Interview with Puma Ptah
06/19/2015 by Valentin Zill
Thievery Corporation’s Ras Puma has changed his stage name to Puma Ptah early this year and has just released a reggae solo EP, In One Accord. Valentin Zill called him in between some heavy touring with Thievery Corporation in Washington, D.C. to talk about his biography, his inspirations, writing lyrics (“We have to evolve the lyrics, especially in the reggae genre, to be more specific.”), politics, and his future plans.
Puma Ptah, you're from St. Thomas originally, US Virgin Islands. How did you end up in Washington, D.C.?
Well, not without a few stops first. When I was in St. Thomas, I was having trouble with education down there, having trouble not being a follower. I was somewhat forced into the position of moving to the States, so I went to Miami first to try and catch up and finish my education. Once that was completed, I have a brother in Virginia, who I was separated from for a while. Just a kind of reunite with my brother over there, and I stayed in Newport News for a little while. But as soon as I came there, he moved back to St. Thomas.
Within my 9 to 5–I was working at Home Depot–, I met my first band mate, Gabe Imara Diaz aka Gabe, he was the keyboard player for my first band United Souls. Just do that is what confirmed with me that I wanted to do music. I've always written lyrics and poetry, working for the school newspaper and things like that. But I was never confident enough to share my lyrics, especially on a stage.
United Souls in Virginia was my spark as far as the journey goes. From there on, I started with Stable Roots, with Peanut, Chris Whitley, who toured with Joseph Hill, Culture. Through him, I got connected with Darryl (Burke, of Honest Music; the editor). We started working on The Archives' album, self-titled, through ESL, which is the label for Thievery Corporation. Through that, it was just an automatic connection straight to Thievery Corporation in D.C.
You already mentioned that you started to pen lyrics back in Elementary School. Did you have to hide those from your classmates?
(Laughs) Not so much my classmates. It was mainly hiding the lyrics from my mother and my grandmother, who were my caretakers. They were Christian. So the lyrics I was writing was the total opposite (laughs) of Christian lyrics, it was mainly dancehall-influenced, you know, the Bounty Killers, the Ward 21s, and Ninjamans. That was what was inspiring me at the time. More and more as I grew to love and improve my writing, and the more and more I started to perform live and explore new music, going into the roots scene and start studying the foundation of that scene, my whole way of thinking and message changed for the better.
That's interesting, because your EP couldn't be further from slackness lyrics.
(Laughs) I know. I know. But I mean, like I said, those types of lyrics was always just for fun. It was just for around your breddren, it was just entertainment, just to pass the time. But when I was given the opportunity to get up in front of people, and people are actually listening to you, I felt compelled to definitely have to change the message. Because I see the temporary and long-time influence of the condition that music has on people.
After all your collaborations with United Souls, Stable Roots, The Archives, and Thievery Corporation, In One Accord is a solo EP.
This is me exploring the solo territory to see if that journey suits me. I can't tell for sure, this is my first project. I've always been a part of a band. I've never stuck out. It's always been a team effort. I've experimented with a couple of solo songs and projects, but never to officially move forward as a solo artist. So this is me, testing the waters and seeing if people respond to this solo experiment.
You're no longer trading under the name of Ras Puma. How did this name change come about?
Well, I consider myself Rasta or a follower or try my best to put into example the example that Haile Selassie put down. I was never part of a sect of Rasta, I was never a part of Nyahbinghi, Bobo, Twelve Tribes, Orthodox. It was me. Even when I was Christian, I'm into personal relationship if I see somebody as the Almighty or as God or as my God. Everybody has always influenced me to be just as great or greater.
So my relationship with Haile Selassie was seeing his goals for people, certain people, who took upon themselves to practice his instructions. And that's what I did. It was a very brief period where I actually prayed to Selassie and actually the words coming out of my mouth, I'd given him the title Almighty. It was only for a couple of years. Other than that, my interpretation was: He wanted me and so many others to be what he was, and greater. Finally I confirmed with myself that this man that I was praying to was praying to somebody else or something else. I could no longer acknowledge him as the Almighty. For somebody who told me that somebody else was his savior, that was a turning point for me.
