A YOUNG RASTA LIONESS STANDS HER GROUND IN THE NEW WAVE OF ROOTS REGGAE
“What’s happening now is that there is a shift in consciousness,” says Jah9, “so people are more into knowing than believing.”
She’s speaking about the undeniable surge of young reggae all-stars who are offering a more roots-driven, spiritualized alternative to the catchfire riddims and habit-forming hooks of Jamaican dancehall. The movement is also pointing to a continuation of the legacy of some of the island’s most iconic voices, pioneers such as Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Burning Spear and Dennis Brown, who were at the forefront of elevating reggae to international cult status. “Because of that shift,” she says, “Rastafari has emerged again as an alternative force, as a lifestyle force. This is how we live. This is how we eat. This is how we deal with our community. It gives strength to reggae music, and gives roots music a reason to be. So this set of youths coming up from Jamaica right now are uncompromisingly saying Rastafari.”
As one of the few empresses among the emerging collective of Rasta artists, including Chronixx, Jesse Royal, Proteje, Addis Pablo, Kabaka Pyramid and Iba Mahr, Jah9 more than holds her own among the men. Raised as a Baptist minister’s daughter in Trelawny, on the rural western edge of Jamaica, she eventually converted to the Rasta faith and found her musical calling. Her self-described “Jazz on Dub” style layers hypnotic vibrato over reverberant stretches of instrumental dub, with traces of modern day soul ala Tracy Chapman lightly peppering the mix; the effect is as transportive as it is electric.
“Music is my peace. It really soothes the savage beast in me,” she says on the eve of her first live New York show that happens to coincide with Bob Marley’s 70th birthday. “And so the creation process is cathartic for me.”
Although she’s worked with industry heavyweights such as Donovan ‘Don Corleon’ Bennett, Beres Hammond and Rory Stone Love (selector of the historic Stone Love sound system), Jah9 is still very much grounded by her own voice, vision and spiritual insight. Her debut album New Name, produced by Rory, is a pulsating ode to the Rasta lifestyle, with tracks like “Avocado,” adding a lighter, more playful side. Of her hit tune “Reverence,” a simmering reminder to raise the torch of consciousness high at all times, she says she knew the moment she heard the Rootsman produced riddim that she had to put her voice on it.
“I got in touch with the producer and said, ‘Listen, I love that riddim. I want to be on it.’ And he said, ‘Alright, write something.’ So the song just came out of me, beginning with the word reverence.”
Music coming out of Jamaica has often been a harbinger of broader sonic trends. Perhaps, right now, it’s the groundswell of young reggae voices emerging as a unified front rather than as individuals seeking their own spotlights that has created such a resonant effect. And the message and principals of reggae and Rastafari have only continued to rise in popularity since the evolutionary days of Bob. “I’m going out there and watching people connect to this music,” says Jah9, “people who didn’t necessarily come into a space expecting a transformational experience. They’re getting one, and they’re appreciative of it.”