RASTAFARI MUSIC IS HER SERVICE
Zanj Radio | Monday, March 30, 2015
In the wee hours of a cold February morning, singer-songwriter-poet Jah9 has just left the stage at Milk River café in Brooklyn and is taking pictures with beckoning fans. She had delivered a stirring performance; even though she crooned and danced without inhibition, it feels odd to call it a performance, as she had reiterated many times that she was not on stage to exalt herself.
“She is anointed to do what she does. It’s her ministry,” says Tilishia, an audience member who identifies herself as a singer; she gushes, “Her vocals are so strong!” Ras Peata, another audience member, has very few words, “Perfect. Positive message, enuh?”
Jah9’s music is filled with positive messages. In fact, her 2011 mixtape was called 9mm, the ‘mm’ signifying ‘message music’. Her lyrics, which inspire reflection and are delivered mainly via a unique fusion of jazz and dub, had led Zanj Radio to speak with her prior to this concert, in our Women in Sound Art feature, an ongoing discussion with women artistes with distinctive and exceptional sound.
As she spoke with us in that interview, Jah 9 took us through her formative years in Trelawny before moving to Kingston, Jamaica, her journey from Christianity to Rastafari, and her inspiration for making music. Much of what she shares in that interview was apparent on stage.
Shawna-Kaye: So, tell us a bit about Jah9 growing up.
Jah9: I have always kind of been an introvert, creative spirit, spending a lot of time with pen and paper, even as a child. I started reading very early, so the imagination was open from very early.
Shawna-Kaye: What were some of those things that you were reading?
Jah9: You know I am a church girl, Pastor daughta. So a lot of what I was reading was the Bible, and scripture and a lot of hymns. And if you are familiar with hymns, a lot of it is really poetic. It was almost like my first exposure to literature was through hymns.
Shawna-Kaye: Is there a term from that time that you remember, from those books you were reading?
Jah9: Not a term in particular, but just the idea of service and the idea of being an example. And the idea of being rewarded by your service. And these are concepts that ran both through the subjects that my parents were studying, the psychology, as well as the scriptures.
Shawna-Kaye: I’ve read about you having this sort of journey in university where you feel yourself being drawn to dub music and to Rastafari. So could you tell us about that period where you started changing?
Jah9: My spirituality outgrew religion, outgrew the church context. And the questions that I had, I needed answers that I wasn’t able to get in the institutionalized version of religion. My father was very Afrocentric and as I grew and I wasn’t getting the answers that I needed from the church, both my parents really gave me the space to kind of explore. I started to realize and research and find that a lot of what was given to us as Judeo-Christianity was really recycled information. I wanted to get to the source. It was shedding a lot of what I thought I knew and just opening myself to the new experiences that were coming.
Shawna-Kaye: By the time we get around to yuh first album, New Name, what were you trying to do?
Jah9: New Name is an interesting project. I think New Name is kind of a statement to say: I am a Rastafari woman, first and foremost, seeking the Kingdom and this personal journey is foremost.
Shawna-Kaye: How would you describe what you sound like?
Jah9: I’ve always called it jazz on dub because my vocal style is heavily influenced by jazz. It is literally defined by your breaking the rules. Pushing the envelope is what I really loved about jazz and dub is very similar— it’s a post-production treatment. That kind of freedom, I think those two music styles are very very similar to my personality and my journey. So jazz on dub is the sound.
Shawna-Kaye: You identify as a Rastafari woman in this musical space. Are there any experiences that you have that you think are connected uniquely to you being a woman?
Jah9: It is difficult for me to answer a question like that because I’ve never been a man so I don’t know the experiences of a man in the industry and there aren’t a lot of women in the industry. I wouldn’t even compare myself to the women who are not doing Rastafari music. In my mind, if yuh doing a particular kind of hard core music, it’s the same sell: If you are woman you are selling sex and if you are man you are talking about sex and you’re still selling sex— so it’s just two sides of the same coin. I am a different coin altogether. What I am doing is a part of my journey that is manifesting as music right now. Even though music is important to me, the industry is not as important to me as maybe it would have been if I was inspired differently. That is why it is a difficult question for me to answer, because I don’t really think about the industry, like that.
Jah9 explains that she prefers live, intimate audiences, such as the revering one that fought the freezing temperatures to see her at Milk River. She had entered belting out Preacher Man and interspersed her set with conversation about subjects dear to her, like yoga. She even took the audience through a breathing exercise before singing Gratitude. “At the end of the day, it is how you love and how you serve your brothers and sisters that make a difference,” she says.
After a sober rendition of Reverence, she addresses the audience, “So in this moment, I give thanks for the opportunity to serve; it has been truly truly a pleasure. And before we go, I would like to share one more song with you. This is the anthem.” She sings “New Name, King Rastafari.”
– Shawna-Kaye Lester