Interview with Protoje in California @ SNWMF 6/23/2013
07/01/2013 by Justine Amadori Ketola
Protoje made his first major festival appearance in North America at the 2013 Sierra Nevada World Music Festival [June 22nd]. A humble youth, his spirit and countenance are gentle, but his will to survive and thrive in the reggae music industry is both fierce and calculated. The child of entertainers, who became an attorney and a track and field coach respectively, he is well on his way after releasing his second album, The 8 Year Affair to long term success. Reggaeville met with him at the festival and discussed his motivations, his new record label, his outstanding band The Indiggnation and country life in Jamaica.
Your parents, they were entertainers and your mother is now an entertainment attorney. Would you say you were exposed and groomed from early. Would you say that’s something that your parents thought ‘He’s got talent, let’s push him’, or how did you feel like you started?
I started at high school, where there is a very rich tradition of music in Jamaica. It was natural to be singing and all that stuff and my Mom and Dad are performers so I got to see them on stage a lot. My Mom was very surprised when I told her I wanted to do music they never really pushed me to do it. I was really pushed to do athletics, track and field because my Dad is a track and field coach, so that’s what I was more being geared towards. My parents were very free parents, they made me do what I wanted to do. But I always wanted to be a track star that was my first thing I wanted to do. I would dream about being a runner. Music gradually started to come to me. People always used to tell me I was so good at writing music, so I just started to write music more, and then I kind of fell in love with music and decided that was what I wanted to do.
You are really innovative, you are kind of like the hipster of your reggae community in Jamaica. Does this grassroots groundswell, this movement keep you going, does it fortify you….your crew in Jamaica, the way that the people are responding to you and your generation?
Yeah, I mean it definitely encourages me, I always try to be original. I don’t look at anybody of my generation to pattern off of. If I do it would be from way before, from different eras, my background is so wide musically that it merges a lot of stuff, my Rock and Roll, my Hip-Hop, Reggae, Dub. The energy we are getting from the people in Jamaica now is really fresh, we see that they are interested in this type of music. It’s so new to them, and with the support of my other colleagues and my band, it’s just fuel for the fire you know?
I have worked with groups like Rootz Underground so I completely understand what your community can do for you in Jamaica.
For example, Rootz Underground now, I have never done any work with them, but I have such a high respect for them. They were one of the bands that were holding it down before us. They were the band, them and Dubtonic (Kru) were two bands that were down when no bands…it wasn’t hip, it wasn’t cool to do it, they were doing it and they made it possible for us, for an artist like me to come out here and do my thing and they have influenced my sound so much, both of those bands, so I have great respect for Rootz Underground and Dubtonic.
Female upliftment, you make this a priority in your music, and your personal life and your livity. What do you feel like you can do, and we can do in Jamaica now to help supersede what has happened with the drinking parties and the lascivious nature that the women are dressing and behaving.
It’s the sun and the moon and the energy of the moon and if you empower a woman you empower a nation, right? Because in Jamaica, the women raise the children, and really bring up the household, that’s just the way it is. Women can do anything they want to do. But in Jamaica, they have a lot of the responsibility for raising the nation. We have to let them know, in the way we rap with them, to let them know it is not just physical, it’s not just wearing this and wearing that and being sexy and being sensual. That’s the natural part of a woman’s aura, but at the same time, it’s about a spiritual thing. We have to involve them and grow together spiritually because we really see that the children are involved in sex from eleven. You know, when I was eleven and twelve that was the last thing on my mind. We see it going that way now.
We as artists, too. We can’t be objectifying the women with gal do dis, gal dis, wine up your dis dat and dat. I don’t really dig that because there is much more to a woman than the physical, you know, sexual thing. I try to be my example, even as you check it, like my first song was Arguments this girl was crying over me and by the time I matured, I was like ‘You know I really don’t want to be singing about women in that way.’ That’s why my new album is more you know Come My Way and more respectful and more directed toward that.
You refer to the country a lot, especially in that beautiful song, are you a country man?