Just reading other pieces of literature that people who we claim to hold the way of life/religion to such a high standard, the opinions was actually the opposite. Marcus Garvey for one, his editorial, The Failure of Haile Selassie as Emperor, really shook me up, gave me goose bumps, gave me chills. Somebody who we put on the forefront for the whole entire way of life and philosophy, for him to write something like that shook me up and brought up a lot of questions, brought up a lot of doubt. Haile Selassie was not 2000 years ago, he was just yesterday. We can read his lyrics, I mean not his lyrics, but we can read his words, and see that he was not asking for anyone to worship him as God. He was actually directing everybody else to somebody else's father deity. That was my turning point.
So Ptah was... I've always been interested in ancient Egypt or Kemetic philosophy and religion and way of life. Anthony Browder, who is an author and archeologist and graphic designer, is probably the only African-American archeologist in Egypt right now doing a digg. His literature put a spotlight on Kemet for me. Seeing the similarities between all the different other religions that I've read about or began researching, it struck a chord with me.
There's so many different other philosophies out there in Africa, and many get turned off when people get into Kemetic philosophy because there's so many different other spiritualities in Africa. Just the vastness, how detailed it is, it catches my attention. Ptah just represented this craft of writing in a way to me. Ptah was a creator God. He manifested in matter with words, with speech. Writing and music is somewhat the same skill or same creative process. Taking unorganized starts and turn them into organized starts to create, make something physically manifest.
How did you learn this process of putting order into your thoughts?
For the most part, it is self-taught. I'm still learning. I will always be learning. My grandmother would play the guitar every night before we went to bed. Acoustic guitar. Gospel hymns she sang in front of the church. All her brothers and her father, all from a very musical family. From accordion to the upright bass to the saxophone to the guitar. It was always there, consciously and unconsciously. Music was always there. Just singing and just being curious from very young created the writing process of a song. Seeing the hymn books in church, you want to know who wrote this, how did they write this. I just started writing myself, and it grew as I went. Every stage of education I did, I was involved in some kind of writing or community. It just bubbled over into music eventually, inevitably.
You said initially that you hadn't been the most dedicated student back in school. Since you mentioned ancient Egypt, you've probably read your fair share of Cheikh Anta Diop and many other scholars in that field. How did you get started reading?
That's one of the lessons and the disciplines I got from growing my locks. Growing my locks, I think, was the foundation for the discipline of sitting down for a certain amount of time and dedicating yourself to self-education. Haile Selassie was big, no matter what part of the world you're from, no matter what culture, no matter what religion, he emphasized education all the way around. So reading his autobiography just introduced me to start.
My mother always made us read when we were young, so I guess that was the tipping point. Being so influenced and being so passionate about Haile Selassie and how passionate he was about education, it motivated me to want to start educating myself. And being around that community–everybody who I was around with was readers and authors and poets. That's the foundation for me, wanting to teach myself more.
And traveling also. The more you travel, the more you're so excited to learn about you, because coming from a small island, St. Thomas, V.I., and then coming to the States, and then you leave the country, and then you go to Europe and you go to South America and you go to Asia and it's like, yo, I don't know nothing. The more I know, the more I know that I know nothing. And things are always changing, so every day, every moment is something new. It's just discipline, it's the discipline of knowing what are the distractions and how to deal with them and going around them.
Is there a favorite read of yours?
It will be Nile Valley Contributions to Civilization from Anthony T. Browder. That book, I read it three times and I still feel like I need to read it again. There's even study guides for this book. Even Muata Ashby, he has a series of books on Kemetic philosophy.
You recorded In One Accord with Honest Music, Darryl Burke, Christos DC, and other musicians from that area, including Peanut. How did you get to work with them? What inspired you to pen those lyrics on it?
