photo credit: Chance Nkosi Gomez
I had a minor freakout when I received word that I’d be interviewing Protoje. I mean THE Protoje, the powerful performer who is an absolute champion of authentic Jamaican reggae. Protoje, who has over a decade of experience under his belt, who is a role model for up-and-coming musicians, who gets invited to play all over the world. His voice has unique topography. His lyrics take you across the spectrum of life, traversing the highs and lows, unafraid to look closely. Many of his songs are on my go-to playlist for DJ gigs. It was only natural that I jumped up and down at the chance to talk to him.
What would I ask him, though? How could I make the best use of my time getting to chat with a reggae musician who is influential not only now, but who I feel will be influential in many decades to come? Would I tell him that I sing “Sudden Flight” in the shower? What could I ask someone who is so respected in the Jamaican scene, in order for me to help surface the insights that I know he has, especially the insights that might be impactful for reggae lovers in America to hear?
Protoje has a new album out, A Matter of Time, which was released in conjunction with Easy Star Records. It’s really a great collection of songs which carries a relaxed hip-hop vibe throughout while incorporating recognizable reggae rhythms and accents. Protoje delivers his lyrics with a certain cadence that’s authoritative and thoughtful. He examines modern society on a macro and micro level, from politics to relationships. My first favorite is the catchy anthem “No Guarantee (feat. Chronixx)”. The album is heavy at times, as Protoje is just unafraid to go there, and the entirety of it all has been produced with unwavering quality.
Sometimes dreams are real, and I did get to have this chat with Protoje. It was over the phone while he was in Los Angeles. It definitely felt like a dream, but if you’re reading this, that means it really happened. When we dream together it’s reality, and I had a cool conversation with this real guy. Here are some questions that I asked him (Note: this phone interview is lightly edited):
Rootfire: I’m curious about your perspective on the roots reggae revival that’s happening in Jamaica right now, which includes your music, Jah9, Chronixx and others. What do you think is influencing that roots revival, whether it’s political, cultural, or otherwise?
Protoje: For me, I think it’s just time, you know? I think it’s time, and I think cycles come around and turn around. It’s just the right time. Then, there’s the fact that all of us met up with each other and really seeked out to have a little movement and help and support each other. I think all of that is just manifesting itself in the success that we’ve all been having.
RF: How has growing up in Jamaica and now touring the world as a reggae artist shifted your perspective on reggae in general?
P: It’s just let me know the appreciation that people have globally for the music, and how many bands that are not Jamaican have been doing a lot of work to keep the music alive, even on the West Coast with Rebelution and Iration. Lots of bands have been holding it down and keeping a scene, so that when this whole revival started, we had even a crowd to go and play music to, you know?
RF: Absolutely. You’ve mentioned that your new album A Matter of Time is not as traditional as your last album, but it’s still authentic, and that you want to “elevate reggae culture and the world’s perception of it.” So what are some ways that you as an artist work to balance innovation with authenticity?
P: To me, authentic only means being yourself. I’m not deep roots, like say Raging Fyah, right? Raging Fyah is authentic, and I love their music, but I don’t make roots like that. And Raging Fyah doesn’t make music like what I make. It doesn’t make any one of us less authentic. It just means that we hear the music differently, and there’s a space for both me doing what I’m doing and them doing what they’re doing. Just everybody making music that they feel good about.
RF: One thing that I like about your new album is that Chronixx, who has been on other tracks of yours in the past, is a guest on two songs. I’m wondering how far back you guys go.
P: We met in 2011. He messaged me on Facebook, telling me that he loved my music and wanted to produce something for me. He was just producing at the time, and I invited him over. We hung out, and then he started to sing some songs that he was writing. I thought he was so amazing. We started to hang out from then.
RF: And you continued working together. What’s it like performing with him?
P: Awesome, man. He has a great energy. I think that he has so much to offer the world, and I’m happy that we’re able to do work together and impact people in that way.
RF: Are there any other artists that you love performing or recording with?
P: Anytime I record with any of the guys or women from the movement, it’s a joy. I’ve been in studios with Jah9 for years. Every time we’re on stage, it’s intense. I love performing with Jah9 because she’s so intense, and I love performing with Lila [Ike] because she makes me so happy, and makes me feel great. Kabaka is great. And Jesse, Jesse always makes me laugh. Just everybody. It’s really, really fun right now.