Yeah, for sure, country boy. Born and raised, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, most people don’t know I still live there. I went to Kingston for about three years to solidify my career, once I felt that job was done in terms of being in the industry I went back out to the country now. My drummer lives now with me in the country, and I am trying to get the whole band there. It’s much more relaxing for me. I get to spend lots of time, focus on my work. I may not be in every argument and every press related stuff what’s going on in the city but at the same time, it works better for me to get that down time and that peaceful time.
Interaction with nature, that’s important too.
Yeah man, very important. Where I live is lots of trees, we feed off the back yard, it’s a joy.
How was this stage experience you just had yesterday at Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, after your first show in America on a festival stage of this nature?
It was great you know in so many ways, because I got to perform with my band for the first time…I did South by Southwest with my band, but it’s a different level of stage you know, that was at a very small venue, a club show. To be on a festival stage, with my band, after we working so hard, to see them up there, to see my brothers up there enjoying themselves, it was so moving to me cause, we work so hard and we never get to play shows. We haven’t really done a lot of shows out of Jamaica, so to be on this stage and to know the history of this festival, to know that lots of artists have made their breakout here and to see so many legends backstage, to share in that experience, it was great. We had such a great time, the crowd was so involved, they knew the music, it felt like rehearsal though, I could have gone on another good hour. We give thanks for the promoters for bringing me out here, Warren and the whole team, and hopefully I get to do it soon again, you know?
The 8 Year Affair the follow up to the 7 Year Itch, this is a theme, let’s explore what these themes are about, what does it mean, did you get started 7 years ago?
Yeah, the 7 year itch they say is a thing that they say married men get after seven years they become unfaithful, with me in the music for seven years and not really getting any recognition, or no music no coming out, no album, no shows, nothing happening. It was like me making a commitment to the music. Am I going to flake out? Me making the album was me scratching that itch, so when I make the 7 Year Itch now, they say after the itch comes the affair, so it is me having an affair with the music. So you see the theme of the music, its talking about… I make the title tracks that tell the story of the album, from the 8 Year Affair you hear me saying, all the pains and the gain can be taken all the same, I am talking about the distractions of the music and the industry now and involved. That was the theme for the first and now the second is the follow up.
What’s next? What is going to be the next theme?
The third album, is my baby, I have been working on this album conceptually from about the first album. You know, I thought it was going to be my second but I wasn’t ready to go into it, because I am going to be much more involved in the production, and the whole direction of this one now, it’s going to be on my label, In.Digg.Nation Collective, my new label and it is a joint effort with Overstand Entertainment. You are the first person to hear about that label officially. We are doing some really interesting things on this third album, with a producer, maybe not as known yet, but he recently released the Rootsman Riddim, his name is Winta from Overstand Entertainment. As I said he just did the Rootsman Riddim, which is one of the best riddims right now, and he’s releasing a new riddim called Militancy which I am on which is an introduction to our work. We really connected musically, I always wanted to explore, to work with different producers, and get that sound, that formulae. So far I feel extremely good about this third record, it’s going to break the theme of the 7 Year Itch and the 8 Year Affair, by going back it’s a timepiece record, its dated.
Like a timeline, like different genres or periods?
It’s a period piece, I have always wanted to do a period piece. It’s interesting, you know it’s not just making songs and putting them together, it’s like a whole theme. I am really interested about this one, and the different sound, I am changing the sound. The first and second albums have different sounds, but you have to keep fresh, you can’t keep bringing back the same thing. You do this and leave it for other people to copy around and we move on, keep it original.
Cool, the Reggae Revival essentially. Singing these songs of freedom, I feel these songs of freedom, I feel they are very uplifting and freeing, with artists like Romain Virgo. How does it feel for you all, to have that impression or media vibes for what is considered Jamaican reggae music as being dead and having to really come up and stand up and say, we are never dead, how you could say that?
