Interview with Taj Weekes
02/17/2016 by Justine Amadori Ketola
Singer-songwriter Taj Weekes uses his commitment as a Rastafarian to a better world as a springboard to create his most political album to date LOVE, HERB & REGGAE. “The Rasta philosophy helped shape me, I’ve always spoken for what’s right, but in my songs I held back a bit. Now I want to shout it out for everyone to hear. No more Taj the person and Taj the musician – after all, they are one.” Mr. Weekes is also a humanitarian who works to better the lives of thousands in the Caribbean starting in his native St. Lucia. Reggaeville connected with him to discuss his process as a musican and his belief that “reggae is an action word.”
We’re connecting today on Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday in the U.S.. This album is actually what could be considered more militant than political - the issues are radical and complex, LGBT issues, legalization of marijuana, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, why do you feel that there is no more separation? Can you explain more about what that meant in terms of the recording and writing process?
The writing process it was kind of where I figured usually in all the other albums, I say what it is I want to say. But I was trying to take the whole outlook, my Rasta outlook on life, to task. Where we were preaching ‘One Love’ but there was a certain amount of hypocrisy involved in the ‘One Love’. Where we were talking One Love but we were not actually doing One Love. Because if we are One Love then its a non-judgemental One Love. I had kind of hidden behind that in the past, I never really truly said ‘Well you know what, I don’t support what you guys are doing here or what you are saying there.’ But with that said, that’s the whole Here I Stand song. There is hypocrisy involved in this in that we talk One Love but yet we point fingers at the other people for the way they live. The Rastafarian movement is always happy to make everybody else Babylon but themselves. Babylon to me is whatever is oppressive is Babylon, so if we are becoming the oppressors of the people who choose to love in a different kind of way then we are becoming Babylon. And I want no part of being that, I accept everybody as they are. And if we claim in a judgement in a fire the one who spoke about the judgement and the fire said leave our judgement unto him. Who am I to judge and point a finger?
You are a straght guy from St. Lucia, based in America, What made you do this, was it a lot to do with the passing of the Same Sex Marriage Act?
The song came about, I had played South by Southwest a couple of years ago and I mean the song was always kind of in the back of my head. A woman refused to interview me because she said I was homophobic, she had made the generalization that because I had locks and I sang reggae music that I was homophobic. So I came back home and I was talking to my then nine year old, Jonah and I mentioned it to him and he said, ‘Dad what are you going to do about it?’ So I said ‘I’ll do what I can do I’ll write a song about it.’ I remember writing the song and singing it to him and he was like ‘I’m proud of you.’ I realized that at the end of the day all I really truly care about, I mean as much as I really truly love everybody, in a more generalized love, but my responsibility is to my children. Letting them know that they have to stand up for what it is they believe and taking a stand whether or not its a popular stand. If I think its the right stand then I should take it.
You made two versions of this song its almost like a militant anthem the second version, a different type of rhythm is it so that it could be more accessible?
That was the intention, the intention was to not just be holding reggae so close. The generalization of the entire Rastafarian community to be homophobic is not restricted to the Caribbean community, or the reggae community but to everybody. So I wanted the song to go to everybody, so everybody who needs to hear it, maybe I’m wrong. I need to say this about that generalization, that’s what kills us all, because people believe…I will not, I refuse to subscribe to the point of view that every Rasta or everybody that plays reggae music is homophobic. If I people say something that is anti-gay, then we’re painted with this brush that we are all alike and I don’t think its fair. Lots of people I know, who are elders in the Rastafarian community, do not subscribe to that point of view. So I think the journalists or the newspapers or anybody that has painted us with the same brush is being unfair. Some people are afraid to share their point of view because its anti what the crowd thinks. For fear of musical suicide, but right now in my life, I’m just too grown not too say what feel and how I feel. My personal has become political.
You’ve said in the advance notes for this album, that this was a time for you to play around with chord changes, what inspired you, what was it that inspired you, maybe it was some Jazz you were listening to or going traveling some where. was there an ‘a ha’ moment that was involved here?
Well I’ve been thinking about doing a local St. Lucian music album you know and have been spending some time listening to it. One of the pioneers of the music was having a conversation with me about a year ago and we were supposed to meet up again to start working on the collection of tunes in patois and English but local St. Lucian stuff you know bring in the old banjo and these musicians and he passed unexpectedly. He was there in hospital and before he was there long he was dead. I remember the old African proverb that when an elderly person die, a library burns down basically.
I was really saddened that I didn’t get to make the album with him and when I was talking to him I wanted to record the conversation and I didn’t. He was telling me what he was listening to and this whole explanation of where our music came from, the French influence, the Spanish influence and the whole colonial thing. I was thinking ‘Wow you know these brothers have so much knowledge, and we as a little Caribbean island don’t take advantage of it.’ We have such rich musical history and I was thinking when I started the album that I did not want to do the same thing that I had done before.
