As we prepare for the next big event of the year, Reggae Rise Up Florida, we have a special interview with Jah9, one of the rising women of modern reggae, who is not only performing at this year’s festival, she is also leading a class at this year’s event called Yoga On Dub. This interview was conducted by guest writer Devin Morrison, formerly of The Expanders, and a roots reggae encyclopedia in his own rite. Enjoy this chat between two remarkable musicians and get ready for a fantastic time at Reggae Rise Up, March 15-17, just under a month away!
Devin Morrison: You’re playing the Reggae Rise Up festival, which is March 15-17 in St. Petersburg Florida, and you perform on Sunday. The audience at Reggae Rise Up is really in for a special treat. The first time that I saw you perform live was in Los Angeles, opening for Chronixx on the Chronology Tour. And the strength of your performance there really stayed with me. Driving home from the show I pulled up your first album and that’s when I started listening to your music. But it was the live performance that really drew me in. To me you seem to be one of those performers who cares about establishing a connection with the live audience. Could you describe what performing live is like for you, and what role the live performance plays for you in the context of the larger musical journey?
Jah9: The musical journey…Well, live music is at the root of my heritage’s music, in that it was through singing in choirs and singing in a group setting as performance, even if not of my own music, that’s how my musical journey started, in church and in school and in university there’s always a choir…and I would be a soloist as well, and I would sing all the parts as well, I would learn them all. So that was always a big part of the thing, connecting in that way musically. So even when we transition into performing our own music now it make it even more amplified because you have the skill of performance, and now it’s something you actually want to say, and you want to share it. So you get to be free to connect with the audience because, you know? You are comfortable and safe and…it is a confidence as well and it is an ability to connect because you really sincerely feel what you say.
DM: Alright, cause it’s a unique experience as a human, you know, being on stage and getting to relate to a group of people in that way. It’s a powerful, special thing. You mention singing in choirs, and I wanted to ask you about how you got started singing. Because sometimes when one hears an artist for the first time it’s clear right away that this is a singer. You know, this is someone for whom, beyond lyrics and coming up with great melodies, this person has vocal ability. And you were one of those artists for me where 5 seconds after hearing you I said “Oh, this is a singer.” And I wanted to ask you about your history in singing, and what kind of vocal training you may have had, or may not have had.
J9: Mm-hmm. Well, the choirs were definitely the primary training. And it was just singing ever since I was a child. My mother was able to sing and my sister as well…and they would always be singing! And we were a church family, so there were hundreds of hymns to learn and, you know, it was a part of life. It didn’t seem like a thing. I took for granted that everybody sang, and that was normal. You know? And being a part of the choirs now and that being such a big part of my life. My sister and I were in choirs together when we were at school, like, singing and music and learning songs and learning harmony and melody and parts and that was how I cultivated my ear. ‘Cause I don’t play an instrument. Like, I will dabble with instruments but I don’t play an instrument. I don’t practice an instrument rather. The only practice I get is with my air and my voice.
DM: I want to ask about the song writing process for you. I have a huge amount of respect for songwriters. And to me you have that special songwriter’s gift for conveying a profound sentiment using relatable words and catchy but still original melodies. Regarding the writing process, is there a typical format you follow? You mentioned you don’t play an instrument. Do you prefer to come up with melodies and lyrics first? Or do you prefer to hear a riddim first and write to that? Or some other way? What’s that process like for you?
J9: It’s all of those things at any particular time. But it usually is with pencil and paper, you know? That is the ideal way. Seeing just a blank page. And now you have like the phone and these things, and that can work as well, but the blank page is really where it starts. I don’t always even have to have music. I will hear a bass-line in my head sometimes and start from there. And then I will hear all the arrangements and be able to hum it out and save it in my phone so I can pass it on to the musicians. So, whole heap a things. But it doesn’t always come as sound you know? Sometimes it comes as poems. Sometimes it comes as prose.
…the blank page is really where it starts. I don’t always even have to have music.
DM: What is the live reggae music scene, for lack of a better word, like in Jamaica right now? I know all around the world there’s demand for Jamaican artists to come perform live, but are there places in Jamaica where you as a roots artist can perform when you’re home? Whether it’s full band concert stuff, or getting on the mic with a sound system?
J9: Yeah well, right now in particular, because it’s Reggae Month in Jamaica, so there’s a lot of live music now. But over the past decade, over the past maybe 15 years, the live music scene has really, you know, grown. There’s a lot of effort that we put into it in this last round you know, and it really has made a difference. So, there’s music playing all the time. That is an ebb and flow.
DM: Did you ever work with any soundsytems in Jamaica or anywhere else?
J9: Not really, you know. As I said, the dancehall and soundsystem culture wasn’t really the space which I grew up in. I didn’t meet a lot of that music until much later in my life. So I met a lot of that as vintage. ‘Cause I was…the church was where I consumed music. Through church. And then, it is through liberation and Rastafari how, you know, we find other music too. And then just, you know, through the course of time and exposure, going through university and just…But how I consumed the music, it was jazz and gospel, and at the time when someone else my age might have been listening to a soundsystem culture, going to a dance, you know?
DM: Mhmm. Well it’s really good to hear that there’s lots of live music happening still. And kind of piggy-backing on that, I wanted to ask you about the relationship between yourself and artists like Chronixx and Jesse Royal and Kabaka Pyramid, you know, Protoje, Kelissa. Because it’s seems to me, from the outside looking in, that there’s a special kind of crew-vibe and a camaraderie between those artists I mentioned. It seems like you guys all kind of move as a team and support each other and bring each other on tour and feature on each other’s recordings, maybe more so than I can remember seeing in the past with other artists. Does that seem like an accurate perception?
J9: (chuckling) I’d say that is a relatively accurate perception.
DM: Alright! I mean, how did you guys all meet? Did you grow up together, or did your paths just naturally cross through music?
J9: I mean…the crossing through time…it really is one a them mystical thing. Is just a timing, you know? And how you’re able to build off of camaraderie and a consensus. And I really feel Rastafari is the thing that sparked all of that within all of us at that time. And so, it was real first. It was reasoning about HIM and looking at, you know, ways where we can make actual sustainable choices for ourselves as youths, and make better examples. So the thing was beyond just music, you know? And that is something that was very important to I. And to see that I brothers were also willing to not just say that but put it in their music as well when they started to learn and grow. It was very encouraging, so…Within personalities, you still are able to keep that respect for each other and strengthen each other where it is possible.
DM: Alright, ‘cause it’s really a great thing to see from the audience perspective because I think that people, music fans, really appreciate feeling like they are a part of something, you know? And when you see a group of artists that obviously have that respect for each other and kind of, it feels like there’s a movement that everyone is part of, I think it really enhances the experience for everybody. So I’m always really happy to see that.
DM: So, you’re no stranger to touring. And as much as traveling around and performing music for thousands of people can be a rewarding experience, it also requires some serious sacrifices that people who don’t tour for a living may not fully appreciate. And specifically when it comes to staying healthy on the road, could you share any strategies that you’ve developed for eating right and overcoming the challenges of finding healthy food in places where it might not be obviously and immediately available? And for getting sleep and exercise on the road and so forth? That’s something that I struggled with for years on tour so I’d be all ears to hear how you deal with it.
J9: Well, I use supplements. I will use spirulina, and a spirulina-chlorela mix of tablets so that I can get all my nutrients and my B-vitamins and everything I need. And then I have maybe colloidal-silver or nano-silver or one of those kind of immunity-type things that I use everyday, in the morning vibes. Things like…using a neti pot or a humidifier, you know? And essential oils. And I have specific essential oils that I will trod with, like in case I am injured, you know, or there are cuts or things that I might need stitches for. Oils that can prevent me from having to get stitches, you know? So I invest in things like that and do that research, and would be doing that whether or not I was on tour. So it just make it very, very efficient [as opposed to] if I didn’t have that knowledge so I can balance out there. So, instead of food, because we have the nutrients that we need, we don’t have to eat to full our belly. We just make sure we hydrating properly. We would a probably get some probiotics like a kombucha you know? And nuts and seeds and berries and dehydrated fruits and them kinda snack things. And if you can get a one opportunity to cook you just get some vegetables and just beat it up. It’s not that difficult on the road, actually, you know. It’s just maintaining the discipline. It really isn’t…the discipline is always about NOT eating the things that you know you shouldn’t eat. More-so than eating the things you should. ‘Cause it’s not that hard to nourish yourself.
DM: Right, so having that regiment already as part of your daily life makes it kind of a natural extension on the road.
J9: Exactly. And then yoga is crucial as well.
DM: And you find places to do that? Like, I don’t know if you tour in a van or a bus. Do you have space to do that?
J9: Well, yoga, yeah man you can do yoga anywhere. You don’t have to make yoga be a thing where you need a robe and a mat. You also can adapt it to the space and know what it is your body need, and do it for the time that is necessary to get the result that you need.
DM: What are some of the cities or countries you’ve performed in that have really stood out to you as places where you’d like to return to, or where the connection with the crowd felt especially good, or the traveling was maybe a bit more rewarding? What are your favorite places to perform live?
