Protoje is shining a light on 2020’s cutting edge reggae movement
I just feel that Jamaican culture and music are at its peak. It's been so influential for years and decades. With the type of artists that I sign — Lila [Iké] and Sevana — they're both very driven in the same way and I also want to leave that mark. I feel that, internally, it pushes all of us. Because I know Sevana's video is going to be the most highly curated thing, in my eyes I'm like, "Alright, my video has to be the shit." We're all not in any form of competition, but we challenge each other to be as best as we can be knowing that what each one does really accentuates the other. And then, just on the scale of music, seeing what Chronixx is doing, Koffee is doing, Shenseea, Jada [Kingdom], lots of people. There's lots of people that are really putting work and time into their craft. I just want it to be an example of that. So when people know that I'm coming around with music, everybody can be like, “Let's get the popcorn, and watch what he's going to be doing and watch what the standard is going to be.” [Protoje, to The FADER]
Protoje has been cementing himself as a leader of cutting edge reggae for the past 15 years, and he still has the hunger and inspiration of an artist who's just getting started. He's fresh off releasing his excellent sixth album In Search of Lost Time (featuring Koffee, Popcaan, Lila Iké, and Wiz Khalifa), and he's been just as invested in his own music as he's been in his work as an expert curator. "If I hear, 'Yo, there's this dope new producer,' I want to put it to the test. I want to see if maybe this is the kid I've been looking for," he said in that same FADER interview. "It's the same with artists. The artist thing was more direct because something that I've always wanted to do was artist development."
That interest in artist development led to Protoje founding his In.Digg.Nation label/collective in 2014, which now includes great new artists Lila Iké and Sevana joining Protoje at the forefront of the label. "I couldn't sleep in the night [when I found Sevana and Lila] because I was like, 'I can't sleep without knowing that I'm going to be involved in their careers,'" Protoje told The FADER. "That's how I know how deep it was and for me."
"[Lila and Sevana] can do something for Jamaican music that can widen the definition of a Jamaican artist," he told AFROPUNK. "They can do that, just like what Koffee has done. Koffee has changed what it means to be reggae or dancehall. She is why everybody is confused as to what to call stuff."
In.Digg.Nation inked a deal with RCA this year facilitated by Six Course Records, and it's already been helping to bring the label's music and modern-day Jamaican music in general to a larger global audience. Lila released her debut EP The ExPerience on In.Digg.Nation/Six Course/RCA in May, and in her own words, it pulls from reggae, trap dancehall, reggaeton, pop, jazz, soul, and more, and perhaps its most unique, genre-defying song is "Solitude," a more somber, personal song that Protoje convinced Lila to put on the record after hearing her play it with just a guitar. It finds the middle ground between psychedelic soul, indie-R&B, and a slowed-down reggae groove, but even that description doesn't quite explain it. You just have to hear it for yourself, or watch the stunning rendition Lila and her band did of it to open their recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert:
Sevana also put out an EP on In.Digg.Nation/Six Course/RCA this year, Be Somebody, and her EP represents a very different side of today's Jamaican music scene. She's got a soaring voice and an R&B/soul vibe that's closer to the last few Beyonce albums than to classic reggae, but still with a variety of Jamaican rhythms, and no two songs on the EP sound alike. "Be Somebody is a very groundbreaking record for Jamaican music because there’s never been a Jamaican artist that sounds like what Sevana’s project sounds like," Protoje told AFROPUNK. "I’ll stand corrected if somebody can tell me."
In.Digg.Nation is having a massive year, but it didn’t happen overnight. A major turning point came in 2019, when Protoje tested the executive producer waters with the Rock & Groove Riddim compilation. In the long-running tradition of Jamaican riddim compilations, Rock & Groove Riddim features different songs from different singers over the same instrumental backing track (and a dub version of each song). It includes both Lila and Sevana, as well as Jaz Elise and Naomi Cowan, both of whom have also been making exciting new reggae music as of late. "This riddim caught me in a state of mind where I was all about quieting down the unnecessary noise around me and just deciding to be happy and do me," said Jaz Elise. "I’m the newest artist in the bunch and experiencing this just motivated me. The energy of us women coming together on this juggling was also pretty dope."
