Sizzla: Musical Revolutionary

Bearing in mind the huge sums they get for concerts and voicing specials, it’s easy to think of Jamaica’s leading musical personalities as superstars, living in some kind of tropical paradise and driving around in luxury vehicles. The reality is often far different and in Sizzla’s case, you may as well be describing another world altogether.

He’s an enigma in truth – one who’s banned from performing in certain European countries because of his occasional anti-gay lyrics, and yet who’s honoured by heads of state whenever he visits African countries as on his recent trip to Gambia, where he met with the President, the Secretary of State and other local dignitaries. Such contrasts speak volumes about how a black man calling for equal rights and justice is treated in different parts of the world, and bear an uncanny similarity to what Black Power leaders such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael went through back in the sixties.

Sizzla’s only rarely engaged with the media in the past, and he’s been widely misunderstood as a result. By his own admission, he doesn’t talk much unless he’s “going to pray and chant, or unless I’m going to sing or have a reasoning.” He doesn’t have much time either, since in addition to being one of Jamaica’s most prolific and influential recording artists [and his output over the past fifteen years has been truly staggering], he also has a great many other responsibilities to take care of.

As a Rastaman, Sizzla follows the example of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, who he and other cult members revere as the Messiah. This doesn’t involve mere lip service, but a lifetime spent helping others less fortunate than themselves. It’s here where the lines between commerce – i.e., the music industry – and religion or social conscience begin to blur, since Sizzla is also a fully qualified priest within his chosen Rastafarian Order, as well as their treasurer.

With the money earned from his best-selling Da Real Thing and Overstanding albums, he built a tabernacle and 24-track recording studio in his home community of August Town. It’s there, in this rundown outpost several miles north of Kingston where you’ll find Judgment Yard – a Rasta enclave some have described as Sizzla’s personal fiefdom, but which clearly doesn’t even begin to explain what really happens there. More than just a modern-day equivalent of Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong [now a museum], it’s also a place of worship and learning, where acolytes can join together in pray or religious studies, and discuss how best to help alleviate the suffering of Jamaica’s underprivileged. If that sounds grandiose, well so be it, because it’s actually the truth.

“From we praise Rastafari, certain things must happen,” Sizzla explains. “Rastafari is a man and a King, and the King is supposed to take responsibility for the country. He’s supposed to look after the people and give them what they need, so if we praise the king, then we should be doing the same thing. Because if His Majesty wouldn’t be here, just walking about. Are you joking? No, we’d have to be doing what we can, building something to help the King lead this beautiful nation…”

As part of their everyday reverences, many Rastafarians say, ‘Let the hungry be fed, the naked be clothed, the sick be nourished and the aged protected.’ Sizzla takes such matters seriously and uses his earnings to fund a wide range of projects, whether it’s helping local people with their everyday struggles, or establishing a communications centre that’ll provide the international Rastafarian fraternity with a direct link to what’s happening in Jamaica.

“That is why I make so many songs,” he says, speaking on the phone from Jamaica. “I don’t only make songs to give people inspiration. I make songs to trap money also, so I can help people with their lives. We need to step out of this bad influence where people say, ‘Why is Sizzla making so many songs?’ It’s just that the youths are catching on to the music so fast, and if they’re going to come to me to record for them, then what am I going to do? Am I going to turn them away? No, I just record straight, and I never stop recording. If today they bring five rhythms, by next week I’m on them, and if the week after that they bring ten, then I’ll record on them as well. That’s the way we do it, because we need money to buy computers, laptops, mobile phones and all the things that can be of benefit to the people. The law says we shouldn’t steal or kill, right? And yet some people can’t see how they’re going to survive without doing those things. If the government were to provide more jobs and more opportunities for the youths, then you might see a decrease in the crime rate, but that’s why so many youths turn to music, because they see it as a way to get what they want, without having to steal or kill for it. They see how Sizzla sing a beautiful song like Thank You Mama and it comes like a gift to every one of them, because it give them the inspiration to start doing the music for themselves, and it was the same thing for me too, because from I hear artists like Bob Marley and Peter Touch – singers who see the people suffering and decide to help – then I decide I want to do it too. I want to do songs that give a vibes to the people and make things easier for them.

