Reggae Star Etana Emphasizes Equality

Photo: Stephen Cooper.

Lauded by the BBC as the “greatest music teacher who ever lived,” Nadia Boulanger once described the ecstasy that listeners of reggae star Etana’s new album, “Reggae Forever,” feel: “Nothing is better than music. When it takes us out of time, it has done more for us than we have the right to hope for. It has broadened the limits of our sorrowful life; it has lit up the sweetness of our hours of happiness[.]”

On March 31, shortly after she wowed an adoring crowd at Los Angeles’s “Novo” theater with a sensational, heart-stirring performance, I interviewed Etana backstage for about thirty minutes. We discussed “Reggae Forever,” milestones in her unique, successful career, several controversies she has weathered, sexism in the music business and media, equal rights, and many other topics of interest to music fans worldwide. What follows is a transcription of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.

Q: Etana, it’s such a blessing to meet you, and that performance you gave tonight, wow, it was so hot, I’m still on fire!

Etana: (Laughing) Thank you.

Q: Now, about your fifth studio album, the fabulous “Reggae Forever,” which I’ve had on replay since you released it about three weeks ago, on International Woman’s Day, the headlines have been very, very good in the press – 

Etana: (Laughing) Thank you.

Q: Reporting on the news that “Reggae Forever” leaped to the number one position on Billboard’s Best Reggae Album Chart this week, the Jamaica Observer’s headline was, fittingly, “Etana rules Billboard with ‘Reggae Forever.’” And the [Jamaica] Star’s headline was, “Etana creates Billboard history – first female to top reggae chart with back-to-back albums”! So, first of all, congratulations on such a historic achievement! 

Etana:  Thank you.

Q: You’re familiar with such success because as the Star’s headline alluded to, your fourth album, “I Rise,” released October 2014, also hit number one on the Billboard chart [in just its second week]. That album, “I Rise,” stayed on top of the chart for several weeks, and, as is often noted, when you accomplished that feat you were the first female reggae artist to have done so in over fifteen years! Other than the fact – that I want to ask you about next – that this new album of yours is your first full-length independent project since leaving VP Records, how does this early, tremendous success with “Reggae Forever” compare with that first time you ruled the Billboard chart, four years ago, with “I Rise”?  

Etana: The first time was a little easier. Not achieving the Billboard status, but recording the album, producing the album with VP, and them paying for everything, putting the musicians together. They asked me: “Who would you like to work with?” And I named some people. And they said, “Clive Hunt.” And I said, he’s a veteran, he doesn’t know new reggae. [But] I said, I’m going to do a song with him and see how it works. And if it works, then I continue working. And then it worked so well, that we did the whole album together. It was an amazing experience. But they paid for everything; did everything. 

Q: VP Records?

Etana: Right. So, the only thing that I had to do was just show up to the [recording] sessions. They paid for the mixing [and] the mastering. The only thing that I did was I listened to the mixes to say if they were OK or not. And my ears were so good, that they had a person remix one song and I knew that that song was not mixed by the person who did all the others. And I sent it back. I said, “take it back to the other guy.” And that was the only time I had to [make sure things were done how I wanted with the production of “I Rise”]. With this new album, “Reggae Forever,” I had to find the musicians, find the writers that I would write with, find the studios I would record in – I had to do everything on my own.     

Q: You had to do a lot more work yourself. That leads to my next question: Because you had such success with VP Records on “I Rise,” and you’d had a history of success with the other albums you’d released with VP; usually when you score a top ranked album with a record company, you don’t leave them, so I think a lot of people would view that as being a gutsy move – 

Etana: (Laughing) It was.

Q: So, can you explain a bit the genesis behind that decision, and do you feel increased pressure now, as a result, to succeed with this [independently produced] album?    

Etana: Well, VP is run by two brothers: Chris Chin and Randy Chin. Chris Chin is a lot more for the love of the music. He really loves the music. Not that he isn’t a businessman, but he really loves the music, and he’s very supportive. His mother is very supportive of me too. But Randy Chin has a different view of how things should be. And I remember being on the road, touring [on] the album. And I had some issues being on the road, while I was touring on “I Rise.” And I said to them: “Guys, I need you to help me promote this album, you know? I need your help out here.” And it was a real toss up, you know? And I said to myself, next time I’m gonna try and do it on my own. When it came down to renewing the agreement for the next album, it was a major issue. Because it [was] three years that we did not record, that we didn’t do a new album. And they (VP Records) weren’t ready at that time, they were ready the following year. And that would have been too long and too late for me. So I decided to move along. 

