Protoje’s Penetrating Perspective (The Interview)
As much or more than any album in recent memory, in any genre, reggae star Protoje’s “A Matter of Time” – released at the end of June to universal critical acclaim – provides piercing perspective on the pressing issues of our time including political corruption, the mistreatment of women, economic inequality, discrimination, and more.
Pulsating with dope beats, mad flows, and tough lyrics, it offers listeners the full package, showcasing the talents of a refreshingly friendly, down-to-earth phenom who is at the forefront of the young, talented artists redefining the parameters of “what reggae music sounds like” in the twenty-first century.
“PROTOJE’S PENETRATING PERSPECTIVE (THE INTERVIEW)”
I recently interviewed Protoje before he unleashed an unforgettable, uninhibited performance at Los Angeles’s famed Dub Club. The many topics we discussed included: specifics about the lyrics of several of the songs on his new album, the official videos for the songs “Blood Money” and “No Guarantee,” how he copes with the grind of touring, marijuana, the mistreatment of women, politics in Jamaica and the United States, Rastafari, the “American pop star,” and more. What follows is a transcription of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.
Congratulations on the release of your dynamite new album, “A Matter of Time.” I’ve had it on repeat since it was released. Now, before embarking on this [swing] through California you’re on, you spent six weeks promoting the album and touring Europe. Pictures of your [European] performances show massive, sell-out crowds. Do you and your band prepare and perform any differently when you’re playing to massive crowds like you were in Europe as compared to a more intimate setting like [tonight at] the Dub Club?
It’s a good question. If it’s a club show, we have more freedom, we have more time. There’s no set clock on you. You can say: “Let’s play this song, or yo, yo, let’s try something else.” And [with] the festival, it’s a bit more structured. Because we have a set time and we’re trying to do certain things. And [with] the festival crowd, you’re playing to many of your fans, but [also] many people who don’t know you. And you’re trying to get them [to] know you well. At the club you’re playing to everybody who already mostly knows you. So you can be a bit more chill and try other stuff. But I would say we prepare pretty much the same; we just freestyle a bit [more] in the club setting.
People unfamiliar with the music business often assume touring is all glamour and glitz. They don’t appreciate the grind. You have a young daughter; what sustains you on the road when you’re missing her and dealing with the struggles of constantly being on the go?
Just staying in the [present]. I don’t really know what day it is or what I have to do tomorrow. I stay in the moment, really. So, like if you ask me, “Where are you playing two weeks from now?,” I won’t know. And I think it’s overwhelming. I’ve only been to Jamaica for one day in almost four months.
I saw when you tweeted that; you said you were only there for twenty-four hours!
I went for twenty-four hours and I left.
How can you even pack a bag for that – that’s crazy!
Maybe because of my former career as a criminal defense attorney, one thing I’ve always been curious about when Rastafarian reggae stars and musicians tour internationally, is: What precautions do you take as it concerns marijuana, seeing that, even in 2018, it still remains illegal in several countries and in some states in the United States?
Don’t have more than you can eat.
(Laughing) Fair enough. But that can’t be so because I’ve seen you with –
(Laughing) Ok, I won’t say more [about that]. But seriously: does someone touring with the band double-check the [marijuana] laws [and regulations] when you travel from one place to the next?
Yeah, yeah. Especially in America. Because it’s funny, it’ll be legal here [in California], but then you cross state lines where it’s not legal; so we kinda have an idea. You don’t want to be in Utah on tour with a lot of marijuana. So we always try to keep it to a small amount. And then in Europe, we don’t carry it when we travel. We go to a place and we get it, and we move on. You have to be safe, especially being a reggae artist. Being on a “fragile” passport, you know?
In all the touring you’ve done promoting your four albums over the years, have you or any of your band members had any run-ins [with authorities], confrontations, or close calls you can talk about?
Oh, for sure! We’ve been almost to the jailhouse, you know (laughing)? People forgetting a stash in their pants, different stuff like that, it’s crazy –
But it hasn’t hit the news?
No, we’ve never really got to that point. We’ve just been blessed. So we always try to be careful. People are experienced, so they know kinda how to cover themselves.
