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Etana performing at the Novo with "Klyde Records," Los Angeles, California | Courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper

Reggae Star Etana Emphasizes Equality (The Interview)

Q: In February of 2013, after you released your third album, “Better Tomorrow,” you were interviewed by journalist Angus Taylor for the online-magazine United Reggae, and during that interview you were asked, “Is working with one producer where you want to be right now?” Because I think that album was produced entirely by Shane Brown – son of the legendary sound engineer for Bob Marley, Errol Brown –

Courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper

Etana: Yeah.

Q: And you said, “I think so, you get to tell a better story and have one sound throughout so it sounds like more of a complete album.” Now this is not the case with “Reggae Forever.” In fact, the way I’d describe it is: there’s a [veritable] “ital stew” of producers on “Reggae Forever.”

Etana: (Laughing) Yes.

Q: You have songs produced by J-Vibe Productions, Rymshot Productions, Kirkledove Records, Royal Roots Band, Dorian Green [the drummer for Morgan Heritage]. So, there were many producers on “Reggae Forever,” and of course it’s OK that you changed your mind about working with just one producer like on “Better Tomorrow.” Indeed, for me, it really worked out. And obviously [given the album’s number one ranking on the Billboard chart], the reggae-listening-public agrees. Because the album really shows off your versatility.

Etana: Yeah.

Q: It’s a very good mixture of songs for different moods and different times. But, the unifying themes [of the songs on the album] are love, relationships, conquering personal struggles, and then, also, with the last song “Jah Love,” faith. Do you agree that those are the album’s major themes?

Etana: I agree. And also, having the freedom to be who you are. Like the song called “Free, Pt. 2,” it’s really about being who you are, and accepting who you are, and allowing that to shine through.

Q: The album has roots tunes but also lover’s rock. It also has some dancehall-style tracks, and even a ska-flavored tune, “You’re the One.”

Etana: (Laughing) Yeah.

Q: Was this eclectic mixture of sounds what you planned to do from the start when you first conceptualized “Reggae Forever,” or did that just happen as you went along, recording the tracks with different producers, and in different studios?

Etana: I wanted to have different sounds. And I wanted to work with a lot of young producers as well, you know? People who are not as popular as say Clive Hunt or Shane Brown, but who are very good at what they do [too]. Yeah, I just wanted to be more free, and have a greater spectrum of sound.

Q: In another interview with Angus Taylor, this time a recent one for specifically about “Reggae Forever,” you indicated it was really a conscious decision that some of these tracks on this new album would be a bit more daring – a bit spicier.

Etana: They are. (Laughing)

Q: Especially in the depiction of male and female sexual relationships, true?

Etana: Yeah. (Laughing) I mean, I used to ask people back in the day, “So, what, Rasta don’t make love?” You know? Are we allowed to?

Q: (Laughing) I hope so.

Etana: (Laughing) I use to kind of tone it down a little bit – and I still kinda toned it down a little bit. Because I think about the kids. And I feel like there are certain things that they don’t need to know exactly everything about. So I try my best to keep it [respectable], you know?

Q: The spiciest songs are my favorite ones on the album.

Etana: (Laughing) Thank you.

Q: I’m thinking especially about the songs “Sprung,” “Burned,” “No Money, No Love,” and to some extent, “Carry You.” Although, really, even though Angus Taylor said that song was “pushing a line in terms of your lyrical content,” the most provocative thing about “Carry You” is at one point in the song you use the word “sh*t.”

Etana: Yeah.

Q: And you say that to describe the hard times the couple in the song have been through together – and will continue to get through together. Did you have to release a “clean” version of the song – without that word – for it to be played on the radio?

Etana: No. I wasn’t asked to and I don’t intend to. Why? Because what’s the first thing you say when you get into the hardest situations? Something that really shocks you? You say, sh*t! You know? And that’s what it is. Some of the hardest moments that knock you to the floor. [Radio stations] can bleep it out if they want.

Courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper

Q: I know that your first blush with the professional recording industry here in the U.S. came after you left college, where you were studying to be a nurse. You joined the all-girl-group “Gift,” but grew disillusioned when they tried to control you and make you wear skimpy outfits – they were capitalizing on your sexuality.

Etana: Yes.

Q: Do you feel vindication all these years later to be able to embrace sexuality in your music, but to be able to do it entirely on your own terms?

Etana: You know what? Yes. This is what I intended to do, once I decided to do music again. Because [I could have made] a decision to not do music ever again. Once I decided to do music again, I wanted to ensure that no one was able to do that [to me] again. That I’m be able to just be myself. Wear what I want to wear. Cover up as much I want to and –

Q: Be your own woman?

Etana: Yeah.

Q: But I guess even with songs like “Sprung,” which is essentially a song about a woman’s uncontrollable lust for her man, and then “Burned,” which concerns the sadly all too familiar circumstance of a man cheating on his woman, do you think it’s fair for journalists like myself and others in the media to put an undue focus on the sexualized nature of some of your new songs? By this, I especially mean, is there a greater scrutiny, perhaps a double-standard even in the reaction to a female reggae star singing about mature relationships – and her sexuality – than if it was a male singer?

Etana: I just think it’s much harder for a female anyway in reggae. They’re not expected to be too strong. Not expected to speak out on anything. You’re not expected to sound too forward. You’re always expected to kinda be like a woman; the expected idea of a woman.

Q: You’ve described the culture in the reggae music industry before as being like a “soccer team.”

Etana: (Laughing) Yeah. It is a soccer team!

Q: (Laughing) Where you are now in your musical career though, are you still in a place where you’re forced to deal with this “soccer team?” Or, because you’re running your own show now, [maybe] that’s not such a big issue anymore?

Etana: It’s not such a big issue anymore. What I find is [males in the reggae music business] are somewhat and sometimes intimidated. And they can get aggressive with little things like who gets to perform first, you know, little things like that.

Q: I ask because some of the most famous male singers, even Bob Marley, have the most suggestive, provocative songs. Take, just for example, “Stir It Up!”

Etana: Exactly!

Q: And yet, [these male reggae singers] are not as scrutinized [over their suggestive lyrics] as female reggae singers –

Etana: They will never be. I said the other day when they were interviewing me on the radio that a man can take drugs, do drugs, he can rape a female, he can murder somebody, he can do anything that he wants to do. And he is still honored and praised. Let that be a female, and she [will] be stoned to death.

Q: Now, the official music video for “Burned,” more so than just the lyrics themselves, that video is undoubtedly very provocative – but in a violent, not a sexual way. Obviously the video is art – just like the song; you’re not really advocating for people to murder their partner if they get cheated on, true?

Etana: (Laughing) True. I guess because Etana said it, [and] because it’s in an Etana video, that means I’m telling you to do it. And that’s not true.

Q: I didn’t take it that way at all.

Etana: A lot of people did. Not a lot, but a few.

Q: I took it more figuratively; that you were trying to express how shocking and painful, and how deeply felt it is to be cheated on.

Etana: Yes, exactly. And a lot of women think I should do this and I should do that, but we never do. Maybe one in a million probably will do something crazy like that. But it’s just how you feel at the time.

Q: And I think a lot of people can relate to that. Now, “No Money, No Love,” featuring “Nutty-O,” which is a dancehall, afrobeats-style tune, that’s one of my favorite tracks on this new album.

Etana: Thank you.

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