Jah9, the creator of the jazz-on-dub reggae style, made a splash in 2011 when her first project, “9MM-Message Music,” earned a song of the year credit from German-based Riddim magazine. Her latest release, New Name, blends the styles of roots reggae, dub and jazz with stellar vocals and a social conscience, revealing Jah9 as a poet and artist who is also an ambassador for spirituality, justice and hope.
Staying true to the essence of reggae music, the album opens with a tribute to Rastafarian patriarch Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia on the title track “New Name.” The classic roots reggae sound of the song is peppered with jazzy notes of piano and horns, and Jah9’s vocals make a powerful first impression.
Jah9 moves straight into social commentary on “Intention.” Accompanied by strings and percussion, she questions the motives of leaders in an oppressive society marked by rampant materialism and people who are “too distracted to even care.” She calls for stronger leadership and less hypocrisy in the clergy on “Preacher Man,” and her honeyed voice moves smoothly over pronounced drumming as she delivers her message.
Yet Jah9 is as personally inspiring as she is socially conscientious. She emphasizes the power of the individual to mold perception and color experience on “Gratitude,” stressing the importance of positive thinking: “Whatever you’re dwelling on is the reality that you’re creating/ Use your concentration wisely, because your only limitation is your imagination.”
Her uplifting lyrics evoke ideas of personal strength and unlimited possibilities despite life’s struggles. The album’s tone picks up for the next few tracks. Cedric Myton of The Congos joins on “Taken,” showcasing his falsetto pipes as Jah9 urges listeners to "tap into the potential of your mind.”
The lighthearted “Avocado” follows, a joyful, horn-filled praise of the bounty of the land in Jamaica and the value of healthy living. Even the uncertain attraction she sings of on “Mr. Right” is brightened by the gentle flutes and soft melody, and by the feminine pride and intelligence that she expresses in her lyrics.
Perhaps the most overt voicing of Jah9’s social conscience is on the track “Jungle.” Still, though she addresses issues like tribal warfare, slavery, taxes, poverty and broken families in our world, the soothing flutes in the song reflect her hope that the stronger lions and lionesses in our society will rise to the occasion and defend the rest of the “pride” from evil.
As the album winds down, Jah9 asks listeners to “Imagine” how things might be different if leaders like Marcus Garvey or Selassie were here as examples for youth of discipline and righteousness. She answers with “each one must teach one,” using a version of the old African proverb to call on the people to educate one other and spark revolution where needed.
She ends the album with “Inner Voice,” again stressing the importance of finding guidance and peace within rather than amidst life’s external distractions and chaos. Strong harmonies and bubbling organs support her confident tone as she sings: “Seek for your inner voice to help you make your choices/ Learn to differentiate between the truth and the noises.”
Jah9’s latest album is a superb work, with inspirational lyrics and moving rhythms. But her lyrics are more than words, for Jah9 practices what she preaches. Just as she uses her music to call attention to social injustices like abuses of power, oppression and poverty, she serves as a cultural activist for causes in which she believes. She is heavily involved in community activism, and has helped develop programs to empower at-risk Kingston youth as well as assisted with the creation of the Healing of the Nation public awareness campaign.
Jah9 will be performing at Lincoln Theater in Raleigh on Feb. 4.