Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Gyptian: Lover’s Rock God

Gyptian Gyptian

Determined not to fall prey to the ‘love god’ phenomenon associated with Jamaica’s leading lover’s rock icon Gyptian, I caught up with him at the Wembley Hilton in the midst of his promotional tour following the release of his fourth album “Sex Love and Reggae” on VP Records.

Gyptian is a key figurehead of Jamaica’s reggae scene who broke through in 2005 with the hit “Serious Times”, subsequently championing a slew of seminal hits including; “Beautiful Lady”, “Mama”, “My Name is Gyptian” and “Nah Let Go”.

Also widely recognised for…his phenomenal hit “Hold You” three years ago (certified gold in the US), ruling the airwaves in the Caribbean, demanding the attention of the music fans world-wide, and spawning reaffixes from heavyweight underground EDM producers across the globe such as; Major Lazer, Toddla T, Shy FX, Benny Page, Coki… Versions of the track were released featuring the likes of Nicki Minaj and D Double E…I was lucky to witness a live performance of this track at the London album launch and it didn’t disappoint.

The album (co-executive produced by Jerry “Wonda” Duplessis, previously having worked with Miguel, Mary J Blige, Lupe Fiasco, The Fugees) includes two outstanding covers, “My Number One” originally sung by Gregory Isaacs. Also Cindy Lauper’s “True Colours”, to which he not only does full justice, but gracefully holds the commercial door open to old and new listeners worldwide - speaking the message of the songs through the medium of his own music.

With the influences of the church and rastafari in his musical and cultural upbringing in rural St. Andrew, just outside Kingston, it was no surprise his talents were quickly channelled into the business of music. The universal appeal of not only his lyrical themes, but the uplifting hymnal chords and melodies within his earthy reggae, ensure that any listener on the planet can be touched by his music’s central theme of love.

“Love – I just say that because that’s what we all need: I need it, you need it, we all need it. My song is all about a happy time and really it’s happiness, people love that. So for me it’s just a fundamental thing, where people just come together as one; black, purple, pink white, you name it… dancing to the same thing.”

It may be impossible for anyone outside Jamaica, to understand the hard shell of circumstance that has not only catalysed the manifestation of reggae, but made it treacherous carving out a career there in music.

“Well coming from somewhere like Jamaica (a fourth album) that’s quite an achievement really (laughs); it’s a particular achievement for a recording artist y’know – I’m not a producer.”

Although Gyptian turns his hand to a bit of drum and guitar playing, and is fully conversant with the workings of a professional recording studio, he knows his strengths, and plays to them with aplomb.

The themes and depictions in films such as “The Harder They Come” are no joke, where the road from discovery to achieving international success is fraught with harsh politics, exploitation and cutthroat business tactics. The worldwide recognition of reggae means that any kind of musical talent is a serious career opportunity in Jamaica, often representing one of a very limited number of roads out of poverty and small island life available to young Jamaicans. The shameless exploitation of talent in the music industry is of course an emotive issue, but in the microcosm of Jamaican culture, it’s life and death, and when asked what he thought he would be doing if he hadn’t followed a musical path, Gyptian responds:

“I don’t think you would really approve of what I would say…”

Having braced myself for the ‘subtleties’ of a rasta love god’s modus operandi in relation to members of the opposite sex, I was struck by how down to earth, relaxed, and articulate Gyptian was about his music achievements and circumstances in life. I had fully expected his stage persona to be in full effect as is so often the case with ‘rock n roll’ egos, and yet I was instantly humbled.

He is clearly fully aware that the overt sexual politics underpinning Jamaican culture can be unpalatable to those who don’t understand it, and how it could alienate listeners, particularly women, from other cultures who may disregard his music as sexist or even misogynistic.

The single “Vixen” from the album co-written and featuring Angela Hunte of Jay Z’s Empire State of Mind fame, has overt sexual themes that could easily be misinterpreted:

“A Vixen is a woman that take command, that love to do it her way, but a powerful woman, in her sexiness, not in dressing up in costumes etc, just a way about her…”

He also has a firm grip on the power and influence his words have on his listeners, and takes this on board, a trait which is sadly lacking in many artists who gain status through musical success:

“Even if I don’t do it, people will do it, so you just put it in a song and put a melody to it and people can relate to it… simple simple simple, like, I sing about how to treat a woman, and a man will listen, and learn to treat a woman like that and if you really listen to my songs you realise that it’s not derogatory, and if it’s not derogatory it’s a good meaning, y’know.”