It’s going to be said because our generation hasn’t been doing a good job of spreading it and energizing it, so we now as youths see that happening and be like, we’re the generation that was born in the 80’s, and we see that Reggae music kind of falter, it no falter, but it was put on the back burner in 80’s. Bob Marley died in 81, Peter Tosh died in 87, Jacob Miller died, 81 too I think, Hugh Mundell in 83, the whole thing kind of got a big hit when three of the biggest artists in reggae music, in one decade. So we see that it really took a hit and we take it in the 2000’s but now, this generation, it’s coming back now, we are the children of these artists and we decide that all right, we can’t let it waver. If we don’t lift it up now, it’s gone forever, so we just energize.
Our generation now as youths are like, ‘yo. ‘Cause we make it cool and as you say we make it in the hipster vibes, they love the messages they love sound, they love the way we dress, they love the way we dance, they love the way we move. And then what they love is that we are unified, they love that it’s not competition, I’m not fighting with this person, just to see who is going to be it now, we are just in the music, cause other times they come and go, the other generations are looking on the new ones and we want them to look at us and be like, ‘Look how they got along, look how everybody got along’ and that’s what brought life to it. That’s what it feels like right now.
That’s where it started in fact, Music From My Heart, is another one that reminds me of that topic and that theme. It also reflects, as you say, that intense competition that is derived from the soundsystem and toasting on the mic. We respect it as part of the music, its how hip-hop evolved and it’s how you evolved as a MC and as a lyricist and a poet. How does this music evolve from your heart? What makes you sit down and write a song and chant out there in Saint Elizabeth?
So many different reasons, I’m motivated by the people who help me. My mother is like one of my major driving forces, she is one of the best in my opinion, in reggae music. She never really got the recognition, because then again, she walked away from it to do law. So I feel like I have to carry on her legacy and the legacy of everybody else. On top of that now, this is the way I communicate when I am feeling these songs and singing to my friends and family, it’s for them to hear what is going on in my mind, and then I find that, people on a whole, the energy reverberates to them also and I just write to leave my mark. You know what I mean…Van Gogh, he did painting to leave an impression and inspire, so I make music to inspire people. Some of my work I do, you never know, maybe thirty years from now, some youth is going to hear this record and their mind is going to be blown, and then he turns out to be like the greatest musician ever. So I just want to do my part, by the youths that are coming up, ‘cause I want to see the thing flourish for years after I am gone.
The song Take Control Again, a really strong message, that I am aligned with, how can we fix it? How can we take control again with the political situation and how it has affected our music with events like the Dudus Coke Affair, what can we do to take control again in general?
It’s rough because it’s been designed to go that way, seeing how imperialism works out over the years in different countries, so we know that the state that Jamaica is in, we have seen lots of countries go through that stage. We are at the stage right now where it keeps going down, it’s really hard, a tough battle to fight back again with the powers that be, cause they control everything; the money, the way you eat, everything, but we can take control. Small steps like, even eating what you grow, psychologically giving the youth information and because the youths have to know certain things, OK it’s not about driving the biggest car or wearing the fanciest of clothes, we have to change the youth are thinking. That’s the way I try to do, give them the information and lead by example. It could start small, we have seen the difference being made already, we have seen those differences we have made in Jamaica.
How do you see the difference that is being made?
By the way the youth are thinking, by the way the youth come up to us and talk to us and say, ‘We didn’t know about Walter Rodney, we didn’t know that he was abandoned. We didn’t know about the way the IMF (International Monetary Fund) has been working, we didn’t know about these things.’ That’s the first thing for them to be like, cause you see when people feel like they’ve been being tricked, they feel like more militant, and 'I am not going to make this happen again'. So we see it growing. We’ve only been out about three to four years, so I would love to see what happens after we get a decade at the controls of the music, to see the impact that we can have in the next several years.
The recording process with your cousin Don (Corleon) and the background vocals, all of these parts, how did you all work together. Did you say ‘OK, have you got some time today?’ Or were files being sent back and forth through the internet?
