By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Summer '97, Jamaica: On a starless country night so dark you can't see your hand in front of your face, IRIE-FM is taking a straight run through Sizzla's urgent faxes from the Black struggle's front lines. Parsed into intricate fugues, his husky, keening voice spirals out into the dense air. On the other side of the island, a jeep headed back to town from Hellshire Beach is tuned to the debut single from the latest singing Marley. Ky-Mani, the one who grew in Miami, is working the same borderline between a singer's melodic elasticity and a reggae rapper's rhythmic acuity for "Dear Dad," his mingled statement of identity and loss.
Unlike punany-obsessed dancehall dons, today's reggae "culture" men veer between a spliffed-out dream of One LoveOne Heart world rule and the narrow, fossilized insularity of an old lady in the Cotswolds. Ky-Mani, son of Bob, and Sizzla, child of a tropical ghetto, stand at either end of that spectrum, lone and contradictory points of interest in an otherwise dull reggaescape. That Sizzla could lick a riddim like no one else was evident as early as '94's "Black and Comely," his combination with singer Mikey General. Turning out the Bible's Song of Solomon with the coarse, spine-tingling chant "I and I a raw African," the 18-year-old foreshadowed a Sizzla rapture that would sweep both the island and reggae's global outposts.
With '95's Burning, released by his home Xterminator crew/label, the young Warrior for the King sprang the catch on the revolving door of the deejay's singsong. Driving the rhythm with sinewy incantations a near erotic display of mic skill he skirted the stale "mash down Babylon""Haile Selassie" references so rife in contemporary reggae. Despite his Jah focus, Sizzla's lyrical science sounded a new alarm. Praise Ye Jah on Xterminator and Black Woman and Child on Brickwall Sizzla's best albums were released simultaneously during the rapture's '97 peak. But his Xterminator ties were fraying, and he was moving more with the controversial House of David posse, headed by Capleton, an even fiercer born-again Rasta general. The duo's searing live shows reggae's most thrilling in years clashed profoundly with blunt, holier-than-thou between-song diatribes against Christians, white people, batty men (of course), and anyone else representing for the shitstem; that is, anyone not falling within the duo's hairbreadth definition of a righteous liver. Between late '98 and early summer '99, he's dropped three more "dueling" albums here and a fourth in the U.K. a suicidal career strategy, as Xterminator/VP's Freedom Cry was cut short by Brickwall/AO!'s Good Ways and, in England, by Kalonji (Jetstar), which are about to be flopped by the imminent release of Xterminator/Greensleeves' Royal Son of Ethiopia.
While Sizzla was busy supersaturating his market and defying popular ideals of reggae heroism, the release date of Ky-Mani's The Journey exec-produced by Clifton "Specialist" Dillon, the manager behind Shabba Ranks and Patra's 15 minutes of mainstream fame was repeatedly postponed, thereby upping the album's buzz. Reggaeheads had heard that trademark Marley voice 'nuff-'nuff times; could this latest scion actually do something original with it? Journey retreads the truth-rights-justice themes the sort of warm, fuzzy pleas for brotherly love that are as easy to ridicule as they're hard to refute but with Ky-Mani's edgy B-bwoy difference. Bouncing hard over the tracks like a rough riddim-rider should, Ky-Mani's vocals are neither smooth nor lustrous. Unlike his money-cushioned, Jamaica-raised siblings, Ky-Mani, like Sizzla, radiates the breaking eloquence of an inner-city, back-to-the-wall roots man whether American, Jamerican, or Jamaican. In the end, the same Old TestamentGarveyite consciousness informs Sizzla and Ky-Mani, and if the former had made the right moves, he'd already be where the latter seems headed, toward American urban and college radio playlists. Big bro Ziggy got the white college kids and alt rockers by following (thus far he's in a hip hop mode nowadays) in Bob's giant steps. Ky-Mani will have the white alt audience, too, but he's also The Family's most likely candidate to win the historically elusive American urban massive. Taking his stance a little further into reggae singers' turf than does Sizzla, Ky-Mani busts out from there, recasting the "one drop" and Daddy's Message into dance and r&bhip hop molds without losing that reggae-raw appeal.
And, as far as anyone knows yet, without shooting his entire wad. In just four short years, Sizzla has released seven sets, one more than the six albums industry savants decree as any artist's limit; plus the pedestal is crumbling beneath him. Ky-Mani's insurance is The Family and a savvy label. Sizzla's got the niche he's carved for himself in reggae's hall of fame one heavily populated with impoverished, still youthful "vintage" stars but that won't ensure that 10 years from now he'll have the coin to buy himself a next set of trousers. Then again, that slight, doe-eyed 18-year-old I mistook five years ago for his producermanager's yard boy has yet to unleash his euphoric tenor a singing voice as blazing as his chanting.