Q: What’s the best part about doing it all yourself now?

Etana: The best part is owning everything. The best part is owning the production. Owning the songs that are written. And to be able to make all the decisions on your own. And for people to accept all the decisions you’ve made –  

Q: Without questioning? 

Etana: Yeah. To see all the fans love the music the way they do knowing that I had such an intricate role in it all. I’m excited!

Q: In February of 2013, after you released your third album, “Better Tomorrow,” you were interviewed by journalist Angus Taylor for the online-magazine United Reggae, and during that interview you were asked, “Is working with one producer where you want to be right now?” Because I think that album was produced entirely by Shane Brown – son of the legendary sound engineer for Bob Marley, Errol Brown –   

Etana: Yeah.

Q: And you said, “I think so, you get to tell a better story and have one sound throughout so it sounds like more of a complete album.” Now this is not the case with “Reggae Forever.” In fact, the way I’d describe it is: there’s a [veritable] “ital stew” of producers on “Reggae Forever.”

Etana: (Laughing) Yes.

Q: You have songs produced by J-Vibe Productions, Rymshot Productions, Kirkledove Records, Royal Roots Band, Dorian Green [the drummer for Morgan Heritage]. So, there were many producers on “Reggae Forever,” and of course it’s OK that you changed your mind about working with just one producer like on “Better Tomorrow.” Indeed, for me, it really worked out. And obviously [given the album’s number one ranking on the Billboard chart], the reggae-listening-public agrees. Because the album really shows off your versatility.  

Etana: Yeah.

Q: It’s a very good mixture of songs for different moods and different times. But, the unifying themes [of the songs on the album] are love, relationships, conquering personal struggles, and then, also, with the last song “Jah Love,” faith. Do you agree that those are the album’s major themes? 

Etana: I agree. And also, having the freedom to be who you are. Like the song called “Free, Pt. 2,” it’s really about being who you are, and accepting who you are, and allowing that to shine through.

Q: The album has roots tunes but also lover’s rock. It also has some dancehall-style tracks, and even a ska-flavored tune, “You’re the One.” 

Etana: (Laughing) Yeah.

Q: Was this eclectic mixture of sounds what you planned to do from the start when you first conceptualized “Reggae Forever,” or did that just happen as you went along, recording the tracks with different producers, and in different studios?  

Etana: I wanted to have different sounds. And I wanted to work with a lot of young producers as well, you know? People who are not as popular as say Clive Hunt or Shane Brown, but who are very good at what they do [too]. Yeah, I just wanted to be more free, and have a greater spectrum of sound.

Q: In another interview with Angus Taylor, this time a recent one for specifically about “Reggae Forever,” you indicated it was really a conscious decision that some of these tracks on this new album would be a bit more daring – a bit spicier.

Etana: They are. (Laughing)

Q: Especially in the depiction of male and female sexual relationships, true?

Etana: Yeah. (Laughing) I mean, I used to ask people back in the day, “So, what, Rasta don’t make love?” You know? Are we allowed to? 

Q: (Laughing) I hope so.

Etana: (Laughing) I use to kind of tone it down a little bit – and I still kinda toned it down a little bit. Because I think about the kids. And I feel like there are certain things that they don’t need to know exactly everything about. So I try my best to keep it [respectable], you know?

Q: The spiciest songs are my favorite ones on the album.

Etana: (Laughing) Thank you.

Q: I’m thinking especially about the songs “Sprung,” “Burned,” “No Money, No Love,” and to some extent, “Carry You.” Although, really, even though Angus Taylor said that song was “pushing a line in terms of your lyrical content,” the most provocative thing about “Carry You” is at one point in the song you use the word “sh*t.” 

Etana: Yeah.

Q: And you say that to describe the hard times the couple in the song have been through together – and will continue to get through together. Did you have to release a “clean” version of the song – without that word – for it to be played on the radio?

Etana: No. I wasn’t asked to and I don’t intend to. Why? Because what’s the first thing you say when you get into the hardest situations? Something that really shocks you? You say, sh*t! You know? And that’s what it is. Some of the hardest moments that knock you to the floor. [Radio stations] can bleep it out if they want.

