Rising contemporary Jamaican reggae star Protoje, born Oje Ken Ollivierre, first gained notice with his hip hop-influenced mixtape Lyrical Overdose released in 2005. Born into a musical family, he started writing music at a young age. His debut album, entitled The Seven Year Itch (2011), was a massive hit in Jamaica and around the globe. One of Jamaica’s conscious musicians, Protoje is known for his critical and provocative songs. He is also one of the artists involved in Reggae Revival, a cultural movement of rising consciousness aimed at employing artistic expressions to influence the young generation towards positivity, Afrocentric spirituality and self-determination all over the world. His songs — Kingston Be Wise, Rasta Love, Dread, Who Knows, Criminal and the recent hit Blood Money — have all received critical acclaim. He has released the albums The 8 Year Affair (2013), Ancient Future (2015) and Royalty Free (2016) consecutively. Protoje, who was recently in Addis Ababa, had an unforgettable show last week at Laphto Mall, his first ever in Africa. Prior to the concert, he held a press conference at which Meheret-Selassie Mokonnen of The Reporter was in attendance, and she posed some of the questions.
Question: How does it feel to be in Ethiopia, a country that is the symbol of black emancipation and well sung about in reggae music?
Protoje: It is my pleasure to be here. It is my first time in Africa, it is very fitting that it is in Ethiopia. I have always dreamed of coming here. I have always thought about coming here to visit. And I always told myself the first time I wanted to come here I wanted to come and play music. So I am very grateful. I have been blessed to be able to come here and play music in Ethiopia for the first time in Africa. I am very excited to be here — the only black nation in the world that has never been colonized. The history is so rich here. Coming here is almost surreal. I am eager to see the land. Not just Addis but the whole place. I want to drive around to see what is going on.
The main thing I want to do while I am here in terms of making a connection is just listen to the people. You can’t make a connection by acting like you know anything. So I erase everything I think I know about Ethiopia before I came here. I want to make a connection with the people that brought me here, set up something that we can, and have this channel moving forward. Lots of artists in Jamaica want to come here and we have to find a way to do this. I would love for us to have two or three days here with music and workshops. We have to keep the reasoning as we go back and raise the consciousness of Africa to people in the West. Because people in the West have a somewhat distorted image of Africa. That is not by accident either; it is by design. Obviously, there is a lot of poverty here; there is a lot of poverty everywhere. It is always going to be a small amount who have a lot and many who doesn’t. That is universal. How little so many have is demoralizing. It breaks your spirit because no matter how much you are trying to do, people are suffering. On the drive here from the airport, I could see so many people sleeping rough, suffering. Nobody deserves to live like that.
Has growing up in a musical family contributed to your passion in music?
Yes, my mom [Lorna Bennett] is a brilliant reggae singer. She had a massive hit in the 70s called “Breakfast in Bed”. My dad [Michael Ollivierre] is a calypso singer from St. Vincent. I grew around music but everybody in Jamaica has some connection to music.
You started writing music at a young age and you once said people were not ready for your music. How do you describe that early stage of your career?
It was tough. I tried to write music and I would bring something to the radio but they wouldn’t play them because they would say, ‘it wasn’t ready’. But, these are the same songs that people think are great now. I think it wasn’t the right time until people could understand what I was trying to do. It is a struggle and you learn to be patient. I am glad it happened at this time.
How do you see your musical journey now, especially in terms of the message you want to spread?
It grows. It changes. Every album changes. In every album I see and think about things differently. It isn’t constant and it evolves. But through it all, I try to evoke understanding and appreciation for other people; speak about love, care, truth and rights.
Is there a moment that you see as the pinnacle of your musical career?
I want to do much more. I can’t say I have one moment. I take the moment, I accept it for what it is and I move on to the next one. But, still very grateful to where I am at, life, being here, being able to do music as my life, see the world and constantly try to achieve more.
Can you tell us about the impact of Reggae Revival, which is a cultural movement in Jamaica aimed at stimulating consciousness through various art forms, including music?
Reggae music has always been going on, being part of Jamaican culture. It goes through stages where every decade a new set up artists come out and bring the vibe. 70s with Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear and the list goes on. 80s with Black Uhuru, 90s with Sizzla and 2000s with different artists. In Reggae Revival myself, Chronixx and others that are coming out, the whole revival thing came on as a reemergence of the craft with different flavor. We approach things differently in our music, in our delivery and type of beats that we make. The name Reggae Revival came to imply that reggae music is being revived again and it is being given to our generation.
This is not only in the music but the whole art form. The visual art, dance, culinary and everything is what it basically encompasses. In the movement, we are trying to raise individual consciousness of our generation and bring them the truths and rights. The lyrics is in a way that is cool to them. Because right now it has to be fresh and cool for 15 or 16 year olds to like how it sounds. After that they get to listen to the lyrics and get what is being said.
How does the Jamaican youth relate to this music? Is it the same as the rest of the world seeing reggae as a genre that speaks against injustice? We can take your latest single Blood Money as an example.
It is the same feeling, but not as big anymore. But, it’s growing with artists like myself, Chronixx, etc. We are doing our best to make the music connect with the young people and they are liking it. They are responding very well to it. I am sure you can relate to Blood Money in Ethiopia too. The song is universal but I used Jamaica as a metaphor for the world. It is about people that are not doing so great things to get to where they are and they are looked at as really good people in the society.
How do you compare the reggae of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs to contemporary artists such as yourself, Chronixx, Jah9 in terms of music style and content?
The artists you mentioned are the gold standard of the music that we try to emulate. The music is very high caliber. Our music is different now. I grew up a lot in hip-hop music even more than reggae. You can hear it in the delivery. It is different in form. It is more fast-paced. The words, the rhythm and patterns don’t sound like Bob Marley. But that’s good because I don’t want to sound like Bob Marley. I don’t want to sound like I am in the 1970s. I have to relate to my generation. I know Chronixx grew up a lot on dance hall music. When you listen to his music, it is very dance hall-like. Obviously, he is super-talented so he can sing and do what he wants to do. The music is different but it has the same spirit. But at the same time it is a different world, I don’t want to sing about the same struggle Bob Marley sang about. There are new things happening even though music by artists like Bob Marley is timeless.
The Ethiopian reggae scene is also emerging with a number of reggae musicians, including the late Eyob Mekonnen and a lot of reggae fans, too. How familiar are you with the development of the genre here?
I am not familiar with the Ethiopian reggae scene. I hope to learn about it before I leave. I would love to hear what the scene is like and what it sounds like. I hope I can get to see the music upfront. Our band is made up of a brilliant set of musicians. Danny Bassie, our bass player is one of the biggest living bass players in reggae music. We play the music at a high intensity and high energy. We play in a very indignant, very aggressive but still loving way. I hope we can make some connection with artists here, see what the scene is like to help develop it. Because reggae music doesn’t belong to Jamaica only. It originated out of African consciousness. Without His Imperial Majesty Haile-Selassie I, there would be no reggae music of sorts. It come full circle that reggae is picking up here. Because it is the teaching of His Majesty that is the basic foundation of reggae music and culture. I am adjusting to connect with local artists and Ethiopian music scene. Not just that but I love Ethiopian music. Not just Ethiopian reggae but the music that comes out of here. I really can’t say this or that artist.
My record label in the UK does put out a lot of stuff and I always have samples to listen to. The beat makes you want to dance. Maybe I can sample some vinyl from here and use it in my music. I am a huge track and field fan. My favorite woman athlete of all time – and I am from Jamaica we have had many great athletes – is Tirunesh Dibaba. Every time she ran, I would always have to watch. I would love to meet her. My goal, apart from music, was to be a long-distance runner. I used to train and I used to want to run the 5,000 because it is so mental. Everybody in Jamaica wants to be a sprinter like Usain Bolt. I wanted to race because it is mentally challenging, but I wasn’t that great so I decided to do music instead. And there are Haile Gebreselassie, Kenenisa Bekele and Messeret Defar.
A lot of reggae musicians invoke Ethiopia as being the Promised Land. However, there is still a gap when it comes to them coming here for a musical performance or a visit. What’s your take on this?
A lot of people say you never come here to perform. I get negative feedback about not coming to Africa and perform. It is hard. I travel with 14 people. Eight of us on stage, two engineers, videographer, assistant, merchandize and tour managers. It is not easy to take up myself and go someplace to give the show I want. So we need good promoters. There are a lot of promoters who say they are promoters but are not good promoters. We have to be careful about that. We will say we will be coming and it doesn’t work out. And it looks like we don’t want to come. I can speak for myself, but I know there are other artists excited to come to Africa and play music. I don’t know anything about Addis Ababa or Nairobi so I can’t keep a show here. When people say why don’t you come and do a show, that question should be directed to the promoters in the area and the musical community. I salute the team [EML Events] who brought us here because it has been a dream of mine to come here and play music. I am really happy.
They have been very professional. I am happy I am here in July, the rainy season to play music. Not only play music but to feel, to interact, to make a connection so that Jah willing, I can be here once a year, every year. And not only in Addis, but somewhere else. Maybe I can go to Kenya, Gambia, Ghana, South Africa, the whole continent to spread the music. Because the music that we make is really, essentially for people here. Jamaican music is African music. We are an extension of Africa. For me, it is one and the same.
What keeps you attached to the country as you are seen wearing clothes with the Ethiopian flag in most of your videos?
Jamaicans are obsessed with Ethiopia for years and years. It all comes from the king. Without Haile-Selassie, there could never be any Jamaican wearing the Ethiopian flag. I guarantee you that. Without Haile-Selassie, there would never be any awareness of Ethiopia. I don’t know the inner workings of what happens in this country so I can’t come here and be like oh, this is what’s happening. I know the history because I read a lot about the period from the 30s and 70s. Obviously, there is a disconnection because I thought I would see a big mural of His Majesty when I came here.
I came here with the same reference that we have in Jamaica. But from my understanding, it’s not like that here. It is a whole different interpretation of history than I know. I am not from here so I don’t understand certain things. But Jamaicans are obsessed with the culture. You have no idea the strength, the confidence, the impact Haile-Selassie had on Jamaica and black people all over the world. It has been overwhelming. People think the Ethiopian flag is the Jamaican flag. A lot of people don’t know the Jamaican flag is black, green and gold because you never see Bob Marley wear a Jamaican flag.
Last week, the Ethiopian government announced plans to issue IDs for the Rastafarian community who has been living in Ethiopia for generations. What is your reflection on that?
That is a great thing and a good opportunity. At the same time, just because they are Rasta, they can’t just be coming here to be a burden on the society. People have to come here with a vision, a plan, knowledge and skills to bring to the country to help uplift it. And not come here and expect a free ride. It is very important that anybody who is making the move to get back here has an idea of what they want to do when they are here. Come and feel the place, research, do some due process and find out what is going on. Find out what is needed and what they can help with.
What inspires you as an artist?
I grew up on Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and all those brilliant artists. Their music seems fearless to me. There is no fear in singing the truth. The people who inspire me are His Majesty, Marcus Garvey and one of my biggest influences of all time is Walter Rodney. These people say what needs to be said. In reggae music, people are a bit shaken up about what you are saying. There is so much stuff going on in the world. There is so much injustice. I need to put out a song out there. I am not telling you what’s wrong and what’s right. What you should do or what you can’t do. I am giving you my observation and my feelings. You as a listener should know you always have a choice. There is always going to be two options or more. For me, I feel like I have to be true to myself. I try to do the best that I can within my interpretation of what’s happening in the world.
How do you explain the prevalence of conscious music in today’s society?
For me, conscious music is music that is making you aware of what’s happening. Even if you don’t like what’s happening. You can’t expect the artist to do all the work for you. You have to hear the music and do the work yourself. Hear the music, find the truth within the music and be critical in your thinking. Not because Protoje says it means it is the truth and it is the way. You have to analyze every piece of information coming to you. I would never want somebody to say oh Protoje everything you say I believe and I do. Conscious music is music that gives the listener the options and knowledge for them to make decisions.
What is the role of the artist and the audience with regard to the mainstream media silencing such conscious music?
Mainstream got very scared when Bob Marley was the biggest artist in the world. They don’t want no black Rasta man from Jamaica to be the biggest and most influential artist. They are not going to make that happen again. Because they don’t want positive message. They want to dumb down the people. If you dumb down the people, then you can fill them with all sorts of doctrine. If the American public wasn’t dumbed down, Donald Trump would never be president. If you continue to dumb down the people so that they care to know about what type of shoes a celebrity is wearing over what is happening globally in the world, then you will be able to get away with anything because they will believe anything you give them. Any slogan you give them they will think is true because there is no critical thinking. But for the artist and the people now, we have the Internet as a tool. If everybody shares Protoje, Chronixx, Jah9 music, then it cannot be stopped. The musician has to make their work available. It is between us, as artists to be creative using the Internet and tools that we have and then the people who love music and culture to do their work too. We need the support of everyone to get out there and we work together to raise consciousness.
Reggae music is a reflection of black experience and musicians from around the world such as one South Africa’s Lucky Dube used it as an instrument of awakening. How do you see the contemporary black struggle if you are following what’s happening in the US?
We are in Jamaica so we know what is happening in America. Jamaica is very Americanized. It is a circus right now in America. There is no other way for me to read it. I mean Donald Trump is the president of the US, it is crazy. It is news every day, every hour, how do we pay attention to that? It is news and more news. You don’t know what to believe. It is too much information. It would take you away from reality. But in reality you see the Black Lives Matter movement. It is not new.
It is just now we have a smart phone and everybody has a camera. This has been going on since the beginning of America. The challenging thing is that you are brought to the West as slaves. America never intended for black people to be part of their culture. How can you be planted where you are not wanted? America will never be something for black people. No matter how much civil rights movement there is. There is always going to be a struggle in America, Europe and everywhere. I don’t know where safe place is right now. Africa has been raped and pillaged for many years. Even in Africa black people are being oppressed.
You have a strong bond with your band, Indignation Band. Can you tell us about your relationship?
Indignation is my music label, but also my band. We met in different times. My keyboard player has been with me the longest, about seven years now. Lots of them are from music school in Jamaica — Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. So they are trained musicians. Danny Bassie is a legend. I never dreamt he would come and play for my band. He played for Sizzla’s band. He has been everywhere, done all of that. When I approached him, he really believed in my talent that he stopped what he was doing to come play with me. I was very happy about that.
All the other guys just met or I saw them around Kingston and really liked how they play music. We met six years ago and gradually built a relationship. We worked hard for years without getting one play or getting any shows. We would be rehearsing every day and people would ask when our show is. We tell them well we don’t have a show but one day we are going to have a show and when that day comes we are going to be very prepared. We are close as family. We got through lots of ups and downs, back and forth. But at the end of the day, when we go on stage, we take it very seriously. That is our life.
What are you up to when you are not writing music or performing on stage?
I spend a lot of time doing music. This is my 72nd show for the year so far. So it’s a lot of travelling. When I go home I don’t want to do a lot of stuff. I like jogging, reading, going to the beach. I like smoking a lot of marijuana. I like to look at art and architecture. I like creative stuff so I like to be around a lot of creative people and get inspiration. All I try to do in my free time is try to get inspired to make better music.
Tell us a few things about how your stage name Protoje came about?
I wanted a name to signify student. Something that shows forever being a student, perennial learning and forever seeking mentorship. Knowing that no matter how much you learn, no matter how big you are as an artist, you are still nothing more than a student of life. The art of life is the finest of arts. People say it is the art of music, culinary art or performance art. Music is just something there to teach me about life. You learn patience, arrogance, humility and all these things about life through music. My birth name is Oje and I changed the spelling of Prodigy to Protoje. It is cool.
What is on your plate for the near future?
I am trying to promote my song Blood Money to get it more out there. I am also working on some new music for the near future. I have collaboration with Nneka, a Nigerian artist I really love. We will see how that turns up.
By Meheret Selassie Mokonnen