A certified yoga instructor who once worked as a marketing executive for an insurance company, Janine “Jah9” Cunningham isn’t your typical chalice-burning reggae firebrand. But the daughter of a Baptist minister has found herself at the center of Jamaica’s burgeoning reggae revival. Her sound is as unorthodox as her journey has been — a mixture of jazzy vocal acrobatics, spoken-word dub poetry and roots riddims she’s termed “jazz on dub.”
Fierce, intense and militant are words that have been used to describe Jah9 and her music, but her latest single, “Avocado,” paints her in a somewhat softer light. A literal tribute to the titular green fruit, the track and its video highlight the singer’s playful side, while underscoring the message of healthy living found in her more fiery material. With her first East Coast US tour set to commence Wednesday in Raleigh, NC, we spoke to Jah9 via Skype about her independent streak, how she incorporates yoga techniques into her live shows, and the perfect avocado.
You come from a different background than most reggae singers. How did your interest in jazz develop?
I think it was a natural segue from gospel music. A lot of traditional gospel singers have jazz inflections in their vocals. The Negro spirituals have the same kind of vibrations as jazz chords. Those were kind of the songs that I grew up on: Church music, Jamaican folk music, and some classical.
I found I was drawn to sounds that were unorthodox, and outside of the box. I enjoyed creating my own melody and playing between the staff. With jazz, I started to identify with the way they would create sound with their voice. It takes a lot of musical intelligence and courage to push your voice outside of, and play on the line of, the pitches. [In] high school, I became exposed to the ladies of jazz — Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan. They were raw, with unadulterated soul and emotion, and I connected with them.
Did you study music in college?
I didn’t. I studied psychology, human resource development, criminology, and philosophy.
What kind of work were you doing before you started your singing career?
I had a very good corporate experience. Right out of university, I ended up with PriceWaterhouseCoopers here in Jamaica, and I moved into media and communications as a marketing executive. I started on a post-graduate degree in marketing, then I moved to a telephone company, and then to the largest insurance company on the island, helping them re-brand to Sagicor, an international brand.
It was an interesting few years, but we always knew that it was only for a time.
Who were the female artists in Jamaica that you felt kindred to?
I never really had aspirations of wanting to be an artist. It was more that I had this message and this inspiration that kept coming, and opportunities [kept] presenting themselves, so I decided, “Let me apply this work ethic I apply to every other part of my life to music.” I did some research, and I had some good examples in some of the young people around me who were doing similar things. And good guidance from Beres Hammond, who was kind of a patriarch for me. I observed how he operated, and started understanding the resources at my disposal. I didn’t have a big record label but I had access to a lot of talented musicians who believed in me. So I used that, and I sang every opportunity that I got, and read every contract that came to me.
Is it accurate to associate you with the reggae revival, or do you feel that label is media generated?
I think it is media generated. But I can understand why I will be included, because I was present when most of the [other artists] were emerging. Generally, women don’t get a lot of the kudos for the effort and the work they put out. Even in families, the woman’s role is looked at as lesser when really and truly she’s the one that keeps things together. And those are really the things that will keep a movement together, and keep a thing going rather than becoming segmented and separate.
Were you surprised how quickly the movement took off?
I kind of knew this is how it would work out. I understand the importance of having a term where you can label something and put it in a box. The media appreciates when you can prepackage things for them. In my mind, the significant thing happening right now is a resurgence in Rastafarian livity. More a young, educated people [are] cleaning up the way they eat, and listening to more conscious music. At the same time, it’s not just that little chunk of artists that are being quoted as being part of the reggae revival that are pertinent. If you look at Jamaican music, it has been coming. This was just the tipping point. We can’t take credit for this new vibration. We are just the beneficiaries of the new consciousness that’s unfolding.
Do you see yourself doing more work like “Avocado”?
There’s a time and place for it. But let me state that I think “Avocado” is a profound piece of work. Depending on who’s listening, there’re so many things that can unfold as conscious, uplifting, positive messages, subliminally and right there in your face. We had the idea of making it light and feminine to provide that balance. You used to have people thinking that Jah9 was a man — you couldn’t tell who was singing it just because of the lyrics. It was good to present the feminine in this way to say: “We are light and happy and free, and Rastafari doesn’t make us angry and militant.” It makes us peaceful and full of love.
Do you remember the best avocado you ever had?
[Laughs]. The best avocado I ever had was that morning! It was the first of the season. I was eating boiled yams, boiled banana and [bok choi], and I remember putting a little bit of everything on the fork, and it was just delicious. That is literally what inspired “Avocado,” and it literally was my best experience with an avocado.
Do you find people want to talk to you about food more?
Every time I go to the store. People tell me that avocado sales have gone up. Like more people are eating avocados, and they’re crediting me for that. I don’t know about that. When I traveled to Europe last year, almost every show I went to somebody brought an avocado for me. So it worked out in my favor.
Anthony Bourdain didn’t call you when he came to Jamaica to film No Reservations?
Nooooo. Maybe he didn’t hear the song yet.
What can we expect from you next, musically?
There’s an album I started maybe six years ago with Beres Hammond and Sheldon Bernard, my musical director, and we’ve been plotting to release for years. We are really taking our time with that project. In the meantime, there’s more works with Rory Stone Love, and Chinna Smith, Bob Marley’s original guitarist. We’re doing community work as well. On the posters for the US tour, you’ll see it’s branded “Jah9 and the Dub Treatment.” It’s more than a musical experience; it’s a sharing experience. I am also a yoga instructor so I try to incorporate breath and meditation into the performance. It’s an opportunity to make the space more intimate, using the breath to kind of control the environment [and teach] principles of posture and meditation. My music naturally gives way to these kinds of discussions.
How long have you taught yoga?
I teach when I can, but mostly it’s taking yoga into the inner city, unorthodox spaces where people are not exposed to yoga. Especially at-risk youth, who have a lot of things they need to move past. I find yoga very transformational. We have a package called Yoga on Dub, where we infuse the yoga practice with instrumental dub and expose [students] to different styles of yoga. It’s demystifying yoga for the masses.