“Every morning in my community, I stand out in the road and all the kids come to me for lunch money. They come running, saying, ‘Dadda!’ and I give them what I have. To them, I am always rich, and so it’s up to me to keep finding the money so that I can give them something because it’s not my family alone who lives in the community; other people live there too. We are there with other Rasta people like ourselves. We sit and reason, and I don’t have just one family or one set of parents; I have a whole community of them so you share the spirit with them, and also the tribulations because they’ll say, ‘Dadda, I’m hungry and can’t feed my family…’ They’ll weep and moan with you, but when there’s a time of praise and joy, let them share it, y’understand? That’s what keeps me balanced, and that’s what living in the community does for me. I don’t hide the music either. If I’m going to do a stage show and they’re going to give me $3 million to do it, I let them hear it and they say, ‘What? Dadda get that kind of money to do one show?’ From there, they start singing and take their responsibilities seriously now. I use my life, my money and my higher self to inspire these people to do righteousness. That’s how I do it, but the government should give these youths work, instead of leading them into crime. A lot of countries like Jamaica have land that’s left unused, so they should build properties on it; teach the people to make clothes, shoes, tents, anything… A lot of people are quick to criticise the youths after someone gets convicted or becomes wanted, but why can’t they do something for them instead? Because the youths we have here are carrying too much, and it’s them getting all the lynching, the persecution and the beatings. The system’s not doing anything for them. All they can do is think of how to survive, and their only way out is to sell drugs and to rob or kill, because if they don’t eat, they’re going to die and so they’ll do anything to get that food to put in their mouths. The problem keeps adding up on us, and the government should have been thinking about this from a long time, but that is why we keep saying how we need more jobs, more schools and more training centres, and that is why you find the music is being flooded with so many young youths today. Whether they’re singing conscious songs or not, the music is a channel through which they can eat something without robbing or killing for it, so it’s just simply that my father.”

If you assume that singing for money lessens the power of his music, then it’s time to think again. People are already describing his latest album, Ghetto Youthology, as his strongest in years and with good reason, since tracks such as Black Man In The White House, Tax Payers’ Money, Gwaan Bear and Ghetto Yutes Dem A Suffer articulate what’s happening in the world around us with unflinching accuracy, and no small measure of compassion. By way of balance [and just like those classic Bob Marley and Dennis Brown albums of old], Ghetto Youthology also includes its share of love songs; most notably I Am Loving You and a gorgeous duet called What Am I To Do Baby? Sizzla’s far from one-dimensional and he’s loyal too, since he shares production credits with the Firehouse Crew, who’ve backed him on innumerable hits over the years – ever since he first appeared on a scene as a precocious young sing-jay back in the early nineties.

“Firehouse Crew were Luciano’s band originally,” he reminds us, “and I’ve been travelling with that band all this time, ever since I took my first trip off the isle of Jamaica, and I’m still not through with them. We get together and say, ‘you know something? We’ve been through all these changes, and so we should come together and do an album,’ and we’ve been doing it for a while; recording one song here or in Europe, then we get back and write another song. We might do one for Bobby Digital or Fatis, but from we get back then I do one with the Firehouse Crew as well. That’s how we did it, and the tracks add up until we get an album. I’ve got a whole lot of songs like that though. Currently, I’ve got about ten albums of unreleased material; we’ve got a lot of other projects going on.”

The closing track on the new album is called Babylon Ease Off. It’s a sufferers’ lament, chanted over Rasta drumming, and Sizzla’s demonstration of where this music originates from will stay with me forever.

“Right now I’m going to go by the nyahbinghi and let you hear,” he says, opening the door of the Judea Coptic Church next door to where he lives. “You hear that?” he asks, as the sound of Rasta chants and drumming begins to drown out his voice.

“That’s the real music right there and no matter which Rastaman in the world, whether it’s Bob Marley, Jacob Miller or whoever; that’s their churchical music. Those aren’t young boys playing either. Those are the priests and the music band from one of the churches of His Majesty, and they’re here at the tabernacle, where they practise and chant and they reason on certain matters before going out in the community.

“People listen to reggae and thinks it’s only music, but reggae is an inspiration,” he says, with just a hint of sadness. “It’s a musical route to educate the world; to make a money and to make a living. It’s a part of our culture and we don’t let it go. We maintain it, and people say ‘One love’ yes, but they don’t know about this nyahbinghi, yet it’s the same music that crowned His Majesty. It’s part of an ancient Order, and we’ve been tracking it, coming right down from even before Christ. It’s just one lineage, yeah? And from I wake up in the morning, I can hear the Rastamen reading their Bible and giving thanks and praises. I’m very active in the Rastafari community, y’know? I spend four years studying the Melchezidek Order. What I do, I just take care of the yard, build the fences, fix the drum, get the robes, get the turbans, get the shirts and everything… I just maintain that; I don’t need to be running down the altar and stuff like that. I let the elders take care of that, but I’m a reader at the Judea Coptic Church, and I’m a treasurer for the Ancient Order of Nyahbinghi, so I’m not just an artist. I’m registered to teach the foundation of Rastafari, and I got a lot of history…”

John Masouri

 

Originally printed in Echoes, May 2009

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About johnmasouri
John Masouri is a long-time author and music journalist specialising in reggae and its many off-shoots including dub, ska, roots and dancehall. The author of Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers, published by Omnibus Press in 2008, he is currently working on a biography of reggae singer Peter Tosh, due to appear next year. In addition to book projects, he continues to write articles and reviews for Reggae Vibes (France), Riddim (Germany) and Echoes - formerly Black Echoes - which is renowned as Britain's No. 1 black music monthly. His work has also appeared in Mojo, Music Week, the Guardian, the Observer and the NME, as well as magazines in the US, Caribbean and Japan.

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