All the work was done at his studio, Hitmaker Studio in Cherry Garden. We came back from Europe last summer, I was like ‘Listen, this is the type of sound I want, I want that Ini Kamoze sound, second album I want to have that sound.’ I am a huge Sly & Robbie fan, and he (Don Corleone) was kind of figuring out how to do it, because if you check it, he has never done music like on the second album. But he got some equipment and he would be ready to go and know what to do. So we just went into the studio, started to bang out songs, riddims and I would just do my writing. So that was how we basically did it. So when that was finished now, my two backup singers, Kerri and Shea from Indiggnation my band, I determined they would be the vocals on the whole album, ‘cause I love the way they interpret my music, they don’t just sing what I sing, they make up their own stuff, which is great, they are very, very talented, and then Danny the bass player for Indiggnation is a living legend, he played for everybody, he did all the bass lines on the album, he played guitar on the album too, he played lots of stuff. We just kind of came together and did the works. I did all the vocals first and then the background vocalists came in. So that’s been the process working with Don for the last two albums. I stayed in for like a month until it was done.
Let’s call up all the names of the band that is The Indiggnation and how you met each band member, since this band is such an important part of the sound.
The band is it, it’s the most important thing for me right now, is the band. ‘Cause people come up to us and comment, I want it to be like yo, ‘You gotta go and see Protoje and Indiggnation show’, as opposed to ‘This song is good.’ I don’t want to be a song-driven artist, I want to be a live stage-driven artist. The first person that was in the band was Jason, he plays guitar, he’s the guy biting the guitar like Jimi Hendrix. He’s a huge rocker, he’s a rock star, and I met him about ten years ago. We just hit it off, he was like, ‘Yo, you’re bringing something new, to this whole music, I want to be a part of it’. His background is so rock and roll and I am such a rocker. We both were into Rage Against the Machine. Like I am a major, big Zack (DeLarocha) fan and he’s a big (Tom) Morello fan. That’s why you see me jumping around, I follow rock and roll a lot. Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, all into that whole scene, especially the grunge, the Seattle scene. We are really huge on it, we found that we had that connection, so he is also a huge reggae fan, but just merging. I always tell Jason on stage, do what you want, just be a rock star and it always works. So, we have a really good chemistry on stage. Next person, can do it in order, cause people have come and gone. Next longest is Paris, who is the youngest, he is the keyboard player. His Mom is a classically trained pianist. He comes from Florida, he grew up there, so he grew up learning Jazz and Classical piano, and Soul. We had to teach him reggae, he didn’t know dub music or anything like that, he knows music, he’s like a young genius. Once he picked that up now, and he merged the whole classical piano and R&B into the dub. So the sound is just so unique, you know? He skateboards, he backflips off walls. He is the young kid that is wild and free and brings such a young energy to the band. After that now Kongs, he is the band leader, he is the drummer, the heartbeat, the alpha male of the whole band. He studies me, you know what I mean? So he really knows the type of sound that I really wanted. Black Uhuru and this is how I want it to be on stage. He brought in Zuggu who is the other guitarist. I was like ‘I need a second guitarist’ and he said, ‘I have the perfect person.’ He brought him in, he came in, Zuggu came in to rehearsal knowing all my songs already, and was just ready to go you know? Then the last person to join was Danny Bassie who as I have said, he played with King Tubby’s studio, from straight up, he’s twenty years on the road experience, Gregory Isaacs, Luciano, Sizzla for fifteen years, before me. So it’s almost an honor to have him on stage with me, you know, it’s an honor to be on stage with a legend.
The two singers, Keri and Shea now, my left and my right, the energy that they bring, they keep me so amped and so hyped. The whole unit together is unstoppable. Me, by myself can be conquered but with my band its unconquerable…we’ll never stop. I feel totally invincible with my band, the way we play music, nobody sounds like us, we don’t sound like anybody. It’s so original and all I ask for is health and strength to be able to continue doing this.
What’s your final message to the Reggaeville massive?
Reggaeville been supporting me non-stop you know what I mean? So big up to Reggaeville, big up to everybody that supports Reggaeville. Big up to Julian, the whole team. I have to say just keep spreading the music, go on Soundcloud and get the music, and keep spreading the music. That’s all I ask anybody who likes my music. If you don’t spread it, I am going to be upset with you, so share the music, share the links, share the pictures, share everything so people can see what really is happening.