In an industry underpinned by sexual politics and heavily sexist in nature, only the foolish would ignore the part that these politics play in it. It would therefore seem hypocritical to condemn, disregard, or censor a depiction of one of the driving forces in Jamaican and world dance music, which is veritably mild in comparison to the harder lyrical content found in sub genres such as bashment and gangster rap.

Gyptian has the kind of humility and self-possessed fortitude that comes with true star quality. Much as he was never forced by his parents to pursue a career in music, he would never impose his career choice or beliefs on his own children:

“I don’t know. It’s more like… a lot of people would say (about my children) why you don’t locks them? No, they don’t want to be locks, but they have their own freedom, their own mind… if they want to do (music) when they get older they do.

I got my own back. I know I’m strong-minded. Thinking is when you’re going to do something: when you’re sure, it’s done. Coming from where I’m coming from, and in this shit house game that I’m in, you got to be strong…. It’s nearly ten years now.”

Despite coming from a small island, reggae has a huge amount of commercial and iconic power, to which the Marley empire attests. The Marley family is tantamount to royalty in Jamaica, and following the recent release by Tuff Gong of the film “Marley”, the legend appears to live on. I asked Gyptian how he saw the future of the genre in relation to Robert Nesta’s legacy:

“I mean, the Bob Marley recognition is forever, but the thing is it’s getting old… it’s not getting old, it IS old (laughs), but probably down to really young artists not working as they should, or people just literally trying to get rid of it, or from the beginning they never really want it, but they couldn’t stop it: it went abroad, and has that impact on people, and I think it’s not really fans fighting our reggae music, it’s the music industry abroad, because it’s not in Jamaica! Politics is in everything, and politics don’t stop. They probably have the means and the how to stop something, and bring something to the table; we all have to just adapt to it as usual, whatever structure whatever plan they have that’s just what we have to do… It all has to do with the top: it’s not the bottom not the middle it’s the top.

They have the key to the dam: everywhere is dry, and they just have to reach up and turn that key and everybody just have water, but I guess it is what it is and they have their plans… man like me cyan stop it. We have to just try – sing – like Jim, sing like Bob sing like Shaggy sing like Jnr Gong whoever, maybe one day it become what we all wish for, what we all working for…”

Much as he laments the constrictive sway of commercialism over reggae music, some of Gyptian’s collaborations, Nicki Minaj, and Snoop Lion, are clearly A listers in the US pop scene:

“Big acts like myself: you gotta pay your dues, but money you can’t bring it with you when you die.”

When questioned about Snoop’s transition from ‘Dogg’ to ‘Lion’, Gyptian gave an honest response:

“That’s not my business, but I think it’s doing wonders for our industry; enough people probably saying Snoop is looking resurrection, but it’s not resurrection because that’s Snoop. I have no problem I feel like it’s even broadening the music, because Snoop Lion fans will probably be bigger than Snoop Dogg fans, because from the littlest to the oldest it ring a bell; I think him coming into this thing is one of the best things happening in a long while: I’m not into politics I’m all about uplifting with our music y’know.”

He is equally pragmatic and direct about what he loves and hates most about his chosen path in life:

“I love the girls, the applause, seeing everybody getting together, it’s different each time, leaves a good memory scar every time!

I don’t like the politics. I don’t mind the criticism because they’re talking about somebody and that somebody happens to be you at times, people know that you’re still around. When people are fighting this and fighting that and not letting this go through just because they got the power, that’s just that: the politics.”

Gyptian’s eloquently stoic philosophy seems to relate to music and to life in general, in equal measure, and for those wondering what’s in store for the next ten years:

“Future? What is the future? I will do this til I am no more, because I’ve tried everything else and this, it works… Music is the greatest thing for a man like me… whatever was supposed to be… it wasn’t…”

The album “Sex, Love and Reggae” is out now on VP Records.

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