The ‘royal family of reggae’ back in town
Morgan Heritage, a reggae band formed in 1994, made their first appearance at Reggae Sunsplash in Jamaica. Reggae music fans refer to the band as ‘The Royal Family of Reggae’ – a tag that is modestly accepted by band members. Three members of the band recently came to Addis Ababa to celebrate Ethiopian Christmas with their fans and seek what they called “spiritual satisfaction”, writes Meheret-Selassie Mokonnen.
“The world is who call us the ‘royal family of reggae’ and there is nothing wrong with that. We live a life that is exemplary to humanity and if royalty is what people see from our livity, then we thank God for that,” says Peter "Peetah" Morgan, with a humble smile on his face, answering a question forwarded to him by The Reporter.
When asked what it feels like to be on the spotlight of reggae music for over two decades, he says “it is normal” for the band members of the Morgan family, who have been making music since childhood.
Many refer to Morgan Heritage as the ‘royal family of reggae’ and there is a solid reason for it. The siblings have been making the world groove with hit songs since 1994.
The band is composed of five children of renowned Jamaican-born reggae artiste Denroy Morgan. The members, Peter "Peetah" Morgan, Roy "Gramps" Morgan, Una Morgan, Nakhamyah "Lukes" Morgan and Memmalatel "Mr. Mojo" Morgan were born in Brooklyn, New York City, United States.
Their first appearance was at Reggae Sunsplash in Jamaica and since their debut album “Miracles” they have released 14 albums. Of these albums “Strictly Roots” (released in 2015) won the 2016 Grammy Awards for best reggae album and “Avrakedabra” (released last year) has been nominated for the 2018 Grammys.
Three members of the band recently came to Addis Ababa to celebrate Ethiopian Christmas with their fans and also as part of celebrating their Grammy nomination.
Remembering how they grew up, Peter says “We didn’t grow up like the average American kid; we grew up like we were in Jamaica. Our dad was worried because we didn’t speak in an American accent.”
Though their parents wanted them to speak in an American accent and grow up like kids their age, they stuck with their roots. It is not just the way they spoke, but everything they did interconnected them to their Jamaican heritage. “No matter where we are born, our culture is deeply embedded in us,” he explains.
When their parents decided to move back to Jamaica after 25 years of living in the states, the children decided to go back home as well. They kept embracing their heritage, as they have always been in touch with their ancestries. “We didn’t go to Jamaica to find who we are, we already knew who we were,” he says.
After moving to Jamaica, they began working with prominent reggae producers Bobby Dixon and Lloyd James. Then released their critically acclaimed second album “Protect Us Jah” in 1997, which was followed by “One Calling” in 1998 and “Don't Haffi Dread” in 1999.
“Moving to Jamaica was not about music. Wherever in the world we do music because music is universal,” Peter says. He believes location has nothing to do with the flourishment of their musical carrier. They are now based in Nairobi, Kenya.
They came to Addis Ababa for the second time and though one would expect them to perform at a huge concert, they performed for a small crowd in A/V club on Christmas eve. According to the organizers, HIM International Events and Habesha Weekly, it was not possible to have an open-air concert given the current political situation of the country.
The organizers also said that the band did not ask for a lot of money for the performance, which Peter confirmed saying “Being in Ethiopia is not about money. It is not about what we come to take from Ethiopia. It is about our spiritual satisfaction.”
Yohana, one of the youngest Ethiopian reggae artists, opened the show with Bob Marley’s songs and his hit ska song. He was followed by Ras Jani, who entertained the small crowed with songs from his “Selamta” album. Morgan Heritage came on the stage singing one of their well-known songs “Tell Me How Come”.
Their fans lined up in front of the stage, singing along and dancing. Peter and Roy Morgan a.k.a. Gramps were fist bumping with fans who were close to the stage. From young reggae lovers with newly growing dreadlocks to older women wearing long Tibeb- traditional dress- the club was a sort of gathering spot for the reggae community.
“Just being in Ethiopia at this time of the year is fulfilling for us. We perform everywhere we go but, to be here on the festive season of Gena is a joy for us,” Roy said expressing his happiness. He says one of the greatest things they look forward to is performing in Ethiopia with a full band.
“We came to Ethiopia to celebrate Christmas with Ethiopians, with the spirit of Christmas. We will prepare to do a great show in Ethiopia,” he attests.
According to Roy, performing in Africa was not always easy but nowadays the continent is becoming a preferable destination for many artists. The band has performed in West Africa including Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana and the Gambia. Currently they are exploring East Africa by traveling to Kenya, Malawi and Uganda. “It is a big continent and there is a lot of work to be done. There is no other artist who has come to Africa like Morgan Heritage,” he explains.
The first time he came to Ethiopia he was amazed with what he saw and he looks forward to exploring more of the country saying “Ethiopia is a land of untold stories. There is still a lot to be learned. His Imperial Majesty Haile-Selassie I inspired us that we should come back home.”
They went to Debre Libanos church as a part of their recent voyage. Visiting Shashemene and connecting with the community is also included in their near future plan.