I wanted to ask about this because one of my favorite songs from off of your first album [“Seven Year Itch”] is “Wrong Side of the Law.” It’s a very prescient, forward-looking track about you being booked over a hundred-dollar bag of weed and a chalice.
In an interview (on the BBC with David Rodigan) you said that that experience really happened to you?
Knowing your mom [Ms. Lorna Bennett] is not only a famous Jamaican singer herself but also an attorney, one of the first questions I had about this is: was [your mom] angrier with you or the law when this happened?
Well the fullness of the story is that it was me and my tour manager, [Jamaican author] Dutty [Bookman]. So he was the one that they booked. It was his bag. So when he was getting arrested and we were in the station he had his notepad with him. And he always writes. So I was like, “jot [down] everything you see or hear.” Everything they said, the guy’s badge number, everything they said he was writing little notes of it. And then he wrote a story about it, like a little short story.
Is it published?
It was never published, but we have it. I’ll [let] you see it. And the story starts when he [writes]: “Today Dutty found himself on the wrong side of the law by the beast who manifested itself in the form of the police.” And that was the first line of the story. I heard that, and then wrote the song.
Was [Dutty] ever able to get that charge cleared up – cleared from the official records in Jamaica?
You’ll have to ask him, but I think he sorted it [out]. I don’t think they gave him a criminal record, but he did ask for his chalice back. The [police officer] was like, “you want back your ganja?” And [Dutty] was like, “no, the ganja you can keep, but I would like my chalice back.”
Those are the lyrics in the song!
Those are some of the lyrics. (Laughing)
Writer Stephen Cooper with Protoje (Photo: Stephen Cooper)
An article in the Gleaner in January titled “Weed sentence apology for artistes needed” called for the Jamaican government to take some action, some measure of reparations for artists like Bunny Wailer, Toots Hibbert, and so many other old school artists who actually spent time in prison – [and] had their careers and lives [upended and] interrupted – over herb charges. What are your thoughts about this? And as marijuana’s legal status continues to loosen in Jamaica, do you believe the government has an obligation, not only to issue apologies – to artists and other Jamaican citizens – but also to make sure all criminal records associated with marijuana are cleared up (an issue we’re also [contending with] here in the United States)?
It’s crazy that in 2018 we’re still talking about clearing up criminal records of marijuana. It’s absurd. We should be way past that. There’s way more serious things we need to be concerned with than people being arrested and having criminal records for small amounts [of herb]; being caught with a spliff in an airport terminal because it’s in your pocket. It’s crazy.
I want to move off of marijuana, but [before I do], I want to ask you one last important question about it. On August 20th, Rolling Stone published an article asking, “Now decriminalized, could Jamaica become destination for legal weed?” And just three days ago, the Gleaner announced: “Mobay gets its first medicinal herb house.” The Rolling Stone piece observed, however, that “due to financial incapacity, most Rastas aren’t in a position to fully participate in Jamaica’s budding cannabis industry.” As marijuana becomes more mainstream and accepted, does the Jamaican government have an obligation – based on [its history of] oppression [and subjugation] of Rastas [over herb] – to do something to make sure that [it is Rastas who] are first in line to benefit economically?
In an ideal world, [they] will. But bro, at the end of the day, we’re living in a capitalist era. And capitalists will always win; the bigger money will always win right now and who comes and gives the government money will always win right now. Things are never done on the basis of people and what is morally correct. Things are mostly done on who brings the most money in. So, it’s a capitalist world. What else is going to happen apart from some people with enough money [who] can open up some real luxurious cannabis shops and whatever? And people can come and flock. And the prices will be hopping. The farmer in Saint Elizabeth and the farmer in Negril, they won’t be getting the same opportunity that these other people will get.
Is one small step that they could take, giving [marijuana cultivation] licenses to Rastas for free?
They could do something like that, but what constitutes a Rasta? Someone who has locks on their head? How do you decide that? I mean you can’t really decide that. You could make it easier for these people to get their license, to get licensed to distribute. You know, to set up in their towns. But to get a commercial license for a small farmer is very hard. So they can’t even enter the game.