So much, man. This whole conversation that we had thus far is what has inspired me to do this here. Even the current events that's going on today, man. I came back from India recently. I've recently trimmed my locks, I've recently taken the Ras of my title, but I kind of was starting to doubt if there would be any progress for humanity in general. Are we just all content just being, in a way, slaves? Are we comfortable just going to work, having a 9 to 5, paying our bills, going to happy hour, while right next door genocide is happening? Right up the street, the police violence.
Police has been on a rampage, and I don't think it's a coincidence that predominantly Black youths, boys and girls, are being murdered. On tape, we have it on film! And we still live day to day so nonchalantly in our little bubble like nothing is happening. You look to South America, you look to West Papua, you look to Syria, you look to Palestine, you look to all these places where war is going on right now, and we are here in our little bubble, comfortable as ever. That bothers me. It bothers me in a way I can't describe in words. I see a lot of it stemming from people want to play the superior role.
Whether it's culture, you know, my culture is superior to yours, my religion is superior to yours–we speak about tolerance all the time, but in the back of our minds, we're telling ourselves my way is the only way. That's not tolerance. We're putting on a front, and it's weakening us, man. This EP was... As I start to remind myself, to remind others that we have an underlining common factor, which is humanity. All of us come into this world the same way. We have our differences, we have our similarities, but we focus on differences too much. We try to make ourselves feel superior to another type of people on the planet because of these differences. It's weakening us, it's weakening humanity as a whole.
So this was my begin to attempt of reminding people and myself that we do have more in common then what we don't have in common. But we don't hate at them. It turns people off in a sense. You just have to be consistent and more detailed in the lyrics. We can't really give general lyrics anymore. We have to evolve the lyrics, especially in the reggae genre, to be more specific, to be more instructive and descriptive of what we're trying to talk about, and how we can go about doing it. Not just what's wrong. We talk about corruption and politics, Babylon, politricks all the time. We repeat this generic terminologies all the time, but we need to just go a little bit deeper and explain who, what, where, when, and how in our lyrics. This is my kickstart.
My favorite track on your EP is Upright. You managed to get Monsanto together in one track with Thomas Sankara. You even mentioning Comrade Capitaine Sankara is not what I'd expect from an American artist. Plus Lumumba and Gaddafi, which probably could get you into some trouble in the US, and then Malcolm X, right up to evoking the current TTIP negotiations.
Look, I'm in Washington D.C., man. This is what many call Babylon central. This is government central, I mean there's access to everything here. Your day to day conversations is that. Your books on the top seller shelfs, as soon as you walk into a book store, that is what's in your face. It's always in your face. So it's inevitable to many to just want to delve a little deeper into it, just so that we can be aware. We got to be conscious of what's going on.
Most of the leaders who have had similar messages, moving in one accord–a lot of people think Malcolm X was racist, like white people, when he basically said he's willing to work with any and everybody on this planet who is willing to change the miserable existence on this planet. That's sort of my matter today. Most people who had a similar message and who have strived for independence in one way or the other, there's always been some political and economic force willing to eliminate that movement in the most gruesome, violent way to put fear into any other people, any other group that's willing to come behind it and take on that work.
We're working based out of fear, we're living based out of fear, we're eating off our fear, we're basically in a culture out of fear. Like Thievery Corporation put it in 2011. And all these people who I named were fearless. They knew their fate, they new their mission. That inspires me, man, to want to die for what you believe in. To work day and night, 24/7, and be willing to change a perception on death, to know that you might have to die for the cause. To push it forward. Thinking seven generations ahead.
I especially like that line in Upright, "The wounds are deep/but your ways are not complex". I love that so much because it says everything. What I never understand is why so many people never get to realize what's going on. If you look at it, at first sight it might strike you as being really complex, but if you dive deeper, it's really not. It really comes down to greed and to one class of society deeming itself higher than another, and using violence to safeguard their so-called "private property".