But since it was a reggae album and I couldn’t bring in the banjos and all the other things from St. Lucia, I figure why make a three chord album again, three-four chords, I’ve done this before. It was getting a little boring to me so we decided to be more musical on the album. Everybody was talking about the lyrics and all this and I wanted to make the music reflect the depth of the lyrics. I played around with the chords a bit, and jumped around from majors to minors. I would never jump from in a minor in a song and go to a major in the chorus, but these are the kind of things I did.
Why do you feel now, as you’ve said, at this point in your life see that there is no separation between yourself as an artist and your personal beliefs? Do you feel a sense of urgency?
I think a lot more people need to feel a sense of urgency, because the opening song on the album says, ‘Let your voice be as loud as your silence.’ That is basically what dictates the entire sentiment of the album. I’m letting my voice be as loud as my silence, and with that comes a sense of urgency. We need to let it out now, because we never know when the chance is. Because now that I feel it, it might just be the right time for it. There is the song, “Bullet From A Gun I feel that needs to be out now, at least from my standpoint, because how many more of these things can you stand? And its not just an American thing, its a worldwide thing.
Do you think its time to reassess these 18th century laws that protect the second amendment to the constitution, the right to bear arms?
We tried that out already, everyone having a gun. It was called the Wild West, stuff was amended, so we would have a more civilized way of dealing with people, where you could sit and reason it out and change it. Now we’re going back to what it used to be, and its sad cause it seems that history has taught us no lessons, or if it has then we choose not to pay heed to it. But you know in everything else, in the song Giant Beast all great empires will crumble, no matter how brilliant the men who lived there it always seems that everything has its time, and everything great will come to an end and something even greater will rise from the ashes.
This song Giant Beast has so many allegories, is it about institutions in our modern world, defining Babylon from your Rasta perspective using allegories for the church, the military industrial complex, neocolonialism. Is it important to define Babylon for people who may not understand?
Babylon to me is not a geographical location, I take that as being a state of thinking, a mentality, though there are institutions that represent that kind of thinking, but its a thinking above and beyond everything else, its not one geographical location over another. The mentality is created by that system of thinking that has caused certain acts to rise up in different places, its a way of thinking a thought process where some a greater than others, some are less than others and some are more fortunate, unfortunately than others.
This album really has an analog energy and consistency with your previous releases in terms quality of musicianship, what has been your process for this album musically, in terms of recording you’ve brought in some special players for horns, vocal production on songs like Full Sight with its horns, what made you explore this sound?
We wanted to be more musical. Before I would write a song and come up with my chords and I’d call the guys and I’d say this is what we’ve got and we’d lay the chords and boom, boom, boom. But this time when I brought the songs in, I didn’t sing the lyrics to them, I hummed it, and we had to play to the humming. So we needed to create something musically that was regardless of having heard the words. So you could feel the words on the other albums, but here you could feel the musical vibe. I told the band there are 42 chord changes on Here I Stand and the guys said, ‘Well we’re not playing reggae again, we’re playing jazz.’ I said ‘No but we can give it a reggae feel.’ It doesn’t have to be four chords, it can be 42 changes and still have a melody, and still sound good. Sometimes you know the guys are a little skeptical but they’ve given me the respect to think ‘let’s see what this brother has in mind’. It worked out beautifully.
It has more of an ensemble feel too, as people who don’t communicate using lyrics or their voice are listening to your vocal lines almost like a jazz improvisation.
Yes we have to give maximum credit to Chris Laybourne the engineer whose been with us since Deidum (Album 2008) who plays horns who sits in on the sessions and and makes suggestions, his influence is a great impact on the album. Also Aya Kato who is an incredible piano, bass player, harmonica everything, she comes in quietly but firm and does her stuff.
There is so much in the lyrics of these songs, for example Let Your Voice is discussing dissent, or a different path, do you feel that there is a revolution turning and that may be we could elect a socialist democrat like Bernie Sanders?
The big corporate voices are sometimes a little louder than us and are here to quiet our revolution. But that’s what I am saying now, we really need to let our voices be as loud on all fronts.
The song Life In the Red is really a direct hit on the issue of the shrinking middle class. Do you feel that way too, you are surrounded by musicians and living in New York, an expensive place to live. I read a statistic that 75% of Americans have less than $1,000 to their name.