Just as important as the new wave of Jamaican artists is the new wave of Jamaican producers, like J.L.L. (who worked on Sevana and Lila's EPs), Ziah (who worked on Lila's EP and Protoje's album), and Iotosh (Lila and Protoje). "These kids are producing: J.L.L., iotosh, all of these guys, they all have their own sound," Protoje told AFROPUNK. "They listen to [frequent Protoje collaborator] Winta [James], Stephen Marley, RZA or Alchemist, Kanye West, or whoever. It’s like, 'How can I be groundbreaking in reggae music, how he was in hip-hop (without trying to be hip-hop)?' I want it to keep growing and evolving." Iotosh especially seems like the one to watch right now. "He is a young producer right now that’s about to come and just kill it in the game," Lila told Reggaeville. In an interview with Audiomack titled "Iotosh Is Jamaica’s Next Big Producer," Iotosh -- who also runs the label Sound Ting with Kyraxx and has also worked with Zac Jone$, Leno Banton, Royal Blu, Runkus, and more -- says he's influenced by everything from Lee “Scratch” Perry and The Congos to Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder to Japanese hip hop producer Nujabes, and he also agrees that something very new and exciting is happening in Jamaican music right now. "There’s a whole sound coming up right now, and we’re the foundation of it."
Iotosh also worked on a few tracks off another of 2020's biggest reggae albums, Jah9's Note To Self, including the Chronixx-featuring single/title track. It's the first album in four years from Jah9, who exploded onto the modern reggae scene with her 2013 debut album New Name, and it represents yet another side of today's diverse reggae landscape. It owes as much to hard-hitting late '70s / early '80s style reggae grooves as it does to '90s neo-soul. The Reggaeville review of the album compared it to both Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, and wrote, "It is, in no uncertain terms, The Miseducation Of Jah9."
Chronixx is also expected to release his highly anticipated sophomore album in the near future (so far, he's put out a few great singles from it), and Protoje's been hyping Chronixx's new music and Jah9's new music too. In addition to using In.Digg.Nation as a way to showcase artists he believes in, Spotify tapped Protoje to curate his own playlist for the streaming platform, Jamaica: Fresh & Clean, which he updates monthly and which currently includes tons of great music released in 2020. It includes songs from his own new album, the Lila and Sevana EPs, the new Jah9 album, the great new Popcaan album (which features two songs with Drake), the new Chronixx and Koffee singles, and new and recent songs from Jesse Royal, Kabaka Pyramid, Dre Island, Ras-I, Zuggu Dan, Mortimer, Tessellated, Keznamdi, Zac Jone$, Royal Blu, Runkus, Leno Banton (son of Burro Banton, who Buju Banton took his stage surname from), Skip Marley (grandson of Bob), and more. It's very worth subscribing to, and Protoje's also got an official In.Digg.Nation playlist and that's worth a look too.
Nestled within that playlist is a song from what was one of the most anticipated reggae debut albums of 2020, Dre Island's recently released Now I Rise. He's been grouped with the same reggae revival movement as Protoje, Chronixx, and Jah9 since releasing his first single in 2013, and he's been talking about his debut album since 2015. It was finally completed this year, and it very much lives up to its high expectations. With appearances by Chronixx, Popcaan, Jesse Royal, Alandon, Wyclef Jean, and others, it's a reggae/dancehall album with a contemporary hip hop/R&B tinge, and it nails the balance between honoring musical traditions and feeling forward-thinking. With a sample of a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speech, lyrics about equal rights, and a Wyclef Jean verse about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, it's also a lyrically urgent album in today's political climate, and in the face of both systemic injustice and a pandemic, Dre's goal is for the album to instill hope. "All I want this album to show is that after a storm, there must be a calm," he told Jamaica Gleaner. "It’s a great joy for me to spread the message that we will rise in these times. This was the right time, the perfect time for the album to come out."
The artists, songs, and albums highlighted in this article are of course just the tip of the iceberg of what's going on in Jamaican music right now, but if you've missed any of this stuff so far, hopefully you'll find that this is a good place to start. Check out a selection of videos below, and there's already more to come before the end of 2020: