Yo, Jesse, listen to this, this is a wicked beat, I think this can work in Reggae music right now!" We started fleshing out the song, linked up with another one of my bredren named Vision and worked on the whole idea of what Lion Order is. How easy that process was and how steady the songs were kind of made me very confident in the potential of the relationship between me and Sean. So, what I did after we created that song, I did a writing session in LA. I flew Sean out, I flew two other producers out, I flew Jason out, Protoje joined us, and I had some other people on my team that were there. We literally took a week to just create. Whatever comes up, whatever comes out, we just created the space for creation. And that experience gave us probably 80% of the album. In a week! In one week, we got the ideas and direction of the album, and after that it was kind of just smooth sailing.
I thought about other conversations that needed to be had, and we directly went out to people like Dretegs, who did the song called Home. My brother Alandon and I connected in terms of creating that whole concept. There is a song like Rich Forever where we actually developed the progression in Sean's studio, but then we went to iotosh to create the whole picture, you know. I'm just showing you how interactive it has been, it hasn't been 'there's a beat and we sing on a beat', we literally tried to create songs, create ideas, which is why the music wraps around the melodies so much.
Yes, it sounds very organic, even though there are many different people involved...
Yeah man, very organic, and it sounds like you're on one train, it doesn't feel like you're hopping on different trains, it's one train, one journey. I'm actually proud of the work that we came up with and I'm extremely happy and excited to share it with the world, you know what I mean? (laughs)
You mentioned Rich Forever, and of course everybody is curious... how did you get to work with Vybz Kartel, how did the link come up?
You haffi understand that everything ina life is what it is and it will be what it should be. With that said, everything happens in ways that sometimes we wish we could explain, we wish we could describe in a very real manner, but the reality is that dem tings is just divine. The conversation that we wanted to have on Rich Forever, there is only one person who could have spoken, who we were trying to speak to in the way that we did, and that's Vybz Kartel. To me THE greatest lyricist to ever come out of Jamaica, and arguably one of the greatest lyricists in the world. Arguably! I've heard Jay-C speak of how profound he thinks Vybz Kartel's writing is, so...
Rich Forever was almost like a song weh we did have to use fi light a fire under the youths dem tail just fi remember "Yo, we are what we are and that's the way it's gonna be!". Like Bob Marley say, we got something they could never take away, despite all the confusion and illusion and dem trying to get us to be delusional and identify with an identity that is given to us, not who we actually are. It's important to me that somebody like Vybz Kartel say "Rich Forever, family we treasure, in a system that breeds depression who will ease this tention, every man fi demself, cheese intention, meaning greens that evil intention. No matter how me teach dem need detention." If you get what I'm trying to say, all these songs are deliberate, with a deliberate message and a deliberate goal, we are trying to do away with certain labels and try fi wipe the board and start fresh and give the youths an opportunity to be their greatest self and not feel like dem a run a race weh dem already start 20 steps behind, you know.
Thanks for the spiritual connection. Now for the practical side, how did the song reach Vybz Kartel and how did his verse reach you in the studio?
The right people at the right time! (laughs) Respect is out there in a di world from both parties, and we just make it happen.
There are some other very exciting collaborations on the album... Protoje of course, you mentioned Lion Order already and it's been out there since two years doing extremely well. The one who opens the album though is Samory I with High Tide And Low. Did you have him in mind when you created the track?
Yeah! I wanna tell you something funny. That's a beautiful track produced by Natural High who are some great GREAT great producers, Jordie and Blaise, and when we created the track, I had two individuals in mind. I won't say the other's name, but the energy of Samory did just stand out to me. He is a very warm, spirited and light-hearted youth, and him energy just jump out and me say all right. We already had the concept written, and we just needed the delivery, the frequency, and I would say Samory outdid even what I expected of him! Like, he took it and brought it somewhere... zionly! Me definitely give Samory a whole heap a respect. From him vocal abilities and his incredible, incredible voice, him know how fi use it, you know.