Turning back to “A Matter of Time,” as much or more than any album in recent memory, this new album [of yours] boldly and brashly tackles economic inequality, political corruption, the mistreatment of women, and more. Respect! In the song “Camera Show” you rhyme about men abusing their power to manipulate and intimidate women. And recently, on Twitter, you wrote that catcalls, threats of violence, and other verbal abuse of women and even young teens in Jamaica, is “embarrassing and disgraceful.” Do you think that because you’re surrounded by women like your sister, who tours with you, your mom [who is part of your management team], your personal assistant Jamila [Pinto], and being friends with powerful and conscious women like Jah9, in addition to [having] a young baby daughter, has given you more of a sensitivity to want to sing about those kinds of things?
I just grew up with women. I grew up with my mom and my sister and my grandma, mostly. Two artists I signed [to my production company], Lila [Ike] and Sevana are women as well. It’s hard. It’s hard for women in the world. Man is an awful beast. You know what I mean?
Is the problem accentuated in Jamaica for any reason?
I’m from there, you know? Obviously I can – I see it more – but I’m sure it’s global, I don’t think the Jamaican man is any worse –
Oh, in the United States, for sure –
But I just think in Jamaica, the culture is different where a thirteen-year-old girl is walking on the road, a man is [whistling] at her, and you kinda of put it in her head that she’s like just for physical. It’s just a total breakdown. And then you know women in Jamaica in the workplace, it’s not like America where you say something [improper] to a woman [and] you can get into trouble. In Jamaica, there’s none of that going on. [Instead it’s,] “Yo baby, you look good. You sexy. Yo, wah gwaan?” You can get away with a lot of that stuff in Jamaica.
Jamaican scholar Ennis Barrington Edmonds, who has written several books on Rastafari, has observed: “In Jamaica, Rastafarian men are more likely than the average male to be actively involved in nurturing children.” Do you think that this is true based on your own observations and experience?
At the end of the day, Rasta is the consciousness of Africa in the western world. I mean there’s so much stuff that Rastafari has said and been ridiculed for. When I was a little youth growing up and Rastaman talked about eating vegan and ital, people laughed. And dem scorn[ed]. And now vegan is a global thing, so much millions to be made off of it. When Rasta was saying herb is healing and has lots of medicinal purposes, people laugh dem to scorn (“Oh dutty-head Rasta, dem no know about nothing.”). There’s so much stuff that has been touched with the consciousness that Rastafari has – I have learned so much. And it’s [the] same thing when you hear about “community living” and “it takes a village to raise a child.” And all these things. Of course, you know, it’s set up that way. But I definitely think there’s some truth to that.
On [your song] “Blood Money” which became a world-famous hit almost as soon as you released it last year – and which is included as the second track on your new album – you sing very frankly about political corruption in Jamaica. Ironically, at a reception celebrating the power of music and culture in July, Jamaica’s prime minister said: “[B]ecause Jamaica is going through a particularly difficult time with crime and violence,” he is “calling up the cultural icons and ambassadors who use music as a means of edifying the people, a means uplifting the people – that we need to do more with our music.” What is your reaction to the prime minister’s call for Jamaican artists to do more with music to help curb crime and violence?
It’s a good initiative, but at the end of the day you can’t ask artists who are not about a certain life to sing about a certain life. If you don’t sit down in the day and think about [or] have social awareness, how are you going to sing about it? It won’t be real. And not every artist is on that. You can’t ask people that’s not on that to be on that. And then, at the same time, the government can be doing way more for local music. And local artists. If I go home and I have my CDs, they’re charging me duty. And I am an ambassador for Jamaica. And I am not treated as such a lot of times. So when [the government] says, “Oh, you need to do this, you need to do that,” what are you doing to help us to do these things? What places are you giving us to perform? Where are you giving us free venues to perform? Where [are] you giving us [assistance] to bring down our keyboards, our equipment, and all of these things? What are you doing to help us to help you? So I just sing about what I sing about because I’m inspired to do that. But you can’t ask artists that are not about that life to be about that life.