RF: I love seeing how supportive you all are of each other. You mentioned the US reggae scene—the fact that you started playing here and there’s already people being receptive to reggae. You’ve been welcomed here, and you have ties to Easy Star Records, which is a label that’s highly regarded. So in your experience, you’ve seen close up the different approaches that American bands take to reggae. Some play in the roots sound while singing in their own style. Some take inspiration from Rastafari and they sing about Jah and Rastafari. Some even use Patois in their lyrics. So from your perspective as a Jamaican artist, does it make a difference to you if a non-Jamaican is singing about Rastafari in their reggae music? Or does it all depend on the specific circumstance?
P: It’s specific circumstance. And for me, I have no authority to tell who to sing about Rastafari. We don’t own that. You don’t do things and inspire the world to believe in something and then get upset when they do. I mean, why are you doing music if it’s not to spread the message? You know what I mean? And there’s many people in Jamaica that sing about Rastafari that don’t live the lifestyle anyway. So it’s not about where you’re from, it’s about the content of your character. It’s about what you have inside. It doesn’t matter about color, it doesn’t matter what state you live in, doesn’t matter what country you’re from, it’s about the content of your heart. And then, the only thing is that… it’s like sometimes if somebody is singing in Patois, but they’re not from Jamaica, it just sounds funny to me. Just like if I say: “Yo, what’s up, my G?”, you know, I think I sound American, but my American friends would obviously know that I’m putting on an accent, you know what I mean? So that’s part of it, but in terms of the message and the sound, I’m just for inclusivity, especially when they help to put me on. Rebelution brought me on tour, Iration brought me on tour—they both helped to put me on to new audiences as well, and they do that for a lot of other reggae artists. So I’m grateful for people that have been spreading the music.
RF: I love your answer there. I understand what you’re saying and I couldn’t agree more. Are there any lesser known artists from past eras of Jamaican music that mean a lot to you, besides the big names?
P: Yeah, Hugh Mundell is one of my favorite artists ever. Not a lot of people knew him. He died at 21, and already had five albums by the time he was 21. He’s really really dope. And there’s a band called Cultural Roots that I learned so much about hardcore roots reggae from. I like to listen to and find some obscure records that really feel my vibe.
RF: Your mother, Lorna Bennett, started her career as a reggae singer back in the 70s. You two have collaborated on music before. Did you have a very musical childhood?
P: Yeah, everybody in Jamaica has like a musical childhood. Music in Jamaica is everywhere. Everybody is always involved, but obviously I was a bit more because of my parents’ involvement in music. But yeah man, you just grow up around Sound Systems, you grow up being around stage shows, and all that kind of activity. It inspires you to just create. And you know what it was the most, is that it made it believable…like I could believe that “Hey, I could actually do this because there’s my mom on stage and she’s respected, and she’s successful. So maybe I can do it as well.”
RF: So you’ve got the new album and a lot of touring going on—what activities do you like to do in your free time when you’re not recording and touring?
P: Go to the beach, chill out at home, watch movies every day. I watch a movie every day. Read, run, go for a jog, spend time with my family. Real things. My life is full of so much action, and I like to keep it super low key when I’m not working.
RF: Oh yeah I know, the simple pleasures. That’s funny that you watch a lot of movies, are there any ones you’ve seen recently that you really like?
P: Let me see… I liked Sicario. I love anything that Christopher Nolan does, he’s my favorite director. I watch a lot movies over and over, so… [laughs]. I also love Inception—that’s a few years ago, but still one of my favorite movies. On tour I went into a late showing of Incredibles 2, and it was just me and my crew in the whole theatre. So that’s my new thing: to go to movies really late on tour when there’s nobody in there.
RF: Ha, that’s awesome. So what do you have coming up that you’re looking forward to? Any places that you’re headed to that you can’t wait to see?
P: I’m going to Romania. I heard it’s really, really nice there. I’m going to Tunisia as well, I’ve never been there. I’m really hoping that I can get some new experiences.
RF: And even though the new album is here, are you still working on more music?
P: I’m always working on more music. I’m working on some more productions for some of my squad. I’m just doing the best I can do in the meantime, but I’m always working, and always looking for new collaborators. I’m trying to have more of a catalog. I want to have an awesome catalog that people can say, “Whoa, he’s really done a lot of work in his time here.”
Protoje’s latest release, A Matter of Time, is out now on Overstand Entertainment/In.Digg.Nation in conjunction with Easy Star Records.