That's why we put it up first, we needed something that would just open the gate, not too wide, just enough so that you can get ready fi where we a go, because you know it's not expected, it's not an expected album in terms of sonics, but me sure seh the ones dem will find something weh dem enjoy.
Sure! And then you have some other great features, like Runkus on Like Dat. I think he even produced the riddim, right?
Yes, me and Runkus did work pon Like Dat. Funny story! We went to the studio, me and Runkus did suppose fi link up for a while, so we pulled up the Like Dat beat and we started vibing. Runkus is a super creative youth, me like working wid him, you know, so we connect and we roll ideas off a each other, and then we got the song and flesh it out. Then Runkus pull out another riddim and was like "Yo, just say something pon dis one." Me say all right cool, and him start play and me sing "It might cost my life but me nah stop til dem all pay di price, Lord, it might cost my life, but me nah stop til di people get wise..." (sings) And Runkus just say "What? Pull up... what?"
Me did leave that there, Runkus called me back the day after, saying "Yo, I know our song was the plan, but then this song is actually a vibe." And I was like "Oh it was just a freestyle, I don't know if it can make a song." And Runkus said "Royal, I never asked you to trust me in life before, just trust me on this one!" So I just gave him my blessing, and then he sent me back a verse that he did, and it blew my mind. Then he sends me a message saying Munga wants to be on it, and then Kabaka came in, and then Royal Blu, and it ended up being a song called 5Gs, and it's a song that did really good for Runkus. I'm so happy that I could have helped in the process, one, but also just the genius of it all... I mean, he took a freestyle and turned it into a big tune, you see me, you haffi give people dem props, cause I didn't see that in the song. As I said, we met to record a song for my album, and we came up with that! And that just shows you the respect weh me have for these individuals, it's not just like 'Yeah mek we do a song together', it's like I genuinely think they are creative people and I genuinely think they are dope and I want to work together. I think Reggae needs a lot more connecting, a lot more working together, because that's what's gonna make us the industry that we crave!
Yes, especially, as you said, 5Gs did good for Runkus, but it did good for everybody on that song! I was so happy to see him on the song list.
He's great, he's going to do great things. A lot more collaborations on this album, and if you noticed, you don't see any females on this, so just get ready for another project! Deliberate.
Wow, that sounds exciting! Another name I was happy to find was Kumar. You worked with him several times before, right?
More than work, man, Kumar is my brother! Which is why we sang this song we did. Kumar is somebody who I think is incredibly talented. I'm a big fan of his work, and I'm also his brother, as I said. That particular song is a couple of us who are brothers, Unga is on the song, RiffRaff also, so... it's just good for me to be able ot share the platform with some of my brothers.
One brother who is not from Jamaica but all the way from Ghana is Stonebwoy. Dirty Money is one of the highlight tracks for me personally, so I'm curious to find out how that link came about?
Stonebwoy and I have been friends for a while. I've always respected his work, I've always respected his work ethics, and we have a couple of common friends. Somebody who was also very integral in making this happen is a producer and agent, actually my agent in Europe, Riga from Hemp Higher. So he was connecting the dots and making it happen, so I always shout out to Riga. Me and Stonebwoy been good friends, but as me say me have a huge, high level of respect for the importance that him put on connecting Africa with Jamaica. It's somebody who has worked tirelessly in terms of bridging the gap, and we love the ethic and will work together and connect Africa and the Caribbean because we are one people.
As you said in the beginning, Reggae is royal music, and a lot of elements came from Africa of course, so it's great to see the link come back full circle.
Another track I want to talk about is Natty Pablo. By the way, I really appreciate that you put all the lyrics in the press release! What made you do that?
Because it's important for you to actually understand what I'm saying and why I'm saying it. Natty Pablo, like me say, is one of those songs weh... in Jamaica there's a whole heap of Rastamen, elders, in volatile communities, in places where it seems that there is only desolation. But then there is some Rasta man who help the youths dem think upful when it come to food, help edify the youths dem in terms of blackness, help edify the youths in ways of survival that don't have to do with negativity. And also there are some individuals who have been brave enough to fight some fight and try to use the little weh dem have to develop the mass, so the idea of exposing Natty Pablo to the world is something that had to happen in terms of... Rastaman don't just sit down on the hillside, you see me, we don't just complain about the problems, we actually try to be the solution! We strive every day to try to be solutions to the problems that the governments create. So, you hear me say: "Natty Pablo smuggling the truth, tending to the destitue, breaking down the laws that they built to keep we mute."