Q: I know that your first blush with the professional recording industry here in the U.S. came after you left college, where you were studying to be a nurse. You joined the all-girl-group “Gift,” but grew disillusioned when they tried to control you and make you wear skimpy outfits – they were capitalizing on your sexuality. 

Etana: Yes.

Q: Do you feel vindication all these years later to be able to embrace sexuality in your music, but to be able to do it entirely on your own terms?

Etana: You know what? Yes. This is what I intended to do, once I decided to do music again. Because [I could have made] a decision to not do music ever again. Once I decided to do music again, I wanted to ensure that no one was able to do that [to me] again. That I’m be able to just be myself. Wear what I want to wear. Cover up as much I want to and – 

Q: Be your own woman? 

Etana: Yeah.

Q: But I guess even with songs like “Sprung,” which is essentially a song about a woman’s uncontrollable lust for her man, and then “Burned,” which concerns the sadly all too familiar circumstance of a man cheating on his woman, do you think it’s fair for journalists like myself and others in the media to put an undue focus on the sexualized nature of some of your new songs? By this, I especially mean, is there a greater scrutiny, perhaps a double-standard even in the reaction to a female reggae star singing about mature relationships – and her sexuality – than if it was a male singer?

Etana: I just think it’s much harder for a female anyway in reggae. They’re not expected to be too strong. Not expected to speak out on anything. You’re not expected to sound too forward. You’re always expected to kinda be like a woman; the expected idea of a woman.

Q: You’ve described the culture in the reggae music industry before as being like a “soccer team.”

Etana: (Laughing) Yeah. It is a soccer team!

Q: (Laughing) Where you are now in your musical career though, are you still in a place where you’re forced to deal with this “soccer team?” Or, because you’re running your own show now, [maybe] that’s not such a big issue anymore?   

Etana: It’s not such a big issue anymore. What I find is [males in the reggae music business] are somewhat and sometimes intimidated. And they can get aggressive with little things like who gets to perform first, you know, little things like that.

Q: I ask because some of the most famous male singers, even Bob Marley, have the most suggestive, provocative songs. Take, just for example, “Stir It Up!” 

Etana: Exactly!

Q: And yet, [these male reggae singers] are not as scrutinized [over their suggestive lyrics] as female reggae singers –   

Etana: They will never be. I said the other day when they were interviewing me on the radio that a man can take drugs, do drugs, he can rape a female, he can murder somebody, he can do anything that he wants to do. And he is still honored and praised. Let that be a female, and she [will] be stoned to death.

Q: Now, the official music video for “Burned,” more so than just the lyrics themselves, that video is undoubtedly very provocative – but in a violent, not a sexual way. Obviously the video is art – just like the song; you’re not really advocating for people to murder their partner if they get cheated on, true? 

Etana: (Laughing) True. I guess because Etana said it, [and] because it’s in an Etana video, that means I’m telling you to do it. And that’s not true.

Q: I didn’t take it that way at all.

Etana: A lot of people did. Not a lot, but a few.

Q: I took it more figuratively; that you were trying to express how shocking and painful, and how deeply felt it is to be cheated on.

Etana: Yes, exactly. And a lot of women think I should do this and I should do that, but we never do. Maybe one in a million probably will do something crazy like that. But it’s just how you feel at the time. 

Q: And I think a lot of people can relate to that. Now, “No Money, No Love,” featuring “Nutty-O,” which is a dancehall, afrobeats-style tune, that’s one of my favorite tracks on this new album.

Etana: Thank you.

Q: I just love its riddim; I find it addicting. It also reminds me, in a sense, of Bob Marley’s “Pimper’s Paradise,” which is one of my favorite melancholy Bob songs. Although “No Money, No Love” is not directly referring to a prostitute, the essence is similar – “money tree in her garden and it haffi grow” – as you sing.

Etana: Exactly. (Laughing). Because, if you think of it, even with women who believe if you don’t have any money, I just can’t be with you, or, women who actually does that for a living – like, hey, you need money for this kind of service or, for this kind of love you need money – there’s different kinds of people in different situations who may feel that way. Even a wife in a house may feel, OK, my husband, he needs to come up to the plate. So yeah, it’s like not excluding anyone.

Q: Another very interesting dancehall-type track on the album is “6 minutes: 21 secs,” which of course concerns the drama surrounding your 2016 TV interview with Jamaican journalist Anthony Miller. Was that the exact length of that [infamous] interview with Anthony Miller, 6 minutes and 21 seconds, hence the name of the song? 

