Jamaican Reggae Star Protoje: 'I Just Felt Like a Bird Out of a Cage'
Photo by Che Kothari
Protoje — née Oje Ken Ollivierre — isn't supposed to be here, or at least that's what he says. The Jamaica native grew up in the western parish of St. Elizabeth, a small country town far from the energy and liveliness of the Jamaican capital. Growing up, St. Elizabeth was never a beacon for music for the young Protoje; there was no musician he could idolize who was also from the area. While his mother, Lorna Bennett, made a huge impact on reggae music with her 1972 version of "Breakfast in Bed" (she opted out of music for law school) and his father, Michael Ollivierre, known as Lord Have Mercy, was a calypso king in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, those weren't the paths Protoje wanted to take.
One of Protoje's first interactions with music outside reggae came when he was in grade school. An older kid was rapping the lyrics to Slick Rick's 1989 classic "Children's Story." Protoje had never heard anything like it, and made the kid sing it again and again until Protoje knew the song from start to finish. Protoje wouldn't hear the original song in its entirety until he was sixteen — there was no access to hip-hop in St. Elizabeth — but that didn't stop him from penning some of his own rhymes.
He started writing when he was twelve, and attended sound clashes (akin to rap battles) where his peers sang popular songs. He went to so many clashes that he was able to predict who would sing what, which allowed him to write counteractive lyrics in advance. While the other kids reused material, Protoje wrote original rhymes and knocked his competition out. He began honing his craft, essentially growing up on hip-hop, but on his own terms. Purchasing hip-hop music was difficult; songs like "Children's Story" were obscurities in Jamaica. The first hip-hop album that Protoje was able to purchase was Snoop Dogg's 1993 Doggystyle, and that was long after it was released.
Now, while his music is certainly reggae, elements of hip-hop are still present in his sound, especially through his lyrics and rhyme schemes. With his latest release, Ancient Future, Protoje has been placed firmly at the forefront of the "reggae revival." He's indeed been able to pair the old with the new — for instance, Chronixx is featured on the hit single "Who Knows," while both Robert "Robbie" Shakespeare from Sly and Robbie and Earl "Chinna" Smith have contributed bass and guitar lines to the album, respectively.
For Protoje, it's all about "a youth that's working together," as he puts it. Protoje and his contemporaries, Chronixx and Kabaka Pyramid, are taking the first steps of reawakening. The three work together for the common good of their genre and country. They don't fight for the limelight, but lift each other up. In doing so, they have successfully pushed the boundaries of reggae to be inclusive and to move forward, to be self-sustaining and supportive. "I always say, the sky's big enough for every star to shine," says Protoje. His wish is that his music will move Jamaica forward, and overcome stereotypes to show that the country is experiencing many of the same situations that the people of America and elsewhere confront.
With the help of his cohorts, Protoje is launching a new reggae sound for a new generation. Ancient Future is a testament to that, a new age of reggae that infuses all genres, with hip-hop fusion and overt rock elements as well. Protoje and Winta James, a popular Jamaican producer, soaked up genre after genre to perfect their sound, listening to everything from the Black Keys to Lana Del Rey to Joey Bada$$ and Drake.
And that's the thing about the musicians' newest project: It is likewise saturated in the old, in traditional Seventies and Eighties reggae basslines and social consciousness. Ancient Future is a lament for times past, for the golden era of reggae music, before Bob Marley, Jacob Miller, and Peter Tosh passed, and before Garnet Silk died suddenly. The album is also about memory: Protoje wrote Ancient Future in the same house where he grew up, in the same bedroom he slept in, using the same mirror he sang in front of as a teenager. While writing, he made it a habit of standing on the porch and recalling memories from his childhood and stories his father told him, such as the murder of Jamaican gang leader Claude Massop. He sings about what he saw and heard when he was younger. "[The album] was about paying homage to an era that I grew up with...for this album that was the design, that was the purpose," he says.
"[Ancient Future] was just about going back to the past to move forward. Taking a step back to take two steps forward. Ancient is relative. But in our human life, twenty years ago is ancient. The future part of it comes from pushing the envelope, not just playing over beats and sampling stuff that was from twenty years ago, but what are we going to add to it, what elements are we going to infuse so that our generation can be a part of it? That's what I think I have and we have been able to do, [to] get people who are not in Jamaica into old-school reggae, but into more modern music to kind of cross over."
Ultimately, the album is about forward momentum. Ancient Future is a conversation between Protoje's younger and older incarnations. While Protoje felt a bit of hesitancy in showing his true self in his previous albums The Seven Year Itch (2011) and The 8 Year Affair (2013), he felt nothing but freedom and liberation with Ancient Future. The project became a diary of his joys, sadnesses, weaknesses, and strengths. "I just felt like a bird out of a cage...I'm very comfortable now in what I do."
His lyrics and concept are immersed in social responsibility, and at the root of it all is a call for everyone to be understanding and empathetic toward one another. "[Ancient Future is about] allowing people to be themselves — about letting people try to find themselves and not judge because you feel like you're at a further state of development than them. Because no matter how advanced you think you are, there's somebody out there that could look at you and be like, 'You're so not with it.' To have that understanding."
Like Protoje's song "Who Knows" goes, "Who knows, who knows, who knows, who knows/I just go where the trade winds blows." Be like the water and just keep flowing; try to give thanks for the good that you do get, because some days will be great and others will be worse.
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