I actually saw that too, its America and St. Lucia cause you know I go down there 8 times a year so I’d like to think that I live there I just have my things in America. Its across the board but at the same time we as individuals need to take some responsibility for how we prioritize. We tend to at times get so involved in getting things and showing other people that we have things that we don’t prioritize and do what is right for us and for the other humans we brought into the world. Yes, I believe that the system of things will try to get rid of the middle class and it will just be the oligarchy and you know the 99.9% of the poor sitting down on the bottom. But at some point we need to quiet the noise and focus on what’s happening.
We need to realize that we are living on the brink and its not about all the TV programs you put on the TV to distract us. Or the silly things we see on social media, tend to distract us, that all these kids are fighting here, or this man has turned into a woman, that’s silly stuff. These things are distractions, to take your mind away from what’s really truly happening, global warming and all these other things that are going on. But to refocus and reprioritize so you don’t have all the time to live in the red. Some of us will always be there because of the system of things but some of us don’t have to be there if we just made different choices.
Love, Herb and Reggae is the title track and its really more of a folk song or a slower tempo as a ballad. It's asking a question, is it time for legalization of marijuana, what makes this an anthem of you what made you decide to title an album with this song?
We called the album Love, Herb & Reggae, to me its a new awakening, a new time, maybe its the age of Aquarius now directly in that I no longer want to sing of sex, drugs and rock and roll but a gentler love, herb and reggae. It's a new mantra and with that comes love, and nonjudgmental love, herb, back to green living not just for marijuana but for parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and the lion root, green living. Reggae, back to reggae that said something, that taught something that’s more of a doing word. Reggae for me is a verb, its not just music, and thats what I hope this album can communicate and possibly accomplish.
The song Rebels to the Street is a vivid piece with lush gospel background vocals, as the lyrics discuss blaming the weak and the reality of the “too big to fail” financial industry. These songs are all being written in a significant time in American history and events have created a ripple effect throughout the rest of the world. It's a true protest anthem, did you participate in protests?
One time when I went down to Zuccotti Park when the Occupy movement had just started and I stood in the crowd with thousands of people and then I went home and watched the news and the newsman said, ‘A couple of hundred people’ had gathered in the park. I thought how funny it was that the news media let you know what it is they want you to think and you know what side they’re on. It is naturally reflective of the pulse of everybody else. Even the images they showed with the side crowd, it was unfair. We did the Rebel song with a full band for the movement, so yeah we have given our voice to the movement. As a matter of fact we just did a song with Caribbean 1.5 to Stay Alive movement because if global temperature was to rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius and all the way we live its basically done. Because we live along the coast line, sea levels rise, life changes drastically. So I did a song with a couple people Belo from Haiti and a brother from Antigua Bankie Banx and David Rudder from Trinidad.
As you’ve mentioned you have a version Rebel on the album that was first recorded as Against the Machine for the Occupy This Album 2012 compilation. Not all the music is about global issues, as in Full Sight where did this mournful love song come from?
The way it was written was in reverse, I had gone out to a nightclub with Angela and a couple of other friends of ours and we were dancing and there was a woman who was checking me out, when I got up she got up when I sat down, she sat down. When I went to the bathroom, there is one hall with the men’s and women’s bathroom on either side and when I went down the hall she said to me, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ and I said ‘Ya man I have plenty girlfriends’. She said ‘Can I be one?’. It was one of these cocky days and I said, ’I think you’re hanging your hat a little too high.’ Cause I thought it was disrespectful, when you are there with somebody and to make such a bold pass. When I came back I went in the corner and I started writing, when you hear the song it sounds like I am making a pass at another woman, but in actuality it was a woman for me but I didn’t want to write it that way. So I said ‘Was it you that stepped into my blue’ and she stood there ‘like the moon in the middle of my night, out of reach in full sight.’ I was thinking even though I was there I was out of reach to her but I was not going to give in to that particular situation.
To close the album you have “St. Lucia On My Mind” Let’s talk about your time there 8 times a year, when you go home its not just to chill out and see your family and friends, its to work. Tell us what you’ve achieved in the last several months as well as work you’ve done on other islands particularly in Dominica.
When the hurricane happened we were able to muster 1300 pairs of shoes and we sent that off to them and a couple weeks after we sent a couple of trailers full of stuff, medical supplies, baby supplies a whole set of stuff to them and we were really happy that we could help out. I happen to be UNICEF Champion for Children of St.Lucia and it was given to us because of the work we had done previously but this past year at the end of the year we always have an annual party.
We pick a community we have the representatives or the chief education officers in that area pick kids who have done well for the year but also kids who are underprivileged and then we have a party for them. So we had a party in a town called Soufriere which is in the south. It was supposed to be 350 children but about 500 showed up. It was a wonderful party. What we try to do with the charity (T.O.C.O. They Often Cry Outreach) is we want to give them gifts that we would have given our own children. We don’t want to give them something by the time they walk out of the park its broken. Because St. Lucia has one of the highest rates of diabetes per capita in the world, I try to make all my gifts, something that creates movement. So we brought scooters, soccer balls and hula hoops and remote control cars and clothing. We brought 250 pairs of shoes, thanks to our wonderful friends at Ian’s Boots in Pennsylvania.