Etana: (Laughing) I was told it was, initially. But then, when I saw it, it wasn’t. But, for some reason, it just sounded good. 

Q: It does sound good.

Etana: Yeah, so I just left it there. And a lot of people still do ask, “why 6 minutes and 21 seconds?” So, when people asked me, when they said “tell me why the number,” I said I don’t know what the number means; so I went and looked it up. And it said something about “angel numbers,” and I was like “wow,” it kind of works with the story. If you look it up, you’ll see what I mean. It kinda just goes; it fits. (Laughing)

Q: Cool. I loved how in that song you turned it back on Anthony Miller and all of the haters who tried to suggest you had somehow betrayed Jamaica by discussing pressing social issues – which is something reggae stars should do.

Etana: Not a female! (Laughing)

Q: I guess not – I guess not according to [some].

Etana: Not a woman! (Laughing)

Q: You talked about poverty and healthcare in [Jamaica, in that interview with Anthony Miller,] and I really liked how you turned it back on him by singing, “how mi fi turn mi back pon sweet Jamaica.” It’s almost lyrically as if you are rolling your eyes at anyone who would question your love and allegiance [to] Jamaica. Brilliant!  

Etana: (Laughing) Thank you. I think one of the reasons I said it that way is, I knew that if I said “the minimum wage is too low,” or if I say, “there is no ambulance [service],” they’ll be like, “yeah, yeah, we know that already.” But to hear someone like me say, “I don’t think I’m going to spend the rest of my life in Jamaica,” if that’s just the way we have to live. And so then they were saying, “it’s not affecting you. Why are you talking about it?” That was the question. “You have your water, you have your money, so why are you speaking? 

Q: That’s terrible. And I’m glad that that bad experience with Anthony Miller hasn’t made you shy away from talking about important [political, social, and economic] issues. Frankly, we need artists like you who have a stage to speak up. And I’m glad you still do. Now the other thing that happened during that interview [with Anthony Miller] that created a stir was you voiced support for Donald Trump – who was running for President at the time – a position I believe you not very long after said you regretted taking. [I believe] you [said] that you just didn’t know enough about the candidates and felt that you shouldn’t have taken a position. Especially publicly. Is that a fair assessment of that situation, and is there anything else you would like to add or say about it?   

Etana: Not really. I just shouldn’t have – I now know that especially when you’re talking about politics, you need to know it all. You need to know as much as possible. About both sides; both people. And if you think you know enough, read some more.

Q: That’s excellent advice, especially in these times. Now recently there was yet another curious controversy about you in the Jamaican press. This concerned the fact you received a grant of $5,000 (U.S.) towards the 38-show tour you’re [wrapping up] tonight with [fellow reggae artists] J Boog and Jesse Royal. 

Etana: Right. (Laughing)

Q: Personally, I thought the controversy that erupted concerning whether you should have been eligible to receive the money to be both mean-spirited and stupid. Why do you seem to be such a lightning rod in the Jamaican press? 

Etana: (Laughing)

Q: I know you might say [like one of your most famous songs, “People Talk”], “people talk, that’s what they do,” but it does seem like the things you do are more highly scrutinized, and criticized, unfairly I think, more so than other reggae artists. Why do you think this is?

Etana: I think, again, it’s because I’m female. That’s it. Because if you really check it, if you go through the history of the media in Jamaica, some of the men have done some of the stupidest things, have done the craziest things – 

Q: And they’re not scrutinized the same way?

Etana: Right, no, they’re not. At no time are they scrutinized the same way. I’ve seen other male artists who came out and said, “I’m gonna vote for Trump too because of blah, blah blah,” and they [the media] don’t say nuttin’ to dem. They don’t have to explain why they said that.

Q: Ultimately, it’s a sexism thing then?

Etana: Yeah. If you’re a female, and you’re not sleeping with everyone to get where you need to go, and if you’re not hunting them down to find your way . . . I guess. 

Q: My reaction to the news you received the grant of $5,000 had nothing to do with whether you should have gotten the money or not – I definitely think you should have – but rather my concern about it was that, in the grand scheme, it was such a low amount of money for the [Jamaican] government to be giving. One of the things I’ve always been frustrated about [as a reggae fan], and which I always ask reggae stars I interview for comment on is this question: Why is there not more money, and more investment [generally], by the Jamaican government in reggae music? 

