Interview with Hempress Sativa
Hempress Sativa is one of the most dynamic and talented performers – male or woman – in reggae music today. Currently at work on her sophomore album following her extremely impressive debut “Unconquerebel” – and its dub version with legendary sound engineer Scientist (“Scientist Meets Hempress Sativa in Dub”) – Hempress Sativa is a spiritual, powerful, deeply conscious Rastafari singer. Born into a musical family, she grew up surrounded and nurtured by some of the biggest names in Jamaican music.
HEMPRESS SATIVA: “RASTAFARI SHOULD BE PROTECTED” (THE INTERVIEW)
On July 31, I interviewed Hempress for over thirty minutes after her dynamite show at the famed Dub Club in Los Angeles with Scientist. We spoke about her live performance of “Wah Da Da Deng,” that has been viewed over 12 million times on YouTube; her new single “Boom Shakalak” and the official video; the cliquishness of the reggae industry; her relationship with reggae legends Sister Carol and Brigadier Jerry; how the reggae music business can provide fairer and more equal opportunities for women performers; marijuana; Rastafari culture; lingering discrimination against Rastas in Jamaica and what can be done to combat it; and much, much more. What follows is a transcript of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.
Greetings Hempress, it’s a joy and a blessing to meet and reason with you. I’m a big fan of your music and I think your debut album “Unconquerebel,” that you released about two years ago, is superb.
But before talking about your album and your new single “Boom Shakalak” – which you sang tonight [and] which I really dig – if it’s okay, I’d like to begin by asking about the live performance you gave on February 25, 2015, at the Song Embassy Yard in Papine. [This is in] the part of Jamaica where I know you were raised; you performed your massive tune “Wah Da Da Deng” with [producer] Paolo Baldini.
I want to ask about that because I along with more than twelve million other people have seen that video of you singing in Papine that day, over 4 years ago now, and there’s not a soul who knows anything about music who could watch that video and [not be blown away by your undeniable] talent.
Could you talk just for a minute about that performance, how it came about, and the reaction you’ve received from people who’ve seen [it]?
I originally started out working with Jah Over Evil and he introduced me to Mellow Mood and that’s how I got in touch with Paolo Baldini. They told us they had a setup where they were just playing versions. [And they said,] “Feel free to come out and just pick a song.” And the day we went there we were reasoning with them about where they’re from and what they’re into and things like that. And we decided that we were gonna participate. Myself and other members in Jah Over Evil.
Does that Song Embassy Yard in Papine have any particular significance?
No. It’s just that it’s in Papine. I was born and raised in Papine but at the other side of that area, further down.
And was that [dynamite, jaw-dropping performance recorded in] one take?
Yeah that was one take. (Laughing)
Some people don’t believe me. (Laughing)
You have such an incredible focus and flow in that video. The last thing I want to ask about it is: What was going through your mind that day, because you were so serious, so focused when you walked up to the mic?
Alright. Some people don’t understand, when you’re doing anything, you have to be focused. You have to lock-in. And hone-in. And give your all. And that’s what happened. Sometimes I tend to not recognize [my] facial expressions because I’m so [focused]. And people don’t necessarily understand that I’m not sad or angry. I’m so focused in my mind that it’s almost like I’m outside of myself, you know? So I don’t have no control over [my] facial expressions or movements. I kinda just go with the energy and that’s it.
Let’s talk about your new single that you released in the spring, “Boom Shakalak.” This is a very cool song. In my opinion it bears some similarities to the song “Rock It Ina Dance” on your debut album [“Unconquerebel”]; they sound different but both have a definitive dancehall and a sound system vibe. Do you agree with that?
I agree. And that’s very important to me because my whole life I grew up with a father who is a Selecta. He’s a person who would get up at five o’clock in the morning and start to play vinyl. And the music would continue throughout the day. And I’m not making up any type of story when I tell you he was a person who would stay around [his] sound system the whole day without eating, without breaking for nothing. That’s how serious music is to my father. I grew up in a household where constantly, all hours, we have to be listening to vinyl. And my father is a very conscious man. You never heard one slack song coming from his selection. Strictly roots music. So that sound system culture is something I am very proud of. Something I see almost dying out inna Jamaica. And it’s something I want to preserve. That’s why I’ve incorporated it so much in my music.