How are you gathering all these things besides the shoes, are people donating is there fundraising?
Most of the funding happens from the music, most of the funding. I would say 90% of the funding is directly from me. Everything else comes from a couple of organizations that we’ve become friends with and a couple of folks jump in and give us some support. So we’re hoping to expand that base and get some more support and do a lot more. Cause what we’re trying to do is expand into other islands. So we are establishing T.O.C.O. in Dominica and St. Vincent and we’re hoping for Grenada and Antigua. This year one of our main focuses is autism. Autism is affecting us, so we’ve actually gathered some professionals here from the community and we’re going to go down for a two week camp and the intention is to empower the educators there, to empower the community and the parents so people know how to better handle children with autism, to be a support system for the parents.
We also did a spay and neuter program. We have a stray dog problem on the island (St. Lucia) so in October I brought down 12 vets and vet techs with me and we spayed and neutered 400 animals on the island. We’re going back again the first week in April and the intention is to do it every six months for the next four years to get rid of the stray dogs. I’m actually working right now on building an animal sanctuary cause I was offered 5-6 acres of land so we can house the animals.
Once that is done the animals will become more normative in the society, not to be treated as pests.
Its cultural, I grew up not to see animals as living things. I got to see them as pests. My North American experience taught me otherwise. Its not a generalization, there will always be people that love their pets and treat them well. But, I knew nothing about loving a dog. Even though we had a dog around the house I just saw the dog I never pet the dog and now I have a dog, Cocoa, Cocoa lives with me and is part of my family. It's not a pet its a family member.
We went to St. Lucia and Jonah and I were in one of the towns up north and he came to me and he asked me for some money. I gave him twenty, and I gave him twenty and we’re 80 dollars in and I said what is this child doing with the money. When I stepped outside somebody said to me ‘Mister, come see what your son’s doing.’ There were literally about 25 dogs around Jonah, he had bought all the chicken the people were selling and he was feeding the dogs. I said to him ‘Yo we’ve got to go.’ The proprietor of the establishment said, oh your son cannot come here cause these dogs have fleas. So I said all right, I finished off what I was doing and he said to me on the way home, ‘So what are we going to do about these dogs?’ So I said to him dismissing him, ‘We’ll take care of them Jonah don’t worry about it.’ So we left St.Lucia, we flew back to New York and he said to me ‘So Dad, what about the dogs?’ And I said, ‘You know what Jones…let me do something about those dogs.’
We got an organization called the Caribbean Spay Neuter Association to come on board with us and we did two clinics, one in the north and one in the south and we’re going to repeat that until we see an actual change in the dog population. More important we are trying to create an educational program around it, so the young children will start loving the pets from the time they are small and not be like me when I was growing up.
What a great lesson you are teaching your child, a current and future activist.
Well you know we take him every time we go and give away stuff. Its funny that when we used to do this show in Jamaica called Sashi, way back then we brought Sashi to Jamaica. We did it for four years before we gave it up. I remember going to a hotel and the kids sometimes would be around the fence and my first son would say ‘Dad what do they want?’ So I said to him ‘They are hungry.’ He said ‘Don’t they have parents?’ You know, not understanding the scheme of things, a lot of ‘why’s’ cause he couldn’t get it. But I said to him, every morning you get your breakfast, go to the fence and give him your food. But when you give him the food, don’t give him with an attitude. Give it to him with love and that’s all we’ve done ever since. Every time we give away something, I make sure they are there with me, so they can give away the toys and they can talk to the children and just respect everybody and treat them with love.
What is the plan for this year in terms of this album, anything that you would like to share in terms of live events or videos that reflects what you would be doing to promote the release?
Our first show after the album release February 12th is in Austria on the 7th of March. We’re working on the video for Here I Stand and hopefully it doesn’t piss too many people off. Any reaction is better than none at all. Love Herb & Reggae the actual song, there’s a binghi video coming out on that one. We’re working on a video for Full Sight and a video for Let Your Voice. That’s the four that we have written treatments for.
What else are you working on?
I have a children’s book coming out. We’ve just finished all the illustrations and we’re just making sure they reflect the opposite page of the story. That should be out around August.
What is the title?
We’re still playing around with titles. I’ve actually written three books and they are all about sustainability. I was toying around with children’s songs and I wrote a song called ‘I turned my lawn into a garden, I plant some seeds and grow some food so I can feed my friends and family and my town and neighborhood.’ The story grew around that. This book really is about food, its about water its about sustainable energy.