Etana: The people know the music has taken Jamaica across the globe; Bob Marley did that [first]. And he’s probably one of the biggest reasons why people [come to] stay in Jamaica, besides marijuana, and the music, and the food. But I don’t think that the culture of Jamaica respects the music industry. Because they didn’t have to go to college. They didn’t have to spend four or five years to get a degree for it. And then it brings people who are downtown and suffering, and struggling, uptown, next to dem in dem big house.

Q: Is it right that this culture you’re talking about, this society in Jamaica that is not allowing reggae to rise up to the place where it should be, that it’s a very conservative, Christian-dominated [segment of society] in Jamaica. True?

Etana: Yes. And classism is a big thing too. You know, uptown-downtown.

Q: [Like your hit song,] “Wrong Address?” 

Etana: Yes. Exactly. Reggae music is supposed to be poor people music; it tells the story of the people.

Q:  And that’s not the story they necessarily want told?

Etana: Right.

Q: Staying on the topic of important investment in Jamaica, could you describe the charitable foundation you created in Jamaica, “The Strong One Foundation?” 

Etana: It’s geared towards education. And I feel like there are lots of talented young people in Jamaica. But they don’t have the same opportunities [as] some of the [other] kids there. Most of the times, especially the very poor ones, they stay at home – with no shoes, one uniform, no lunch money to go to school. No books – they go to school and they have no books to use. Because it’s not like in America where they give you the textbooks while you’re in the school, and you use the books and you put [them] back on the shelf.

Q: You have to buy them?

Etana: Yeah, you have to buy them, every one of them.

Q: And this is a situation I’m sure that ties in to the crime problem in Jamaica?

Etana: Everything. Everything. And so, I think that the little part that I can play, that I’m obligated to do, because I managed in my life, and my mother did the best that she could to manage, to be in a better position than they are. So I feel like if I find myself in a position to help, I should.

Q: Respect. That’s beautiful. Last question, and thank you again for this time. On May 27, 2015, The Human Rights First Organization issued a press release that said: “Jamaican singer Etana takes a stand for the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people.” And this press release noted that you said that the hatred of LGBT people goes against Rastafarian principles – 

Etana: It does.

Q:  – that every human has a right to determine his, or her, or their, own destiny. Now that same press release discussed Buju Banton’s very well-known [and popular] song “Boom Bye Bye.” [That song] repeatedly mentions “batty bwoy,” which of course is a derogatory reference to gay people – 

Etana: Yes.

Q: – and the press release said it was “a song that celebrates shooting a gay man.” Do you think when Buju Banton is released from prison (soon) that he has an obligation to correct the musical record as it concerns that very well-played track? I mean this is a [song] I can remember when I was in high school, I sang, I didn’t even know what the words meant.

Etana: Wow. How did you feel after [learning]?

Q: Terrible, now that I’m an adult. I don’t know how I would have felt if I had known as a youngster, whether I would have been immature about it and still thought that it was a cool song. But now, being older, and understanding the terrible discrimination LGBT people face – 

Etana:  – and what they go through in [Jamaica].  

Q: And so I thought about a number of things Buju Banton could do: He could issue a public service announcement; he could write and start singing a new song that shows a belief in the humanity of all people – 

Etana: That would be a better one. (Laughing)

Q: At a bare minimum, he could publicly disclaim the lyrics and say that they were wrong – 

Etana: And that he denounces them.

Q: Do you think he should do this?

Etana: Yes. Because there are so many gay people in Jamaica. From the very low-income communities all the way up to the highest income. It’s a broad spectrum of people. And so I don’t get the homophobia anymore. I think it has to do with pride and the Christian culture.

Q: Is [the situation] improving?

Etana: Yes, because gay people now walk the streets together. Not to say that they are 100% safe either; I had a [gay] friend who was murdered in his house, Dexter, who was a makeup artist. And for days, I couldn’t eat properly, I couldn’t sleep, I kept having dreams. I kept picturing him going through the house, ‘cause I know the inside of the house, and I kept picturing what happened, and kept thinking, why did it happen? And asking myself a lot questions, and there were just no answers.

Q: That’s terrible. I’m sorry. And I want to thank you for being such a strong voice on this and so many other important issues affecting Jamaica.

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.