In your lyrics you often hail up your dad –
All the time. Because I personally feel that my father [doesn’t] get enough respect. I don’t feel like people recognize my father [despite] all the great works he’s put in the Jamaican music fraternity.
And for the sake of the interview, we’re talking about Albert “Ilawi Malawi” Johnson, selector for the “Jah Love” sound system. This was a Brigadier Jerry sound system?
The Jah Love sound system did not belong to Brigadier Jerry. Both of them being from the Twelve Tribes of Israel organization and just being there on a regular basis would participate; one playing [the] system and the other one would “toast” – which is DJ[’ ing] over the mic – which was Brigadier Jerry. My father was playing the music. So that’s how they first started out.
One difference I noticed lyrically between those two songs, Boom Shakalak and Rock it Ina Dance, is your view on promoters. Because you “big up” the promoter in Rock it Ina Dance, but in Boom Shakalak you take a more critical stance.
[I’m thinking about] [t]wo different lyrics [in that song]: (1) where you say “promoter pocket fat,” and (2) “promoters, advance my lion if you want…” Now I want to make sure I get this part right…
“… if you want to dance ram.”
Advance my lion if you want to dance “from?”
(Laughing) “Ram.” It means make it full to capacity.
Nice. It’s important to know these things –
Yeah, because people have a hard time understanding my [accent]; it’s very strong. (Laughing)
But people should take the time to learn what you’re saying, because it’s dope when they do.
(Laughing) Yeah, that is why I am saying to them, it’s nice to come to the stage where everybody can dance and feel good, but at the end of the day, mi still want everyone to take the opportunity to listen to what is actually being said. Because you might not even know what you a-dance to. You might not really agree. And I want to make sure you’re supporting me – [that] we’re on the same page. [That] [y]ou don’t have any misconception of who I am or what I stand for. So any little thing you see or you read that can help me to advance better – to have a better connection with my fans where they understand the music, that’s something that I want to do.
Respect. Which is why I’m glad we’re doing the interview. Now I really dig the new [official] video you made for Boom Shakalak. And I understand it was filmed in downtown Kingston.
Can you say more about the location where the video was filmed, why did you chose that particular part of Kingston? Was there a particular reason or vibe [about] that part of Kingston?
Yeah we wanted to get down into the town aspect, and kinda connect with the real roots people. Real people who are actually supporting the music out there inna Jamaica. And that is why we went there, you know? We never really had any scenes really planned. We just wanted to go there to perform, basically. And that is what we did. We basically went there and set up the riddims and the songs and just started to sing. And just tried to get [people] to pay attention. I even made new fans down there doing that. Because many people never even knew about Hempress Sativa until that morning we [went] out there to shoot the video. So it was just one way of connecting with the people out there.
They seemed to be very into the song for sure.
The amount of support I got that day [was incredible]; we had people saying, “Oh Hempress, you want to use my cart? You want to use my cart?”
Cool. Now if you had to describe to somebody what the major vibe and message of Boom Shakalak is, how would you describe it?
I would describe it as a nostalgic new era of roots, rock reggae. It’s basically me wanting to preserve the thing that I grew up in, dancehall culture. And the dancehall culture that I’m making reference to is not the genre that I know that people would know of as dancehall. Dancehall used to be a place that is a hall where they used to have dance.
Big sound? Big amplifiers? Big speakers?
Yes, stacked up. And a selector is there playing vinyl records. So that is something that I want to preserve. And [so] we incorporated a big sound system in the video as well. And the dancing aspect –
I love that.
Yeah, [I wanted to] show people you can dance and have a good time. Where you don’t have to be lewd. You don’t have to be slack. You don’t have to be gyrating in such a way where you give a negative energy.
There’s a very cool vibe to the video.
