How can I even begin to describe someone like Jah9? She is not just a musician, but a poet, and her work is immensely important to the world we live in today.
I will never forget riding in a car with two of my strong female friends, when I first heard Jah9’s song “Greatest Threat to the Status Quo.” Goosebumps formed on my skin; I couldn’t believe how very true, how relevant, and how impactful this tune was. I wanted to share it with everyone, especially women who sometimes need help realizing we have the power to overcome oppression and heal our society.
In the reggae scene, where men are the majority, it’s easy for a woman to take the route of gaining attention by flaunting her looks or sexuality. I have deep respect for Jah9 because she emphasizes her powerful message more than anything. And by doing so, she radiates genuine beauty inside and out as a person who is guiding the human race towards a better version of ourselves.
Jah9 spent the first part of her childhood on the northwest shore of Jamaica in Falmouth, Trelawny, before moving to Kingston. It was there that she attended The University of the West Indies and started integrating music with her poetry. She has a unique musical style often described as “Jazz on Dub,” which is heavily influenced by 1970’s instrumental dub reggae. She further integrates dub reggae rhythms through her practice as a certified yoga instructor, focusing on healing through breath, sound, and motion.
As a huge fan of her music, I was so happy to finally see her perform at Cali Roots Fest this year. She is undoubtedly a vibrant force in the current Jamaican roots reggae revival. I have been eager to learn more about this inspiring woman, and am so grateful she took the time to conduct this interview with me as part of Rootfire’s Women In Reggae series.
Rootfire: When did you become inspired to start making music of your own, and what was happening in your life at the time?
Jah9: I am going to tell you what inspired me to start sharing my music, I felt that is how I could best serve after I finished university. I felt I would learn about the people from this country by working in corporate and would gather enough information to share and to make use of. I started to attract very musical people, you know, the likes of Seretse Small, Beres Hammond and Don Corleon, and little by little people started to give me opportunities to experiment with the words, the messages and the songs that I was inspired to share. And the effect of the people that were listening and people who had the opportunity to create with me kind of helped it to grow, and helped it to materialize more quickly.
And that’s kind of what happened in my life when I started, when I made that transition. I was finishing up with corporate and I realized this is really what I need, this is where I feel most at home in my creative element. And so, I just started to share more of what I was doing, started to create more, and the collaborations gave way to more of my input, to the point where in my second album I was able to direct the process and do what I really wanted. I still was alone, I was not with other musicians, you know? I was kind of taking the lead.
RF: Did you have any close female role models in the music scene when you were starting your career? If so, who were they? If not, was it challenging?
J9: No, I did not have any female inspiration that was close to me. I’ve seen Etana, Queen Ifrica, and Marcia Griffiths, and knowing who all those people were definitely was a big thing, to have examples of women doing it. But I didn’t know any of them personally, and the things that were inspiring me, the words, the foreground of my creative process, it’s different from the people I see around me, the males and females, so it really wasn’t an external inspiration kind of thing.
So, in terms of the challenges, just like anything attempted, there is a system in place already, and you must try to make your way around it and see how you fit in. And a lot of the challenges are really within yourself. Making sure that this is what it’s supposed to be. Observing the challenges, and making sure you don’t have to put up resistance, and making sure it is more like water than a wall.
RF: When did you start integrating yoga into your life, and how has it helped you? Do you have a favorite Asana pose? Is there another limb of yoga other than Asana that you enjoy most?
J9: I started becoming interested in Yoga maybe ten years ago but back then I didn’t really practice much, and I didn’t really know much about it. I was just kind of athletic and flexible from before. But when I started to learn more about the therapeutic benefits I started to become more interested. I was given an opportunity to train with an Iyengar teacher about seven years ago, and she was an unorthodox kind of teacher, meaning she wasn’t the typical Yoga teacher you see in Jamaica, and her whole life story and her struggles and all that really came through. She really inspired me because I was really interested in service and I saw this in Yoga; it can be a huge part of that healing work.
So, it was something I was drawn to and started integrating, because that’s kind of what I am trying to do with my music too. It’s not just for myself. I need healing, too, but it’s to share something that makes a difference in people’s lives individually, and in the collective consciousness as well.
I don’t have a favorite Asana pose. I try to practice all the limbs of Yoga. I probably don’t practice Asana as much as I try to practice self-study, or working with my community, or even concentration in just building focus. So these limbs are equally important to me, some even more than Asana. But Asana definitively helps to put the awareness into the body and helps you to get out of the mind.
RF: Your spirituality comes through in your music; my favorite song of yours is “Greatest Threat to the Status Quo.” It touches on the connection between science, math, and spirituality. I also think it’s a reminder that women have a powerful role in nature, and the oppression of that power has been a main cause of the world’s problems. So first, thank you for creating and sharing these meaningful and beautifully written words. What kind of actions can people take to make this situation better?
J9: The work that I think is necessary is with our own selves as women. It’s going to require us changing our perspectives on how we see ourselves and each other; we’re going to have to prioritize each other and the connection we share. Because everything in the media and in the outer world is really trying to put us against each other. It’s the same divide and rule scenario.
So, it’s really a matter of learning more about ourselves and becoming less ashamed of the natural processes that have been made into taboos about womanhood. Having the conversations openly and not just with other women either. Sensitizing our boys, while they are on the breast. Just letting them understand the importance of respecting women and loving women and let it not be weird while protecting them from trauma in general, and just being more aware, especially as women.
It’s not just about overcoming our obstacles, it’s standing in our power and taking some responsibilities for our lives, and empowering others and passing it on. The work is very subtle energetic work. It’s not placards in the street, it’s interpersonal work and one-on-one work, with the stronger ones helping the weaker ones and building the nation, little by little.
RF: What advice do you have for someone who is actively trying to raise their consciousness and stay on a spiritual path?
J9: The path is different. What the path brings is different for each person, so what’s most important for anybody on a spiritual journey is that they observe themselves and really pay attention and learn how to differentiate between the voices that have been put in your head from social interaction and the voice that comes from within you. To really try to identify that difference and see how it feels in your body.
Learn how to deal with tension so that you can keep yourself close to peace and calm as much as possible, because this is where the highest path of your potential is able to manifest from. That place of peace. That is really the first step. I can’t tell another one how the journey will be because their life is different from mine. The most I can do is to encourage breathe, to find peace and move from there.
RF: Focusing on the topic of women in music: do you think women face specific challenges while navigating the music industry? If yes, what are they? Have you experienced any of these challenges firsthand?
J9: The music industry comes with challenges for men and women. Some things are more obvious where women are concerned because of the state of how women are treated in society. Those same issues will filter through to the music industry. The same expectations of over sexualization, or willingness to be disrespected, even if only very subtly. These things you must navigate in any kind of career, so it is not particular to the music industry.
There are so many things, so many things that I have probably not had to deal with, many things I’ve been spared from, just because I’m not really trying to interact with the world at that level where I want to be a sex symbol, or I want people to look at me. I’m more interested in people listening to me. For me, it’s just navigating yourself through the changing of the moon, taking care of your physical, all those things we talked about before.
The things you need to do on a journey, the things you need to do as a woman for yourself, for your sisters, and for the youths. These are the things you must deal with. I wouldn’t put it on to being specific to my career. Maybe if you speak to another female artist she can tell you some of her challenges, but a lot of the things, I don’t even give them power with words. I think my major challenge is balancing myself, and when I find balance on a personal level, I have less challenges overall.
RF: What can men do to support women in reggae music?
J9: I think they just need to be ok with women being at the same level as them, and not be intimidated when they see a woman rising or do anything to try to interfere with that. But even if they do interfere, you can’t really stop the inevitable. What is necessary for the type of music that reggae is, the woman is needed because reggae music represents Africa, the original Africa, and the original African reality is one where the woman is the Goddess, and the woman is venerated highly. I wish I saw more of that in reggae music. As opposed to the way, you know, the typical things she’s sung about. And if she is not sung about in a derogatory way then it’s “oh she is suffering, treat her good.”
I would love to see the women be celebrated in song as well as in the spaces where this music is happening. Like, if we have a show, they have just one or two females; why can’t we have equal amounts of male and female artists? And maybe it’s the quality of music and the performance, but more and more we see higher quality of female artists present themselves with good music, good lyrics and so on. So, we just need to make sure that the artists are keeping the standard higher. Once they are, just give them the equal opportunity to have spaces to create. But trust and believe if men don’t create spaces for us, we will create spaces.
RF: Health is another one of your main messages. What are some simple things you recommend for people who want to be physically healthy (whether it’s food, medicines, activities) that have worked for you?
J9: Health and wellness are really crucial in this time. For everyone. We know already that the pharmaceutical industry, and the governments, and all of them really, do not truly care about your wellbeing. It must be a personal responsibility. You can’t expect that just because it is in the store for sale, you can eat it. You must learn what things mean and be very aware of what you are putting into your body.
You only have one body. These messages shouldn’t really be so hard to swallow, but it just goes to show the amount of mental damage we face, not just as a nation, or people, but in the world in general.
And it’ s really important that people understand that the quality of the food they eat is going to directly relate to the quality of life that they will have. And yeah, drinking water, eating closer to live and raw food, trying to make sure that if you are not farming that you are taking care to eat the best quality food, grown in the best situation. If not, take responsibilities by growing it yourself. And cutting down on eating flesh because flesh causes cancer.
You must take responsibility for your health and food. Food is not for pleasure, it is your medicine. Having tasty, delicious food is a bonus, but let it begin with what it can do for your body before what it does for your taste buds.
RF: Where do you spend most of your time when you’re not touring?
J9: When I am not on tour I am home with my family. I will train my body with Yoga, and you know we have a great Yoga community in Jamaica. Apart from that is just home. I am really a homebody. You know, when I was younger, I used to be more in the bushes, but I find myself really staying close to home these days. It is my creative space, it is also my comfort space. I have a small circle and most of the people in that circle are my family. So, it’s just a replenishing time when I am home.
RF: What old-school reggae is essential in your mix, and who are the new artists that you listen to?
J9: For me, old school reggae is Sizzla Kalonji. So if I go to an old school setting and they don’t play at least half an hour of Sizzla back to back, then I feel underserved. [laughs] But old school reggae for me is even vintage reggae now, we are talking about the masters of dub Jah Shaka, Mad Professor, Scientist and Tubbys. We are talking about Lee Scratch Perry, Burning Spear and The Wailers, we are talking about that kind of vibration, roots, like real roots, roots and dub.
And in terms of new artists now… new reggae artists coming up in my generation… I really like how artists like Runkus are taking it creatively. I like how the daughters like Lila Ike, Ikaya and Sevana are coming up now, very nice voices. And yes, there are some other youths coming up now. I admittedly don’t listen to a lot of current music, but, these youths, sometimes I get to draw them out into creative spaces, like Jamnesia, and get to hear them and get to see them in their elements, and I kind of like where they are going. They’re all very young and open to learning and we are encouraged by that.
RF: What are your upcoming plans in music and life?
J9: In music, I have an EP coming out at the top of 2018. No title yet but the single is coming out before the year is out. I am just making more new music, writing, and trying to observe myself so I can see where I am and can be prepared to receive the inspiration and act upon it.
And in terms of life, it is just more service as well. Doing more with yoga and music to try to bring more of a healing vibe into certain spaces that wouldn’t necessarily have access to it. So, a lot of the work that is to come, you might not see it on social media, but it is crucial nation building that really must be done in a very sensitive way to potentially make sure that the young people who are going to benefit from it are not exploited.
Thank you again to Jah9 for sharing her insights with us. Take a minute and listen to Jah9’s uplifting new single, Feel Good.