He wants artists of African descent to come to the continent and give back to the community. He remembers an era where many did not want to come to Africa but now thing seem to be changing. “Africa is on its way up. Africa is the new frontier and we are doing our job,” he explains about the band’s ties to Africa.
The way he describes it, “Many didn’t want to come before. I saw many people run to Africa and run back home because people only look into what Africa can do for them and not what they can do for Africa. We are calling people from the western hemisphere to come build Africa.”
The musicians believe coming to Africa is more than a musical performance – it is a way through which artists strive towards cultivating consciousness among the youth. “We are not just going to come here jump and do certain things but we have to make due diligence,” they say.
Morgan Heritage is among musicians who reflect up on societal realities and hope to raise awareness through music. Roy says, “It’s not only drugs and HIV but, the influence of the Babylonian system. The music is more about the movement.”
Their album “Here Come the Kings” was released in 2013, followed after touring Europe. Their latest album “Avrakedabra” includes their musical journey in four continents – Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. The title of the album is written with the touch of Amharic words.
“Avrakedabra is the original pronunciation of the word we know today as abracadabra, it is Amharic origin which precedes Hebrew and it means I create what I speak,” Roy says while speaking of their Grammy nominated album.
He says creating the album in four continents was a magical experience. “We were able to bring in different sounds, vibes and energies from all over the world and finalize it in one studio,” he says.
From the album, they have released a music video of the song “Reggae Night”. Vocals to the song were recorded in Zimbabwe. In their songs, one can get a blend of reggae, gospel, R&B and many more flavors.
They have worked with many of the top reggae artists including Capleton, Junior Kelly, Luciano, Gentleman, Beres Hammond and Chronixx. In their latest album, they have collaborated with Ziggy Marley and Stephen Marley in tracks like “Selah” and “Harder Than U Know”.
Peter says it is joyous to collaborate with young and veteran artists. He believes such collaborations show unity amid musicians and states “When we work together as artists, it shows a level of unity amongst us that sometimes the world doesn’t see. The world is caught up on competition between artists and people feel more triumph by putting artists up against each other; while we the artists don’t think about it like that. We want to work together and make good music.”
The band members have also perused solo acts. One of Peter’s famous songs is "Stay Getting High" and Roy, CEO of Dada Son Entertainment, has released albums including “Two Sides of My Heart”. His son Jemere Morgan has also followed the same path. Peter says “Performing as a family is what we have been doing since we were children and this is what we know.”
Morgan Heritage, who are keeping the reggae tradition of the family running through spreading positive message, signed to the label “Cool To Be Conscious” up on releasing their last album and the members echo this message saying “The new cool is conscious”.
When it comes to conscious music, Peter says as there were many artists devoted for conscious music before the band’s existence, there will be several more in the future too. Alongside them, he remarks stars such as Lauren Hill, Jill Scott and John Legend. Through music with pertinent message, he says their songs push the youth to be the next Albert Einstein or the next Haile-Selassie.
“Our role in reggae music is to maintain consciousness in what we do. It’s not that we are preaching Rastafari because consciousness doesn’t mean religion. It is a sense of spirituality,” he points. Taking the fact that Christianity has many different denominations as an example, he says there is a difference between preaching religion and resounding spirituality.
He expresses what they stand for saying, “We are a spiritualist more than religious people. It is about being true to yourself. Being true to the spirit of right and honesty and live a life that people can see it and glorify the most high.”
He goes back in time to the 1960s and 70s where legends such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bob Dylan and Burning Spear were the voice in conscious music. Even though the media doesn’t promote conscious music, he says valuable message is being heard through young and vibrant musicians. He believes there is always a space for consciousness and someone doing something to represent a certain level of consciousness.
“The media promotes the fast life, the party and the bling bling. Which is attractive. That why we say ‘it is cool to be conscious’. By being conscious you are not trying to be better than anyone else. It means being aware of what’s going on,” Peter recites.
Roy shares his brother’s opinion saying “We say it is cool to be conscious. When you free your mind, no one can trap you.”
The siblings state they don’t focus on fighting against music that they believe is a trap for the young ones. Instead, they are engaged in awakening the youth and they believe other artists will follow the same path once they understand the power of conscious music.
Peter stresses, “Our mission isn’t to fight. The time we sped to fight, we can spend that time to heal. We don’t focus on fighting trap music.”
The Morgan’s say they are always up for entering to new territories, experiencing new culture and meeting new people. “Music is what we know from children growing up to adults. This is who we are and this is what we love,” they express themselves.
From singing about historic sites such as Meskel square to being baptized in an Ethiopian Orthodox church, the Morgan family have a deep connection to Ethiopia. They want to get involved with the Ethiopian Rastafarian community and reggae musicians as well.
They point Ethiopia has been in the forefront of their history lessons and by singing about Meskel Square and emphasizing the country in general, they expose more about Ethiopia to the rest of the world.
“We are yet to get involved with the reggae community in Ethiopia and it is something we look forward to. One of our biggest aspiration is collaborating with a lot of African artists and bringing our talents together to show Africans at home and Africans abroad are connected through music,” Peter specifies their plans.