In an article for Bashy magazine, Sharine Taylor wrote that several months after “Blood Money” was released, “the song was co-opted to assist the political platform of the PNP during one of their conferences.” Now throughout Jamaican history both the main political parties in Jamaica, the JLP and the PNP, have, at various times, sought to exploit Rastafari and reggae music for political gain. But does it anger you to think that some of the very same corrupt politicians you refer to in “Blood Money” might be riding around in their cars in Jamaica pumping the song without shame? Even using your music for political gain?
You know what? I’m just in reality. I know that if I put a song out there, it’s no longer my song. The song belongs to anybody after that. They can do whatever they want to do with it. I can fuss or I can do whatever, it doesn’t make no difference. You know we all – there’s nobody perfect, there’s nobody without sin. There’s nobody that I think without wrong. Different people have different ways that they have done people wrong. I have done people wrong and I’m sure you have. I’m sure everybody has. It’s hard to judge people. And being a politician is hard. It’s a selfless job that you do and you never get any credit for it, you understand? So I don’t want to make it seem it is easy to jump on politicians. That song “Blood Money” was talking about politicians, but it was also talking about just everyday people because it was talking about me. Because I drive around Kingston and I see the pain. And I see the suffering. I see all these things happening. And then I drive all the way to my house, press my automatic gate, drive in, go in, go and chill with my family. And then I go back to my regular life. It will hurt me for awhile, and I sing about it, and we try to do stuff, but we all go along with our lives, right? For the most part. So the key line [in] that song is: “if what you see no really faze you, then you are the problem that we face, too.” It was more [directed] to the people that see all of this happening and then just continue with their lives.
Thank you. Now when you [were interviewed by] Beats 1 [and] Hot 97 [host] Ebro Darden this summer, you said that the first song on the new album, “Flames” with Chronixx, is about “put[ting] the whole establishment on fire.” Now I know Rastas like yourself have an inherent distrust of politics – often referring to it as “politricks.” [Nevertheless,] I wondered if you personally hold out hope that there may yet come a “fresh,” young politician, [one] who could properly lead Jamaica, and help the people have better lives.
I just think absolute power corrupts people. So even people with good intentions when you go and get that power, it’s really difficult.
There’s a line in your song “Flames” where you sing: “But, where the one dem who nah compromise/Start talk truth so dem waan come fi I.” To me that was a line suggesting you were hopeful in a way that there could be someone who could come like that.
I mean there’s a guy now called Floyd Green.
Yes! He’s a minister in St. Elizabeth [in Jamaica]?
Yeah. We went to high school together. From he was ten years old I knew he was special. I wasn’t doing great in class. And he came to me, and pulled me to the side, and told me that I have better potential than this. And I need to stay with the right crowd. And I need to focus more. I need to work to my potential because I can be great. And he was like eleven years old. I’m like: who does that at that age? And I told him at like about fifteen years old, “you’re going to be prime minister of Jamaica one day.” And he said, “I’ll never do politics.” And when he became a minister, I said, “Yo, remember I told you you’re going to be prime minister?” And he laughed. But he’s a really genuine person. He really cares about people; that I know for sure. And he’s a charismatic leader. He reads a lot. He reads a lot about all types [of things]. So he knows all about Haile Selassie and he really studies him, in terms of being a leader. I really have hope he will be good for Jamaica. And I hope he maintains his honesty and compassion for people.
Thank you for explaining your friendship with him because I’m sure a lot of people wanted to know [more about that]. Because he’s very supportive of you on Twitter –
He’s very supportive.
I see that. People see that. So, thank you [for explaining]. One last question about politics. On the tune “Camera Show,” you take a pretty explicit shot at President Donald Trump – both about his use of Twitter and his campaign slogan (“Make America Great Again.”). Did anyone involved in producing the album ever try and dissuade you from including this criticism of Trump, because it could narrow the audience who might buy the record?
No. Nobody really. At the end of the day bro, if I lose somebody who doesn’t want to listen to my music because I said something about Trump, then I mean, like, good riddance. (Laughing).
(Laughing) As Trump continues to take more and more actions that threaten harm to the environment and the world’s population [generally], do you believe reggae artists, and all artists, have an obligation to use their platform and their lyrics to – just like you did in [“Camera Show”] – explicitly call him out?
