A Conversation With Dr Sonjah Stanley Niaah

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J Capri (top) and Dexta Daps

We have looked back, now let’s look to the future. Who are some of the new artistes or up-and-comers that you think have the potential to make it big?

I’m focused on three persons right now. They are absolutely enticing me in terms of musical output. I’m focused on up and coming J Capri. J Capri’s recordings have been very exciting, on point, very high in terms of dancehall aesthetic appeal and she has maintained in terms of decorum, a good relationship with the media – no scandals, no reports of unprofessional behaviour. I’m very much impressed with her and her management team.

The second person for me would be Dexta Daps, who’s had a few recent hits, 7eleven and so on, very much within the aesthetic of dancehall. He has a look, he has a sound, he is becoming prolific with effective releases and now getting the attention he deserves. He’s definitely one to look out for.

In terms of the reggae genre, I’m very impressed with Chronixx and Protoje as well. Protoje’s new album Ancient Future is really phenomenal. I think it’s better than the last album for sure, and in terms of the first album, 7 Year Itch, that album was a very good debut. Ancient Future is going to take him very far. I’m very much looking out for the work coming from him as much as I look for the works coming from Chronixx. Chronixx has a very significant appeal now and that appeal is not just in Jamaica, it’s international. What he has to do now is just follow up and I know that they are very aware that it’s not about a recording every week, but putting out significant work. The music business people will tell you more about it – you don’t give your music enough shelf life if you’re producing at that rate.

What is your take on the state of women in the Jamaican music industry?

We don’t have that many females in the business and for operating in a male dominated industry, they need to be given more attention. There are so many of them that deserve more attention. I’m very much aware of artistes like Ikaya, very good artist in terms of her work that I’ve heard so far. I know that they get a fight, they talk about it a lot. In fact, that’s one of the things we discussed at the symposium. It’s not only female artistes that get a bad rap in the business, the females in supporting roles – females in the media, are not given the kind of attention. This is a male-dominated industry and that’s the case internationally. Females have to fight twice as hard as the men, three and four and five times as hard as the men. I’m not saying it’s not hard for the men, because some of them are the ones lining up outside the studio waiting to get a break to just step inside a recording booth and do a recording. But some might argue that women have an easy way in because they can sleep their way into the studios, but that’s not the case for many women. The fact is that there is an imbalance in the access that women have to the music business and I don’t know if this is a problem that can be solved in any easy way. I think that women have to distinguish themselves – not just their talent or their look, but their understanding of the business. Females have to become really knowledgeable and clear about how they are going to navigate that business strategically.

Every year, we hear complaints about the reggae Grammy and who wins it, as it’s usually someone with the last name Marley. What can you tell us about how this works?

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is very complex in its operation. Many Jamaicans don’t understand this, even though the information is on their website and readily accessible. We have two challenges here: one is the fact that many of the persons who could actually vote for our reggae recordings are not eligible. You have to be a member of the RIAA to vote, and you have to be a member in good standing. So the few people who remain members in good standing and vote are perhaps not even exposed to the kind of music that’s emerging from Jamaica.

The second is the music: we have had reggae emerging from Jamaica, we have had mento, ska, dancehall, dub. Jamaica has given the world six genres of music over the past half a century and we are not able to distinguish all of these forms in the context of a reggae Grammy. The Grammy is for reggae, so how then do we get dancehall music winning? So there’s a challenge in terms of the name of the award.

There could be a third challenge, because not only is the music emerging from Jamaica varied, what we have therefore is a lack of knowledge in terms of how the RIAA works and no equivalent apparatus here that is credible industry-wide in terms of recognition for Jamaican music. One might say that we don’t respect our music enough, so why should the RIAA be the thing we depend on for validation?

One of the questions that I had for the 2015 Grammys was why wasn’t Tarrus Riley’s album in the lineup? It’s a wicked album. I asked and I didn’t get a response. I don’t know if it was released too late, or if it wasn’t submitted, because you have to submit your music to be considered. What has happened is that the Marleys, with their empire, have a longstanding relationship with the international music industry, not the Jamaican music business, so they understand what is required to move and to be strategic in their impact on that industry.