Yeah, it’s just relaxed.
A blog on your website indicates [Boom Shakalak] will be featured on your next album. What can you tell the fans about [this] second album that you’re working on? How far along are you in putting together another album? And can you say, if you know, when folks can start [looking for it]?
The album will be out in January 2020. Featured on the album we’ll have a lot of collaborations. The album is very relaxed. You can look for a lot of singing on this album, and just more cool melodies. More catchy songs.
In 2013 you told the Jamaica Observer that you think favoritism amongst disc jockeys is “hurting artists” and “keeping artists down.” Also, a year ago, in an interview with “Gibbo,” –
– you said, “Sometimes this reggae industry is cliquish.” I wondered if you still feel –
I still stand by everything that I’ve said in 2013 to this day. It has not changed.
But because your star, I would say, has risen since that time; you’ve been so successful; you’ve been touring; you’ve had great[, well-attended] European [performances]. And people are really starting to learn more about Hempress Sativa. Now that you’ve become more known in the industry, do you feel that you’re more accepted?
No. And let me tell you this: people don’t know what it takes for us to reach where we are. We’ve never been given any handout. We’ve always worked 100 percent investing our own money, investing our own resources. Sometimes going without just so we can get the music out. So we can create the studio time. Pay the band to come and record things. We don’t have no companies supporting us. And that is something that I realized, when you’re independent you have a harder time. Because you don’t have that connection to that individual over there that has the money. You don’t have their resources. You don’t have their mailing lists. You don’t have their disc jockeys on deck. You have to basically just be hoping that people are open-minded. And willing to listen to your music. And are really willing to support you. That’s why we’re grateful for the few disc jockeys who are willing to [play our music] without asking for any money. There’s a lot of “payola” in Jamaica, that is something that they don’t talk about. Enough! I’m not looking [for] any friends, I’m talking the truth. The minute we stop doing that [in Jamaica] you’ll find a lot of people come out of the shadows who’ll have wonderful talent. Where other people can listen to it and be encouraged. Those people are being drowned [out]. Dem a-drown out. Because first, they don’t have the money. And if you don’t have the money, how are you going to pay the disc jockey? If you can’t pay the disc jockey, how are you gonna get your song on the radio? And if you can’t get your song on the radio, who is going to listen to you? Give thanks to social media now. Back in the days we never had it like this now where you can [show-off your talent]. You [didn’t] have that [then]. And even then you still have algorithms which prohibit a certain reach [for] a certain artist in the same way in certain areas. So there’s always bias, in every aspect of this thing that we’re doing.
Hempress, last fall I was blessed to interview Sister Carol at the first ever L.A. Reggae Vegan Fest. Now I know you “big up” Sister Carol in one of your songs, “Rock It Ina Dance”; you’ve performed with her before; she attended your album launch party; so it’s probably fair to say that she’s been an influence to you.
How young were you when you first met Sister Carol?
I’ve been knowing Sister Carol since I was a little girl. Because, as I said, I grew up in the Twelve Tribes of Israel sound system, culture, [and] organization. [And] my parents would take me over there whenever [my dad] was playing to just lay down on the lawn. My mother would have us there listening to our father play [the] sound system. Sister Carol, Dennis Brown, Freddie McGregor, Brigadier Jerry, [Sister] Nancy, all of dem used to be there as a little girl growing up. These are all members of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. They come from over there. So growing up as a little girl, I knew Sister Carol because of my father. She’s someone who will always hear me out and give me full-couraging words. And I look to her as a mentor. Someone I can call up and bounce ideas off of. And she will give me words of encouragement, [and] a sense of direction. So we’re grateful for Sister Carol.
Recently I described your style to someone as unique, but a bit of a cross between Sister Carol and Lauryn Hill.
Would you agree that your style could be described that way?
