In just three short years, a young group of Rastafarian artists have managed to dominate the world of reggae music with a back-to-the-foundations sound that has been dubbed a movement — neo-roots or reggae revivalist — by the Jamaican media. One of those artists, Jah9, a poet turned singer, will be making her Connecticut debut in Hartford July 30 at the Infinity Music Hall.
Jah9 is one of the more prominent of the ever-growing group of so-called neo-roots artists, which also includes Chronixx, Jah Bouks, Jesse Royal, Protoje, Kabaka Pyramid, Hempress Sativa, and Kelissa. Although the Jamaican media has labeled this a new movement, Jah9 has lukewarm feelings about any journalistic tags and believes there is one overriding factor that connects her and her peers to the artist who have come before them.
“Rastafari is the uniting force whenever you see this message come up,” said Jah9 via Skype. “We appreciate that the media is giving us the attention, if that’s how they want to classify it that is fine, as long as we know what we are doing on this mission.”
Born Janine Cunningham, from Jamaica’s northwest parish of Trelawny, Jah9 got her first singing opportunity in the choir of her father’s church. Having a father who was a Baptist minister, one would think her upbringing would be sheltered from the secular world, but she is quick to correct any mistaken assumptions on that point.
“My father is free within himself,” she said. “The reasons he became a pastor in the first place are so free, so honest, and so true. It wasn’t for any social-climbing type of choosing. He’s a real country man who was about taking care of the community and taking care of family. That was the example that he set for me.”
After the family left the country life for the city of Kingston, Jah9’s social awareness and spirituality began developing even further, especially during her college years. While at a university in Jamaica majoring in psychology, she began her conversion to Rastafarianism after becoming friends with a group of Rastas, and once again her father and mother were supportive of the change.
“My parents gave me much strength, so when they see that I took to this journey, they gave me the space even if they didn’t understand it, because they trusted me,” said Jah9.
Soon after her conversion to the Rastafarian faith, she began using the moniker Jah9, writing and performing poetry over reggae rhythms, more commonly referred to in Jamaica as dub poetry. It wasn’t long after that she returned to her earlier roots as a singer, and created her own unique sound, which she terms jazz on dub.
“The original influence of my music was a lot of gospel, a lot of hymns, and a lot of jazz,” she explains. “Then it was instrumental dub that really pulled me into wrapping my own voice around an empty space. I was always singing in choir, but never singing from my own voice, and roots music provided that space. It’s a freer form, sometimes it sounds like chanting, sometimes it sounds like jazz. It’s usually in the minor, it’s usually down tempo, and there are no rules as to how it can be applied.”
She got help from some icons in the reggae business, including legends such as singer Beres Hammond, producer Donovan Bennett, and long-time “selector” (something akin to a DJ’s collaborator) and producer Rory from the “Immortal Stone Love” sound system. What followed was a debut album filled with reggae riddims containing speaker-rattling drum and bass matching effortlessly with lyrics amplified by her poetic background. The tracks on the album address a variety of topics such as the Rastafarian anthem “New Name,” the authority-questioning “Intentions,” the spiritually uplifting “Gratitude,” and her most popular song, the playful “Avocado,” about a lover who brings her avocados, a tune rife with double entendre.
“I think people relate to it because it’s a simple story, it’s a love story, and it’s about simplicity,” said Jah9. “It’s playful. It has that Jamaican twist to it, and it’s poking fun at a particular era in Jamaican music where the songs were about women who had the biggest bottom and the roundest curves. I had a line in the song saying ‘size 14’ and it becomes controversial like the songs in that era.”