Hailing from the parish of Saint Elizabeth, Jamaica’s breadbasket, where the rich red soil consistently bears the country’s best produce, and, depending on the level of activity by local law enforcement, the highest yields of the most potent ganja, reggae revivalist Oje ‘Protoje’ Ollivierre was born into music. His father, Michael ‘Lord Have Mercy’ Ollivierre, was crowned Calypso King in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in 1980, the year before Protoje was born; his mother (and manager) Lorna Bennett was a popular Jamaican singer in the seventies; and he shared his childhood with older cousin, and frequent collaborator, super-producer Don Corleon. Surrounded by and obsessed with music from an early age, Protoje made his first tentative steps to kick off a recording career with the Lyrical Overdose mixtape in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2009’s DJ Karim-produced hit “Arguments”, that he would finally find his legs as an artist.
Two years and four singles later, the breakaway success of his 2011 debut album, Seven Year Itch, announced Protoje’s arrival as a major new voice from Jamaica. While the sound of the album is defined by his sort of singjay style spit over Corleon’s dub-influenced tracks, the tales of ganja smuggling, music making, and relationship struggling that comprise the backbone of the record’s storyline are peppered throughout with the occasional hip-hop homage. A salute to the individual members of Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony, for example, is neatly tucked into this line from “On the Road”:
“So in class I was Layzie, always a Wish fi get so Bizzy pon the rhymes, it was Krayzie.”
Flesh-N-Bone slight aside, Protoje represents a new generation of reggae artists and fans who, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, are increasingly more familiar with a widening range of genres of music. From the rhythm and blues songs beamed into Jamaica by Louisiana radio stations in the fifties to Kool Herc’s early seventies rec room jams at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx; and from the raggamuffin trend that swept through the New York hip-hop scene in the early and mid nineties to the heavy hip-hop imprint on Jamaican music today, the decades-long musical feedback loop between Jamaica and the United States endures. Forming a surprisingly pleasing pastiche, Seven Year Itch is ultimately a unique mixture of sounds, styles and topics charting Protoje’s own spiritual and musical evolution from drug dealer to Rasta; and from rapper to reggae singer.
Growth continues, and the singles from his forthcoming sophomore effort, The 8 Year Affair, herald a turning point from the personal to the political, and a shift in the sonic landscape from dub to dancehall. The lead single, “Who Dem a Program" — with its nod to Papa San’s song of the same name and veiled references to the surreptitious deployment of U.S. reconnaissance drones during the 2010 police and military joint incursion into Tivoli Gardens to capture Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke that left over 70 residents dead — attempts to open a dialogue locally, and seems to be a conscious effort by Protoje to craft a new lane for himself in the dancehall. "Kingston Be Wise," the latest single, and another dancehall banger, picks up the thematic thread as it artfully sidesteps discussion of the transgressions of Dudus, instead tackling the issue from the ground as a parable about the impact of government corruption and media distortion.
Protoje - Kingston Be Wise (Music Video)
In the video for the song aerial shots juxtaposing affluent with impoverished areas of the city drive the point home, with the perspective dovetailing nicely from the allusions to an all-seeing eye in the sky on “Who Dem a Program.” After he told us who he is with Seven Year Itch, Protoje appears to be showing us what he’s about on The 8 Year Affair.
We recently met up with the man outside the legendary Grafton Studios in Vineyard Town after a rehearsal session. When we arrived the majority of The Indiggnation, the seven-piece band he performs with, had already left and Protoje himself was getting ready to hit the road, but ever accommodating he stuck around to hangout and shoot some photos. In between conversation about hip-hop, basketball and flattops (I was wearing a Chris Mullin jersey) Alexander did his thing.