People can describe a style because it’s their opinion and how they hear it, but personally for me, I think my sound is very unique. Yes, it has cadences and [resemblances] of other [artists’s] styles. Because it’s natural. I grew up with these people. [And] I love Lauryn Hill. She’s one of my favorite MCs. [And] I love Sister Carol because she’s one of the first women who came out on the dancehall scene. And they [showed] sisters can be royal. [How] sisters can be a “Black Cinderella.” So it’s natural for you to see these things bleed off in me. From me. Because they’re two people who have influenced me greatly.
Sister Carol said that Brigadier Jerry had a huge influence on her career [and] that he really “instilled a courage” in her. I was curious [whether] by the same token you may have had a similar experience because Brigadier Jerry was in the background [as you were growing up], whether he would encourage you [to sing], too?
I’ve been knowing Brigadier Jerry since I [was] a likkle girl. His son and I used to go to the same school, be in the same class. To this day we’re idrens. We’ve done music together. “Dread at the Control,” if you’ve ever heard of that song with Micah Shemiah; that’s Brigadier Jerry’s son [T.J. a.k.a. “Likkle Briggie,” too]. So he’s somebody who has influenced me, too, because mi grew up listen[ing] to my father [play his music] over and over again. So listening to him, I rate that man as the king of dancehall. That’s how I see Brigadier Jerry.
I’ve started learning more about Brigadier Jerry. It seems like he was big into encouraging female artists –
His sister is [Sister Nancy]!
I [don’t think] I knew that.
Yes! And they all used to [perform] on the Jah Love sound system – toasting!
A July 3rd article published in the Gleaner [had] what I humbly thought was a paternalistic headline, “Female Artistes Encouraged to Do Their Best at Sumfest.” Because why wouldn’t they want to do their best anyway? Sumfest is of course the large reggae festival held annually each summer in Jamaica. The article went on to say that “in a lineup of predominately men” the five chosen female artists had “little room for error.” Now Hempress I know you’ve performed at Sumfest before –
And also, last year, in an interview with Magnetic magazine, you said you were fascinated by Lauryn Hill because she “showed that a female [artist] could hold her own in a jungle of testosterone.”
So I want to ask you the same question I asked Sister Carol: In your opinion, what are some of the things that need to happen, steps that should be taken, [and] reforms that are needed for the reggae music business to provide fairer and more equal opportunities for women performers?
Simple. Level the playing field. Make it equal where you don’t have such a high standard set for women, and such a low standard set for men. A man can go onstage and sing any amount of foolishness and everybody will support that; the minute a girl goes onstage and [sings] lyrics full of impactful words, they don’t take her serious. They only look upon a woman as some type of object. You can go onstage and expose yourself, they don’t take your music serious[ly]. So it’s not necessarily for the woman to do anything. The industry needs to take the veil from over their face and stop pretending like they’re not doing these type of things. All over the world it’s the same thing. Even me going to a show, I’m treated with the least amount of respect that they’d give a man.
So women need to stand up for themselves?
They need to stand together. We need to stand together. We’re not less than anyone.
And demand equal treatment?
Of course. Not only us, but the people who are going to these events. [They also] need to be the ones to be vocal. Because they’re the ones that are buying the tickets, they’re the ones supporting the shows. So they have a power also, to demand more female [performers] on the lineup[s].
For sure, Hempress, and respect for that. There was a lot of coverage recently about Sumfest, and there was an article about marijuana – and [this] being the first year that they had various people who support dispensaries attend[ing] Sumfest; there was a symposium they [did] a day or two before the festival [began]. And I wanted to ask you [because] you’ve been an advocate for marijuana for a long time: What are some specific things the government of Jamaica should do to ensure that Rastas – persecuted and discriminated against for so long over herb – can secure a bigger share of the profits now being reaped from marijuana?
I think specifically for the Rastafari community, for example, the licenses that they’re issuing [are] hard to obtain. It’s too expensive. [And] there are too many requirements. Especially for the Rastafari community [that] has been persecuted, even incarcerated. You have Rastaman being abused for using the plant. I feel like if you can lock up these people, you can also expunge their records expediently. You can give them some type of incentives [and accommodations] for all the things they have been going through and [have] endured. They should be given the opportunity to have access to [a] license.
