Protoje, Music And A Fearless Generation
April 2009: Protoje’s first performance at Jamanesia.
Until that point in his life, he had never performed with a live band, but that night changed the course of his life. A surf club isn’t the first place to come to mind when thinking of an artist’s musical grassroots, but destiny has a tendency of manifesting itself in unconventional ways.
Jamnesia Surf Club was hosting its biweekly Jamnesia Sessions which afforded local musicians and performing artists an opportunity to showcase their talent. The surfer’s haven, which is just east of Kingston in Eight Miles Bull Bay, was the conception of Billy “Mystic” Wilmot who is the island’s godfather of surfing and band member of the Mystic Revealers. The Mystic Revealers was a reggae band whose popularity began to peak in 1985. The band saw success right up to the 2000’s until they decided to venture into other interests. For Wilmot, it was legitimizing the sport of surfing in Jamaica through opening up Jamnesia Surf Club but it also included continuing his love for music in the form Jamnesia Sessions. Unbeknownst to him, it would become a space where now revered artist had their musical beginnings.
“I’d never played with a live band before or anything so it was really new. They just called me out and I didn’t plan to go on [but] I just started with a song called “Dread”...The place started going nuts. They hadn’t seen anything like me up until that point. I was one of the first of my kind at that time so it was very eye opening...that was kinda the start of the new movement in Jamaican music.”
Born Oje Ken Ollivierre, the artist we know as Protoje, had grown up around music his entire life. After all, his mother is Lorna Bennett—who saw success with her reggae rendition of Dusty Springfield’s ‘Breakfast in Bed’ in the early 1970s. His father, Mike Ollivierre is a Calypsonian powerhouse from Saint Vincent and his cousin is producer, Don Corleon. Given that music literally runs through his blood, it would only seem natural that he develop an interest in pursuing music as a full time career (though, he briefly flirted with the idea of being a lawyer following in the footsteps of his mother). “The thought of being onstage didn’t seem outrageous to me”, says the artist. He describes his Santa Cruz, St. Elizabeth upbringing, and by extension the environment of Jamaica, as being a place where music is truly part of everyone’s life. At school, at work, and even during the commute, riddims are the default. “You’ll never be anywhere in Jamaica and not be able to hear a faint sound of music coming from somewhere”, he shares, and perhaps this direct and indirect inundation of music is responsible for who and what Protoje is today.
The artist currently has three albums and one mixtape in his discography: ‘The Seven Year Itch’ (which came out shortly after his stints at Jamnesia Sessions in 2011), his mixtape ‘This is Protoje’ that released the following year, 2013 gave way to ‘The Eight Year Affair’ and two years later came ‘Ancient Future’. It was during this time that the artist garnered a lot of local and international attention, along with his peers Chronixx, Jah 9, Jesse Royal and others, who were dubbed as Reggae Revival artists—a term coined by Jamaican author and DJ Dutty Bookman as a means to acknowledge the resurfacing and massive popularization of reggae that was occuring in 2011. Says Protoje, “We’ve gotten back some attention and are just trying to grow the genre even more and just grow the genre of Jamaican music even more and not be bound to [the] term reggae and even the term revival. People will look on my music...and say, ‘Yeah but it’s not real reggae or original reggae.’ None of us are trying to sound like 1981 or 1976. We’re trying to see what we can do to even push the boundaries of what you think reggae music is.”
If you logged onto Twitter sometime in February of last year, you may have been witness to a sea of users who had changed their profile pictures to the same image. A lone, black palm tree was in the foreground of what seemed to be a red painted canvas and “Protoje Blood Money” in small letters was in the bottom left hand corner. The premiere of the single was on the horizon and fans had changed their profile photos in support of the artist. “Blood Money” is an unapologetic record that speaks to the greed, corruption and criminal ties to some of the country’s upper class citizens and politicians. The track’s minimal production provides a fitting backdrop for the artist’s socially conscious and politically laden lyrics that called for accountability from Jamaica’s elite and ruling class. Eight months later, the song was co-opted to assist the political platform of the PNP (People’s National Party) during one of their conferences. The irony. Later that year he released “Truth and Rights” featuring fellow artist Mortimer, a record that reaffirmed his promise to call out the ills of injustice, which had the same powerful effect as “Blood Money”.
People gravitated towards the songs because of its boldness and transparency, which despite his demure persona, Protoje is no stranger to. It’s the reason he’s been able to amass the fans he has who appreciate his usage of music to champion their concerns. He mentions, “Growing up in this time you get access to a lot of information. You see injustices going on. A lot of oppression, a lot of control methods you see being used. We, as youth, have an opportunity to break that cycle and make sure that our children come up with more information than we did...Our parents didn’t have camera phones to show everything that was happening so we see a lot of stuff that they didn’t get to see. I just think it’s for our generation to make sure that our children, and just even people now, are aware of things and can stand up against it.”
The same sense of responsibility for one another is foundational in his philosophically-rooted In.Digg.Nation Collective. The independent creative label is home to upcoming artists like Sevana Siren and Lila Ike, and other creatives like artist Eva Flow and DJ Yaadcore. It is very much expanding as it groups in other writers, producers, musicians and performing artists to create in-house projects. On its impression on Jamaica’s music and culture, Protoje aims to raise the bar of creative output and hopes people, “get an example of what can be done through collaboration and what can be done when a lot of people come together and try to move the culture forward. Also to give the youths coming up something to aspire towards, to be like, to do on their own or to be part of. Just to raise the standard of all aspects of the art of creative arts in Jamaica.”
2017 was a big year for Protoje. He was able to end the year with a performance at Pier One in Montego Bay, sharing a stage with Chronixx for the Caribbean leg of his Chronology tour. People have often pitted the two artists against each other, but there can exist two artists who excel in the same field and there really is no bad blood between them. “Chronixx is a good friend of mine, a brilliant artist and probably my favourite artist right now”, Protoje says. “We’ve known each other for a minute and he reached out and was like, ‘Yo I wanna do this. I want to do this with you, it’ll be dope.’ I was like ‘Yo, let’s go get it.’ It’s all about collaborating and finding ways to move the culture forward and he's definitely for that so it just worked very naturally.”
For 2018, the artist has big plans. He is currently working on a project set to drop later this year and is scheduled to appear on quite a few international stages. On beginnings, Protoje says, “I think that when you take life a day at a time, literally meaning you get up today and your only concern is getting through the day, being happy and being positive, I think that is the greatest thing because sometimes you can get overwhelmed by life...that’s what beginnings mean to me: an opportunity to change anything and everything about yourself and to constantly evolve into a new person.”