J9: Hmmm. On the continent of Africa. That is a tremendously special experience. And so we look forward to doing that every time we get an opportunity. Like, that is crucial to the mission; to be able to perform on the black continent. So, in South America, that was another IRIE experience as well! You know?
DM: Where in South America was that?
J9: In Brazil. We did three cities in Brazil. I can’t remember the names right now. But it was really irie, you know? And in London! London, as an English speaking space now, that is irie too. ‘Cause I just did a UK tour this past fall, and the love was really irie. We sold out in London, and we did really good numbers for all of the shows in the UK that we did. So, UK kinda special vibes for us too.
DM: Well that’s nice to hear that you got good numbers out there.
DM: I’ve always been a fan of old-school Jamaican music. One of the riddims on your album 9 is an early ‘80s cut by The Gladiators for their tune “Can’t Stop Righteousness.” I’m talking about your song “Unafraid.” And recently I’ve noticed a lot of artists utilizing rare, lesser-known rhythms from the 60s, 70s and 80s. As a fan of that old stuff I always really love to hear that. And I wanted to ask you about your relationship to those original eras of reggae music, and if there are some artists from those days who specifically inspire you.
J9: I love that music. I love that era of music for sure. And again, that is music that I met later in my life after I had already kinda plotted a creative trajectory, you know? So, to hear their music is an irie vibration after how I feel and connect with it, you know? It’s become something I prefer to listen to. I will end up listening to more and consuming it heavily, even though I met it late.
DM: Right. It has that timeless quality for sure. Like, you can get into it no matter what stage of life you’re in.
DM: Could you tell us about any new music that you’re releasing in the near future?
J9: Yeah, the intention is to release the album in June.
DM: Oh nice!
J9: Mhmm, man. So, probably we will release another single before, like maybe in the months before the album release. But the last song “Heaven” [released November 2018] we should be dropping a video for it soon.
DM: Great! Is the album going to include the singles you put out last year?
J9: Well, the singles I put out last year? Yes, it will have those songs on it. The songs from the EP.
DM: Cool, looking forward to that. Do you use the same band for recording and touring?
J9: Umm, sometimes I use some of the musicians from my band in the studio as well, for different things. But I use a pool of musicians from Jamaica and the world you know. Whoever is best suited for the sound.
DM: At Reggae Rise Up, in addition to performing, you’re also leading the “Yoga On Dub” session. I know that’s something you’ve been doing for a while. Could you explain what “Yoga On Dub” is and what people interested in participating can expect from that?
J9: What “Yoga On Dub” will be for this Reggae Rise Up is really a class. An opportunity to share a practice with I. I’m a trained yoga teacher for the past 10 years. I am a part of a yoga school here in Jamaica that trains teachers as well. And I practice Iyengar style as well as Ashtanga and Kinetic yoga, which is an African-based yoga and is what I use primarily in the “Yoga On Dub” experience. Because it is like a moving meditation. It really is a beautiful practice. And then with the knowledge of alignment from the other practices it is a real irie thing to share, you know? A short space of time with something I can do effectively without being too vigorous.
What “Yoga On Dub” will be for this Reggae Rise Up is really a class. An opportunity to share a practice with I.
DM: You did a collaboration with Vaughn Benjamin (formerly of Midnite and now Akae Beka) on your latest record. It was exciting for me to see that because I’m a huge fan of yours, and Vaughn is one of my all-time favorite artists. And I’m always on the lookout for more collabs between Vaughn and current Jamaican artists. Like, I would love to hear him do a tune with Kabaka or Chronixx. But anyway, how did that collab come about? Did you two know each other before you did that tune?
J9: Mhmm. I met him in person for the first time when we were in Costa Rica, I think, was it? Yes. And, um, myself and Protoje and Kabaka and…was Jesse there? I’m not sure. And Raging Fyah were there. And it was like a festival. And that was many years ago. You know, everybody was still young at the time and so he was like a real inspiration to all of us. And we were all really excited. So we all kind of made our own connections with him. And I just kept in touch through the years, and we ended up on a few other shows together, you know? Always just naturally being polarized together because, you know, must be a vibrational thing. He is a bredren that I highly rate. He’s an irie irie bredren.
DM: Me too. I can’t even explain the influence he’s had in my life. Well, thanks so much for doing this interview. I really appreciate it. It’s been very nice talking to you. Have a great performance at the Reggae Rise Up festival, safe travels, and can’t wait to hear the new music.
J9: Alright! Give thanks. Blessed love.
Reggae Rise Up Florida is almost sold out, so be sure to grab your tickets now, and swing by the Rootfire booth to say hello at the festival. See you there!