Exactly. Specifically the African people and African-American people have to realize how much power... I mean, everybody has said it before. We have the powers in the dollar. If we have a community and we realize that the spending power that that community has in America alone, they will realize how much power we really do have to make a change here.
Like Sigmund Freud, his nephew Edward Bernays offered his uncle to build a philosophy and a strategy to make people purchase just based out of desire. You know, it's not that you need the car, it's not that you need that pair of shoes, it's not that you need whatever material possession that you have, is the fact that you gonna feel better. You gonna feel more accepted out in the public eye. Everything is insubstantial, and we are not realizing the power about dollar.
And that is one way that we tapping into like these unconscious desires of ours and just putting us on the fact we lie on. We're just robots nowadays. And that's one way where it's not that deep, it's not that deep, it's just we don't understand that where and how we spend our money makes so much of our difference. But it's convenience. We want things easier because we have so many distractions. Live is so hard, we're working two or three jobs. The last thing that we want to hear is that we have more work to do.
But yeah, that's one example that strategy is not that deep, it's not that complex. It's just we're pushed imagery and literature and signage and symbology in front of our eyes. Every minute. Every device that we picking up is asking us to spend, spend, spend. Commercials in between. Spend, spend, spend. Holidays are telling us that you really don't love your girl if you don't buy something on Valentine's Day. You really don't love your family or your kids unless that specific day you buy them a present.
The media has that much power to make you feel guilty because you didn't spend money that you don't have on this one day out of the year. It's not that deep! We just don't have the discipline, and we just moving too fast, we just need to slow down and just analyze what we're doing. We don't have the time to sit down at the end of the day when we clock out, come home, and just meditate for two or three hours of how you can improve on the routine of the day for tomorrow. We just don't have the time. Time is such an expensive commodity, we don't have it.
What are your future plans now as a solo artist?
I'm gonna move forward with Honest Music, and we're planning some runs now. We are just building a band, building a team of musicians that has the time to go on the road. A lot of musicians in the DMV area, reggae musicians, quality musicians, just have other lives. They have kids, they have wives, they have jobs, cause it's hard to survive. It's hard to live off of musics, specifically reggae music. So it's hard to find musicians to go on the road and want to build from ground up.
So I think I'm going to have to take the example like Chronixx and Protoje and Jah9, they're around musicians that are their age. Musicians that they have been around from young age. That's why I respect SOJA. Those guys have been the same musicians from since High School. They've been playing for so long, and it's probably paying off. But they were given the chance to be able to grow as a team for so many years. So it's very difficult to plan long term when you just randomly putting musicians together. Even though I've played with these musicians for years before, like I said, I have not had a chance, as always coming together, then we're separating, coming together, we're separating. We haven't been able to consistently grow as a team, to be on the same page or frequency to want to say we're going to, we're able to willing to sacrifice to go on the road.
Cause on the road, it's a totally different world. It's not easy at all. And traveling with so many people... I travel with Thievery Corporation, and it's on average fifteen of us. That's hard. It's very hard, especially if we go on like a month-long tour. It’s very hard to keep a sound mind. That's all I'm keeping, I'm taking what I learned from traveling with that group, and applying it to doing my solo travels and my solo tours with my band. But I definitely plan on taking this on the road. We have a few gigs booked in New Hampshire so far.
Aren't you working on a new Thievery album besides all that?
Yeah, we just came back from Portland, Jamaica where we was recording the foundation of the album at Geejam, up in Portland. Which was quite an experience, man. We didn't get to go down with the whole band, but just being able to be in that creative mood for ten days, from noon to four in the morning… Every day we take like an hour break, we go to the beach, recharge, and we're just in this studio. We were in the studio all day, every day. It was so comfortable, and collaborative effort was just flowing so naturally. It was kind of surreal. It's gonna be a predominantly reggae-inspired album with that Thievery worldly feel also. We don't have a release day for that, not as yet. But it's coming, and so far it's going good. Nice, solid roots/electronic sound (laughs).