It should be similar in some sense to reparations?
Because [Rasta farmers] can’t compete in the same community with big corporations –
The things that they’re asking for someone to run a farm should be more relaxed when it comes to the Rastafari community. Because we are the ones who have been telling people [for so long] all the wonderful medicines and uses of the [herb].
And now Rastas should be the ones –
We should be the ones to benefit before any other.
Respect. Your [marijuana] advocacy has been grounded in your Rastafari background, and because of this, and because it plays a significant part [in] your music – including your stage name – you’ve often been sought out and asked [for your] opinions about herb. When were you first introduced to smoking marijuana? And was it with your parents or with someone else?
[When] I [was] a little girl my parents used to steam the stalk of the marijuana plant in coconut milk. And [they’d] give us that as tea. [And] [s]ince I [was] a likkle baby I’ve never had any illness. I’ve never had any sickness. I’ve never once had a mental breakdown. And I can’t say this goes for everybody, but I’m telling you about me. My parents being Rasta, a lot of people will judge them, but that’s fi their opinion – they’re entitled to judge whoever they want to – but me, knowing the fullness of what the plant has done for me since I was a little girl . . . . And since I was a little girl, my parents used to give me a draw of a marijuana spliff. Yeah.
Do you remember how old you were?
10. I used to see dem [and say,] “give me draw,” [and] they’d give me a draw. I first burn a spliff for myself, a whole entire spliff, at the age of 17. And I did that with my mother. And she said to me, “You see, you have people who don’t understand the importance of marijuana. And they mix it with all these things because they want to get a false high.” She said, “Never go out and smoke with anyone. If you want to smoke, come and [see] your mother and have [a] reasoning.” That’s how I used to smoke herb, with my mother. She’s the first person that I actually sat and rolled a spliff with. And we burned a spliff and reasoned about His Imperial Majesty.
As a mother, have you given a lot of thought to the way you’re going to introduce your son to smoking herb, and do you have an opinion about how old a child should be –
I don’t smoke herb with my child. My child [doesn’t] even mind that I smoke. I don’t want to give him the impression that because my parents did – [it was] easier for me, [because] we [were] growing up in different times. Different types of herbs being grown now. I don’t want to make [a] mistake and jeopardize my son’s future. Just because of my opinion. I wouldn’t give [herb] to my child. People mentally develop different now. Back in the days it was more of a spiritual thing. The herb was more organic then. There wasn’t so many fertilizers, so many chemicals. You used to get the purest form of the herb. So you got the purest vibration out of the herb. It’s different now. There’s many different strains of herb. Many hybrids. You have to know what you are getting into. And my son, he is here in America. So I don’t want him to get involved in so many different types of herbs. You have so many false, synthetic herbs. You have to be very careful.
You were part of a documentary celebrating and talking about herb with Bushman and Jah9 not too long ago. And in that documentary, Jah9 talked for some time about how once she began smoking herb out of a steam chalice, she began steaming exclusively; she said she won’t smoke herb any other way. How do you prefer to smoke herb, and especially for Americans and non-Rasta readers, can you explain or describe how smoking out of a [steam] chalice compares to a different way of smoking?
This is what I want people to understand: don’t get too caught up in what you a-see artists a-do. Because not everyone is doing it the right way. I see people steaming herbs – and steaming herbs requires you to have either coconut or calabash or a bamboo bottom. You’re supposed to put a certain amount of water in it to engage the herb. [And] there’s a gauge that separates the herb from the coal that is on top. So when they draw the heat from the coal, it opens up the trichomes in the herbs. So you better get to the root of it by finding the elders who can really show you the fullness. Because what I realized with the steam chalice, [in] my opinion, many people are using it incorrectly. Because if you’re steaming the herbs there’s no way you’re supposed to be burning the herb and getting any level of smoke out of it. And the herb is being charred. So people have to be very careful. People just want to say they are steaming the herbs; they have to be doing it the right way for me to take them serious.