No. I don’t feel any artist has any obligation to anything; I just never will feel that. You can’t tell somebody what they should sing about or be about. Just as I am free to say something about it, other artists are free to not say something about it. I just feel like [artists] should sing about what they’re inspired to sing about. And I hope that many [artists] would be interested in what’s happening with the world, but I can’t force an artist to sing about it. And Trump is – America is a circus now, bro. Straight up. It’s a circus out here. It’s crazy: Somebody trolled their way to the presidency. He’s a troll. He’s an internet troll. That’s what he is. And he trolled his way into [the presidency]. Which makes me, again, realize what America is. Because he’s just a product of society. If society wasn’t a certain way, they would never vote for someone like that in power.
I can’t disagree with you. Now, on Soundchat Radio TV with Irish and Chin in April, you said, “America’s where most of my work needs to be done mostly,” especially on the East Coast. And in July, you told Rolling Stone, “the US market is very tricky.” What’s “tricky” about America for you in terms of the market?
It’s like 50 different countries. You can be popping in Florida and nobody knows about you in Atlanta. It’s 50 different countries.
Do you focus mostly on the coasts? I hate to say it, but there are a lot of mostly Trump supporters in the middle of the country. Do you give up on the middle [of the country]?
I do a lot of times. I’m supposed to do a tour there in January and I turned it down. I was like I don’t want to be right now in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and those places. I just don’t want to be riding around; twelve black men riding around in a bus in Alabama. I’m not about that life, you know what I mean? And then, I’m not trying to spend the next three years playing 150 [capacity] venues, 200 capacity venues somewhere, trying to break into middle America. So we go where – when you have limited resources you have to focus it on where [you] can benefit. And try to grow from there. So California, west coast, New York where there’s a diaspora, the Tri-State area, and [on] that side [of the country], come down to Florida, is what we really have as Jamaican artists. We try to focus on that and try to spread it out from there. America is tricky because of what the youth listen to. How do I reach an eighteen-year-old kid from South Florida? Or from Omaha[, Nebraska]? How do I reach those people? It’s very hard. You’re not going to hear me on mainstream radio. You’re not going to hear or see me on TV. How do they get [exposed to my] music if they’re not even reggae fans? So, it’s just very difficult to break into America.
About three weeks ago you wrote on Twitter: “I’ve never seen a more ungrateful set of people than the American pop star.” What or who were you reacting to when you let that [tweet] fly?
I just think the American pop star – the whole thing about being a pop star is crazy. So you obsess about being number one, and you’re talking about, “I’m number one. I’m number one. I’m number one.” And then, you can’t be number one forever. And when someone comes and replaces you as number one, you start to complain and whine, “Oh, I am this and I am that.” Then you go on Twitter or you go online and you’re professing how you’re the shit, and “I am this and I am that.” And then three months later you are on [the] Ellen [DeGeneres] show talking about you’re depressed, and you’re taking antidepressants and all that. Where was that depression when you were talking all your shit? Know what I mean? Depression is not something to make light of, or fun of. And I feel like a lot of celebrities [will say things like]: “Oh, I’m depressed. I sold 180,000 my first week instead of 500,000. Oh, oh, the agony. Oh, the defeat.” And for me, I’m like, bro, I just think you need to be more grateful in life. I don’t sell anywhere near that, and I bet you I’m happier with my little piece of the pie than a lot of these people with their great piece. And I just think that being obsessed with being number one is just a sure way to bring depression. Because you can’t be number one forever.
In recent interviews you’ve discussed the increased importance that numbers are playing in the music business: number of downloads, streams, [social media] followers, so forth and so on. In reading what you’ve said about this, you seemed to be both frustrated but also resigned that this is just the way it is now. And as an artist, producer, and businessman, you have no choice but to be very knowledgeable and conversant about the numbers. Is this accurate?
I mean, it’s a numbers game. So you try to do your best to reach as many people as you can reach. We don’t have any big budgets. We don’t have any big labels supporting us. We don’t have any of that. So you just go and do what you can.
Part of the reason I [wondered if you were frustrated] by this is because in going back and listening to some of your older songs, one I really like is called “Music from My Heart.” [In that song,] you sing: “Making music from my heart, not music for the charts. No, I won’t get caught up in all of the things dem woulda start, to stray I from I path.”
