By Stephen A Cooper
Jesse Royal is one of the brightest stars in music today. Cutting edge and conscious, Royal, a Rasta singer “affectionately known” as “The Small Axe,” exudes a regal presence on stage and in person. Versatile, with oversized talent and an ever-growing discography of unique and rootical hits–including the occasional love song and homage to the blessed herb–it is only a matter of time before Royal ascends his rightful throne in reggae.
Indeed, just recently, on February 10, 2018, like a lion on a crisp, cloudy afternoon in Long Beach, California, Royal ruled over a talent-rich pride of reggae artists at the One Love Cali Reggae Festival; his sizzling, standout performance–delivered to the joyful, red, green, and gold adorned reggae massive–will be reminisced about, reflected upon, and above all, fondly remembered, possibly, forever.
Afterwards, in a cramped, austere trailer and makeshift dressing room backstage, bespeaking the often unglamorous reality of life as a touring reggae star, Royal held court with me. The many topics we discussed included: the level of support for reggae music by the Jamaican government; the making and release of his red-hot debut album “Lily of da Valley,” politicians in Jamaica and their approach to crime; his becoming a Rasta despite having been raised in the Baptist church; marijuana; and the controversy surrounding the Grammy award for Best Reggae Album. What follows is a transcription of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.
Q: Give thanks for taking the time to do the interview.
Jesse Royal: Yeah man.
Q: Wonderful performance today; the crowd really enjoyed it!
Jesse Royal: Mi glad them could enjoy the experience, you know?
Q: Congratulations also on the October release of your debut album, Lily of da Valley, you played many songs from it today.
Jesse Royal: Yeah. We play a couple: “Rock It Tonight,” “Roll Me Something Good,” “Generations,” “400 Years,” [“Modern Day Judas”], [and “Finally”].
Q: They didn’t give you enough time [on stage]?
Jesse Royal: Yeah. I mean, everything in time is time, and then there’ll be another time.
Q: Now even though Lily of da Valley is your first full-length album, you’re hardly a rookie on the professional reggae music scene. Don’t you agree?
Jesse Royal: We’re always learning. And we always see ourselves as continuously evolving creatures, you know? I wouldn’t call myself a rookie. We are still some youths where, I learn as we go and [I am] getting the blessing from all the elders who pave a path forward. So mi kinda know where fi walk. But we’re still defining ourselves with each album, each experience, and each show. We know life. But we still have a whole lot to learn. Because life in itself is such a lesson.
Q: Respect. The reason why I bring this up is because you’ve been on the professional reggae music scene for years. At least going back to 2013, and possibly earlier, your music has been popular in Jamaica and internationally. So, because I think everyone would agree you are experienced and knowledgeable about what is happening in reggae music, I want to ask you about something Tony Rebel, reggae star and founder of the famous “Rebel Salute” (music festival in Jamaica), said to a journalist over 26 years ago. In an interview printed in a book called Reggae Island [by Brian Jahn & Tom Weber], first published in Kingston in 1992, Tony Rebel said: “I think those people who are in authority in Jamaica should place some effort around our music, in order to give it exposure, or show that they appreciate and love the way the music is heading. They don’t seem to know the significance of the music. They put the least effort around reggae.” 26 years later, as one of the top young reggae stars from Jamaica, would you say the situation has changed at all?
Jesse Royal: No man, the situation is still the same. But because we a deal with truth, we know we must get up and fight. Once you deal with truth and rights, you go and get a fight. That is the reality of life. You know what I mean? So we can echo those sentiments [of Tony Rebel’s] today inna 2018. Because no matter wah gwaan, everything we a see gwaan is individual effort, collective thought, and sheer willpower. [There’s] no help or anything from anyone out there you know – government or anyone – [that] seems to know the value of word, sound, and power. Only want to use it when it is advantageous to them, and dem rasclat plot or scheme.
Q: [In the same interview] Tony Rebel said that nothing brings in as much tourism or needed foreign exchange [to Jamaica] as reggae.
Jesse Royal: Nothing!