If you do [steam] the right way, and you have all the proper equipment, is that the superior way to smoke?
That is one of the most superior ways to smoke.
In your song “Skin Teeth” – a dope riff on Horace Andy’s “See A Man’s Face” – that you sang tonight, about backstabbers, fake people, and fake friends, you sing “steam chalice and post for the Instagram post.”
Which made me think that similar to fake Rastas, who nonetheless grow dreadlocks and claim they are about Rasta and “one love,” that there are some people who will in the same way, adopt the steam chalice and use that image superficially or falsely, to claim a Rasta identity.
Not necessarily. What I was making a reference to is a person and a friend – a friendship. Because [you have] many people who you steam chalice with. You have many people who you sit down and you break bread with. Who you’re driving in your car together with and you’re having all these conversations with. Just [about] regular life and your family. You invest so much time in a friendship. And then at the end of the day it amounts to naught because they have no good intent for you. So that is what we’re talking about. These people who post on Instagram [etcetera] and you call them your “friends”; these are the people you have to be very careful of.
Right. They might be using you.
In [your song] “Rock It Ina Dance” and even more so in “Natty Dread,” your [sizzling] collaboration with Ranking Joe, you sing about wearing “Clark” boots and “dressing well-clean.” Now I’ve heard Protoje and other Rasta artists promote Clarks in their music before and honestly, if I imagined an army of Rastas, they’d all be wearing Clarks. But when, [and] how, [and why] did Clark boots become an essential component of a Rastaman or Rasta-woman’s footwear?
Clark boots [are] not necessarily what Rastas are wearing, but that comes from the dancehall culture. From way back in the days. Man a-toast. Man [have] a nice pants-length, an “Arrow” shirt, and Clarks boots, looking very clean and dapper. So that is where it comes from. It’s a cultural expression of Jamaican people.
Because we like to look clean, we like to look well-nice.
Dressed up for the dancehall?
For the dancehall. Because it was a way of expressing yourself. Showing your own style. You have some who used to wear the diamond socks – so everyone expressed themselves through dem fashion.
And when you come onstage you’re always dressed to the nines.
Well it’s important to me, you know? Because I want to make people know how important Africa is on a daily basis for me. So I like to wear the African garments fi make the black people know, we’re special too. We need to remember our heritage, our culture, where we’re coming from.
Hempress, there was an editorial recently in the Gleaner called “Hair Today.” It [commended] California for passing a new law that bans discrimination against black people who wear their hair naturally in braids, locks, afros, and other hairstyles. The editorial ended [by noting] “from time to time, the issue has surfaced in Jamaica, particularly in schools where administrators have frowned on dreadlocks as a form of improper grooming.” As a Rasta woman and mother living in Jamaica, how widespread or rampant does discrimination against Rastas – at schools, in the workplace, out in public, in the government – still occur in Jamaica?
It still occurs, especially in schools. So for example, I wanted to get my son into a school in Jamaica. And one of the first things I had to ask them was whether they would accept him with [his] locks. Because I’ve taken my son to schools already and they’ve basically denied him; he met all the criteria, but because of his hair [they said] it would have been a problem. And when they gave a reason, it made no sense.
They said they wanted to differentiate the boys from the girls. I said that is so stupid. Because hair shouldn’t be what differentiates anybody. Hair is something natural growing from your body.
Will the school system do anything if you were to go and complain?
When you complain to the Ministry of Education they do nothing. Especially when it’s a private school.
What should the government and good conscientious people of Jamaica do to stamp out discrimination that still lingers against Rastas in Jamaica?
The government needs to put legislation and laws in place that protects Rastafari people and Rastafari culture. That’s something they can do. Also the people after going so long inna Jamaica knowing all the things that Rastafari has [stood] for need to [have] the initiative to speak up. Because when you look, Rasta culture brings all the tourists [to] Jamaica. Rasta culture bleeds out inna reggae music that everybody loves so much. And Rasta culture help[ed] to bring out the culture of dancehall where all these people gravitate to. So in essence, Rastafari people should be protected.