Watching Chronixx perform for the first time was a physical ordeal.
So dense were the crowds inside London’s Scala that scrummaging skills were needed to force a way from the bar area, through fire doors, into the auditorium. And from a teeming balcony, a sight of the stage could only be maintained from the balls of the feet.
It is easy to understand the scale of the underground following for a young Jamaican musician who held the crowd transfixed with a mature stagecraft and a songbook of depth and quality. Since that night in 2013, he has returned to Britain to perform a sell-out show in Brixton – where hard-pressed security staff complained that he should have been booked into a larger venue – and last month enjoyed the prestige of opening the Pyramid Stage on the Friday of the Glastonbury Festival.
On 12 July he will grace the magnificent Palladian setting of Somerset House in London, as part of the annual Summer Series of concerts. He has nothing to fear, given that he singled out the United Kingdom in the Jamaican press for providing an audience that embraces him as a musician, not as merely a pop singer. “The UK is one of those places that still appreciates good music,” he told The Gleaner in April. “In some other places, as long as the artiste is cute, that’s good enough for them.”
Chronixx’s international profile received a major boost in July last year when he appeared on NBC’s The Tonight Show, after host Jimmy Fallon discovered his music on holiday in Jamaica. Handed a reggae mixtape by a hotel worker, Fallon used Shazam and iTunes to identify and download Chronixx’s track “Here Comes Trouble” and then invited him to perform it on the talk show.
Fans of the golden era of Seventies roots reggae are easily drawn to Chronixx’s socially conscious messages and live band instrumentation, which together are a ground anchor for his sound. But he also incorporates a contemporary energy that makes him highly relevant to a younger dancehall crowd.
Relaxing on the wooden furniture in a sun-kissed London back garden, he explains that while he is “proud” that his songs are categorised as “reggae”, he would prefer not to be associated with a single musical genre. He wishes to engage all listeners on a “feelings level”, rather than through their allegiance to a musical style. “I don’t like to be locked in any one place or restricted to any one set of people,” he says. “I don’t want to be labelled as a reggae artist but as a Jamaican musician.”
For someone who says “there is a certain beauty in every piece of music that exists”, the sonic melange that is Glastonbury was a stimulating experience. “The people at Glastonbury are music lovers [and] even before you start to sing there’s a level of appreciation. They cherish the fact that they are there and want to make the most of the experience. For you as a musician that’s a perfect situation.”
A resident of Jamaica’s capital Kingston, the social problems of which have been so evocatively described by Bob Marley and other lyricists, he does not rush to adopt the urban persona of many young music makers.
Kingston is a place where it is still possible to follow the clean fruit and vegetable diet – “Ital Livity” – of the Rastafarian lifestyle that underpins the messages in his songs. “There is no city in Jamaica, not like how it exists in these [larger] countries. Right in the middle of New Kingston you can find lime and Moringa trees, medicine growing on the street side.”
Nonetheless, he does brilliantly address the discomforts of crabs-in-a-barrel ghetto living in the song “Behind Curtain”, while berating the legacy of colonialism in “Capture Land” and rallying like-minded youths to his Rasta banner in “Here Comes Trouble”, the latter two tracks forming part of his impressive 2014 EP The Dread & Terrible Project.
Despite his reluctance to be pigeonholed as a reggae artist, Chronixx undoubtedly forms part of a phalanx of young Jamaican artists who endorse the conscious stance of the roots reggae tradition. Notable allies include Protoje, Janine “Jah9” Cunningham and Dre Island, the latter being the support act at Somerset House. Together they offer a welcome alternative to the dollar-waving swagger of many younger artists in dance genres.
Chronixx shows little interest in the trappings of fame and says he is content to build his fan base through powerful songs and live musicianship. Like four of the members of his travelling band, he is the son of a musician, and began his way in the industry at the age of 14.
Despite his humility, he is already a star in Jamaica and that profile has led him into controversy, most notably when Barack Obama visited the country and Chronixx took to Instagram to denounce the president as a “waste man”, in a comment that complained of America’s failure to expunge the criminal record of the Jamaican civil rights leader and hero Marcus Garvey, who died in 1940.
“The post was simply showing how the modern world and culture demonises and idolises people as them like, which means they make a man a hero when it’s convenient and a criminal when it is also convenient.”
He notes that some of the racial injustice that Garvey campaigned against still exists in modern America. “Without Marcus Garvey you think you would have a Malcolm X or Martin Luther King?” he asks. “I think without Marcus Garvey America wouldn’t even be interested in having a black president.”
At 22, Chronixx has the potential to become part of the pantheon of Jamaican musical greats. His Reparation UK tour, which begins in Manchester on 9 July, takes him as far afield as Brighton and Glasgow. But he remains at a loss to explain how British crowds have been so quick to identify his talents. “I don’t know – it’s just magical over here.”