And who are the names you mention? Narcos, Dr. Sebi, Naldo?
Narcos... these are people who use illicit means and done some bad things with what they've got. So, the song says "We ain't nothing like the Narcos, tell me weh we can't go with this contraband inna we cargo." Dr. Sebi is a doctor, somebody who helped us to realise a lot of the root causes of a lot of issues that we face as people in general, and then as specific to our race. I recommend everybody to check out some of Dr. Sebi's videos, it's definitely transformational, life changing. Naldo now is one of my favourite footballers, Christiano Ronaldo, in Jamaica we just call him Naldo. That's what I say, I'm a "top striker like Naldo, el jefe head honcho."
Ah ok, I see! And what are the Swallowfields?
Swallowfield is a community in Kingston, Jamaica, that is near and dear to my heart. A lot of friends that I grew up with live in there, some have lost their lives or whatever. Swallowfield is one of dem garrisons ina Jamaica weh me just feel responsible to help some youths come out of there, you know.
Another song we have to talk about is Black, of course. Next to the deep meaning, the music is very crazy, the sounds used, the musicians involved. Have you been there in the recording sessions?
Yeah man! Yared Lee is a very creative likkle youth. The idea of Black is something so necessary for our youth, like one of the first lines say, "Black excellence, beaming with confidence, hard work and diligence we use to tear down wall and break defence. Mi rise a nuh accident, everybody needs oxygen, Mansamousa is back again, warn me enemies, tell me friends." It's like the idea of us reclaiming the glory of what we as black are and making black beautiful again. It's a thing weh we just remind them of the glory that comes with being melanated. The thing about it now is that Black is a song weh... it's very funky, the horns and the drum patterns and so on, it's a very funky song and we love it, we love the concept and everybody thinks it's dope. We took some risk, nobody has ever heard of Yared before in the production world, but he's a youth weh... he did some dope things and he has a dope future, so we give him a chance, you know?
In Home you hear the voice of your daughter who says "Papa, I miss you!". Here in Germany we say Papa as well, is it common in Jamaica too?
No, it's not common, that's what she calls me. She lives in Oslo, you know, so that's her special way of calling me. In Jamaica dem say Daddy. (laughs)
The album will come out next week and then on the 13th there is a public presentation. Can you tell us something about the event?
We'll be doing a presentation, a live performance on the 13th of June down in Oasis, in Wynwood in Miami. We've been getting a whole lot of love, and we just feel like the people deserve a proper presentation of the product, so I will give it to them. It's been a while since I performed for a live audience, so you can imagine the level of excitement that's bubbling within me. It's dope, it's a great time to give people some music, coming out of this time period where everybody was down, felt chained to negativity, every day it was some other bad news. I just feel like, Reggae being the genre that it is, it's important for us to come and make our voices heard, the vibrations felt, and remind people seh there is still good people, there is still good music in the world.
Will you do an event in Jamaica as well?
Jamaica deh pon lockdown still, so there's no event.
In Germany as well... but slowly things open up again! I'm through with my questions, do you feel we left out anything, do you want to add something?
As a general scope, I just want to send my love to Reggaeville for consistently supporting Reggae music and being a flag-waver for years upon years. A lot of time people don't really give Reggaeville the credit you deserve, for the work and effort weh Julian and nuff a de ones dem put in, so me just send my love and mek you know seh Jesse Royal a check fi you. We definitely are grateful, for the work you keep doing over there and giving us a platform, so... love to all of you and to all the German fans, all the German artists, musicians and engineers, in general to all European festival promoters, you know.
I'll pass that on! Thank you so much for the reasoning and the behind-the-scenes view of your album, it was a pleasure.
Give thanks for your time. Jah guide and protect!