By Stephen Cooper
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.
On July 31, I interviewed Sativa 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.
Q: 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.
Hempress Sativa: Thank you.
Q: 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.
Hempress Sativa: Yes.
Q: I want to ask about that because I along with more than 12 million other people have seen that video of you singing in Papine that day, over four 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.
Hempress Sativa: Thank you.
Q: 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]?
Hempress Sativa: 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.
Q: Does that Song Embassy Yard in Papine have any particular significance?
Hempress Sativa: 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.
Q: And was that [dynamite, jaw-dropping performance recorded in] one take?
Hempress Sativa: Yeah that was one take. (Laughing)
Q: Wow. Ok.
Hempress Sativa: Some people don’t believe me. (Laughing)
Q: 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?
Hempress Sativa: 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.
Q: 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?
Hempress Sativa: 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 in Jamaica. And it’s something I want to preserve. That’s why I’ve incorporated it so much in my music.
Q: In your lyrics you often hail up your dad.
Hempress Sativa: 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.
Q: 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?
Hempress Sativa: The Jah Love sound system did not belong to Brigadier Jerry. Both of them being from the 12 tTribes 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.
Q: 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.
Hempress Sativa: Yes.
Q: [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…
Hempress Sativa: “. . . if you want to dance ram.”
Q: Advance my lion if you want to dance “from?”
Hempress Sativa: (Laughing) “Ram.” It means make it full to capacity.
Q: Nice. It’s important to know these things.
Hempress Sativa: Yeah, because people have a hard time understanding my [accent]; it’s very strong. (Laughing)
Q: But people should take the time to learn what you’re saying, because it’s dope when they do.
Hempress Sativa: (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.
Q: 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.
Hempress Sativa: Yeah.
Q: 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?
Hempress Sativa: 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 in 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.
Q: They seemed to be very into the song for sure.
Hempress Sativa: 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?”
Q: Cool. Now if you had to describe to somebody what the major vibe and message of Boom Shakalak is, how would you describe it?
Hempress Sativa: 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.
Q: Big sound? Big amplifiers? Big speakers?
Hempress Sativa: 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.
Q: I love that.
Hempress Sativa: 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.
Q: There’s a very cool vibe to the video.
Hempress Sativa: Yeah, it’s just relaxed.
Q: 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]?
Hempress Sativa: 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.
Q: 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.”
Hempress Sativa: Yes.
Q: You said, “Sometimes this reggae industry is cliquish.” I wondered if you still feel.
Hempress Sativa: I still stand by everything that I’ve said in 2013 to this day. It has not changed.
Q: 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?
Hempress Sativa: 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.
Q: 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.
Hempress Sativa: Yes I.
Q: How young were you when you first met Sister Carol?
Hempress Sativa: I’ve been knowing Sister Carol since I was a little girl. Because, as I said, I grew up in the 12 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. And she will give me words of encouragement, [and] a sense of direction. So, we’re grateful for Sister Carol.
Q: Recently, I described your style to someone as unique, but a bit of a cross between Sister Carol and Lauryn Hill.
Hempress Sativa: (Laughing)
Q: Would you agree that your style could be described that way?
Hempress Sativa: 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.
Q: 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?
Hempress Sativa: 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.
Q: I’ve started learning more about Brigadier Jerry. It seems like he was big into encouraging female artists.
Hempress Sativa: His sister is [Sister Nancy]!
Q: I [don’t think] I knew that.
Hempress Sativa: Yes. And they all used to [perform] on the Jah Love sound system – toasting.
To be continued in Part 2…