But I see that there’s a certain give and take –
No, I don’t worry what the numbers are. I’m just aware of what they are. I’m grateful for whatever I get. It don’t matter. Bro, I am from Santa Cruz, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. There ain’t nobody from there that is doing what I do or what I have accomplished. I’m really not supposed to be touring the world playing music, bro. There’s no budget. It’s a miracle that I’ve got to where I [am]. I have no time to worry about, “Oh, I could be bigger or whatever.” I don’t have to get up in the morning and go to work. Which I never wanted to be in an office. I can do what I love. And I can provide for my family: immediate and not immediate. Immediate and extended. And that alone – I don’t have time to be concerned, “Oh, my numbers could be better.” I just know what they are, because I have to know what my value is in the music world. And what I’m able to do and how I can analyze where my numbers are and where I [need] to focus. And so, from an analytical standpoint, I’m aware, but from an overall standpoint, bro, I’m super-blessed.
On the [title-track of your new album] “A Matter of Time,” you sing: “Even if you put me with the crabs inna the barrel, shell the whole a dem and then step out a drink me sorrel.” I looked up “sorrel” and [learned] it’s a traditional Jamaican punch. So I just wanted to ask you about sorrel, is that a drink that people drink on the regular in Jamaica –
Sorrel is a drink in Jamaica that people drink at Christmas time. They put rum in it and it’s like a plant and you juice it and you get rum. It’s very indigenous to Jamaica. So I just put it in there; Jamaicans think it’s really dope.
Is it only really drunk at that time of year?
I think sorrel grows in a season, [but] I think you can get it year-round. But when it really blows up [in Jamaica] is at Christmas time. Especially in December. People are always drinking sorrel at family functions super-late. It’s quite crazy.
One of my favorite [lyrics on your song “A Matter of Time”] is: “Middle of Mexico at midnight, on account of all the things that I did right.” And I just imagined you writing that lyric late at night [in Mexico]. Is that actually what happened? You were at some spot in Mexico, and that’s how that lyric evolved?
The lyric didn’t come when I was in Mexico. I’d left Mexico and I was thinking about being in Mexico when I wrote it. I know it’s cool[er] if I said I was in Mexico, but I’m being honest.
In your video for the song “Blood Money” which is mesmerizing and a must-watch, at one point in the video you are singing in what looks like a graveyard of tires. It’s so wicked!
Where is that location in Jamaica?
Bro, that is the Riverton dump in Jamaica. That’s possibly the vilest smelling place in Jamaica. It’s where all the garbage goes. And we got a permit – we had to go through so much shit to get a permit to film there. Because they don’t allow people to film there. [But] we had to go and film there. Just imagine a country’s entire garbage pile. Just imagine the smell of that. And that’s where I was. In the middle of that. Mosquitos! They had to spray us and give us stuff [so] we wouldn’t get infected.
But it was totally worth it because the visual is fantastic.
Well, yeah, but then YouTube [suppresses] that video because of some sort of partial nudity in it, and so they hold down the views. But that was my favorite shot [in the video] when [you see] the overview [of the Riverton dump]. And there were all these garbage trucks. I even jumped on the back of one while [we] were filming. Bro, I almost threw up. It was crazy.
You just released a stunningly beautiful video for “No Guarantee,” your smash hit on the new album with Chronixx. Can you talk about what vibe you were projecting with the visuals in that video?
The last three videos I’ve done – for [my songs] “No Guarantee,” “Bout Noon,” and “Blood Money” – it’s just showing Jamaica through real people. So I didn’t want to be all up in the video all the time. So we went out to Port Royal and shot that. Port Royal was once the most famous city in the western hemisphere. Have you ever seen [the movie] Pirates of the Caribbean?
So that’s where it’s set, around Port Royal. That was the hub of the western world. It has major history. And I wanted to show [the] people [there]. They’re like cut-off from Jamaica. Port Royal is at an end [of Jamaica] past the airport. It’s almost different than Jamaica. So we just shot out there the people living their normal lives. [We wanted to show] that nothing is guaranteed in life. So have fun [and] love the people around you.