Q: (Laughing) As Trump continues to take more and more actions that threaten harm to the environment and the world’s population [generally], do you believe reggae artists, and all artists, have an obligation to use their platform and their lyrics to – just like you did in [“Camera Show”] – explicitly call him out?
Protoje: No. I don’t feel any artist has any obligation to anything; I just never will feel that. You can’t tell somebody what they should sing about or be about. Just as I am free to say something about it, other artists are free to not say something about it. I just feel like [artists] should sing about what they’re inspired to sing about. And I hope that many [artists] would be interested in what’s happening with the world, but I can’t force an artist to sing about it. And Trump is – America is a circus now, bro. Straight up. It’s a circus out here. It’s crazy: Somebody trolled their way to the presidency. He’s a troll. He’s an internet troll. That’s what he is. And he trolled his way into [the presidency]. Which makes me, again, realize what America is. Because he’s just a product of society. If society wasn’t a certain way, they would never vote for someone like that in power.
Q: I can’t disagree with you. Now, on Soundchat Radio TV with Irish and Chin in April, you said, “America’s where most of my work needs to be done mostly,” especially on the East Coast. And in July, you told Rolling Stone, “the US market is very tricky.” What’s “tricky” about America for you in terms of the market?
Protoje: It’s like 50 different countries. You can be popping in Florida and nobody knows about you in Atlanta. It’s 50 different countries.
Q: Do you focus mostly on the coasts? I hate to say it, but there are a lot of mostly Trump supporters in the middle of the country. Do you give up on the middle [of the country]?
Protoje: I do a lot of times. I’m supposed to do a tour there in January and I turned it down. I was like I don’t want to be right now in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and those places. I just don’t want to be riding around; twelve black men riding around in a bus in Alabama. I’m not about that life, you know what I mean? And then, I’m not trying to spend the next three years playing 150 [capacity] venues, 200 capacity venues somewhere, trying to break into middle America. So we go where – when you have limited resources you have to focus it on where [you] can benefit. And try to grow from there. So California, west coast, New York where there’s a diaspora, the Tri-State area, and [on] that side [of the country], come down to Florida, is what we really have as Jamaican artists. We try to focus on that and try to spread it out from there. America is tricky because of what the youth listen to. How do I reach an eighteen-year-old kid from South Florida? Or from Omaha[, Nebraska]? How do I reach those people? It’s very hard. You’re not going to hear me on mainstream radio. You’re not going to hear or see me on TV. How do they get [exposed to my] music if they’re not even reggae fans? So, it’s just very difficult to break into America.
Q: About three weeks ago you wrote on Twitter: “I’ve never seen a more ungrateful set of people than the American pop star.” What or who were you reacting to when you let that tweet fly?
A: I just think the American pop star – the whole thing about being a pop star is crazy. So you obsess about being number one, and you’re talking about, “I’m number one. I’m number one. I’m number one.” And then, you can’t be number one forever. And when someone comes and replaces you as number one, you start to complain and whine, “Oh, I am this and I am that.” Then you go on Twitter or you go online and you’re professing how you’re the shit, and “I am this and I am that.” And then three months later you are on [the] Ellen [DeGeneres] show talking about you’re depressed, and you’re taking antidepressants and all that. Where was that depression when you were talking all your shit? Know what I mean? Depression is not something to make light of, or fun of. And I feel like a lot of celebrities [will say things like]: “Oh, I’m depressed. I sold 180,000 my first week instead of 500,000. Oh, oh, the agony. Oh, the defeat.” And for me, I’m like, bro, I just think you need to be more grateful in life. I don’t sell anywhere near that, and I bet you I’m happier with my little piece of the pie than a lot of these people with their great piece. And I just think that being obsessed with being number one is just a sure way to bring depression. Because you can’t be number one forever.
Q: In recent interviews you’ve discussed the increased importance that numbers are playing in the music business: number of downloads, streams, [social media] followers, so forth and so on. In reading what you’ve said about this, you seemed to be both frustrated but also resigned that this is just the way it is now. And as an artist, producer, and businessman, you have no choice but to be very knowledgeable and conversant about the numbers. Is this accurate?
Protoje: I mean, it’s a numbers game. So you try to do your best to reach as many people as you can reach. We don’t have any big budgets. We don’t have any big labels supporting us. We don’t have any of that. So you just go and do what you can.
Q: Part of the reason I [wondered if you were frustrated] by this is because in going back and listening to some of your older songs, one I really like is called “Music from My Heart.” [In that song,] you sing: “Making music from my heart, not music for the charts. No, I won’t get caught up in all of the things dem woulda start, to stray I from I path.”
Q: But I see that there’s a certain give and take –
Protoje: No, I don’t worry what the numbers are. I’m just aware of what they are. I’m grateful for whatever I get. It don’t matter. Bro, I am from Santa Cruz, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. There ain’t nobody from there that is doing what I do or what I have accomplished. I’m really not supposed to be touring the world playing music, bro. There’s no budget. It’s a miracle that I’ve got to where I [am]. I have no time to worry about, “Oh, I could be bigger or whatever.” I don’t have to get up in the morning and go to work. Which I never wanted to be in an office. I can do what I love. And I can provide for my family: immediate and not immediate. Immediate and extended. And that alone – I don’t have time to be concerned, “Oh, my numbers could be better.” I just know what they are, because I have to know what my value is in the music world. And what I’m able to do and how I can analyze where my numbers are and where I [need] to focus. And so, from an analytical standpoint, I’m aware, but from an overall standpoint, bro, I’m super-blessed.
Q: On the [title-track of your new album] “A Matter of Time,” you sing: “Even if you put me with the crabs inna the barrel, shell the whole a dem and then step out a drink me sorrel.” I looked up “sorrel” and [learned] it’s a traditional Jamaican punch. So I just wanted to ask you about sorrel, is that a drink that people drink on the regular in Jamaica –
Protoje: Sorrel is a drink in Jamaica that people drink at Christmas time. They put rum in it and it’s like a plant and you juice it and you get rum. It’s very indigenous to Jamaica. So I just put it in there; Jamaicans think it’s really dope.
Q: Is it only really drunk at that time of year?
Protoje: I think sorrel grows in a season, [but] I think you can get it year-round. But when it really blows up [in Jamaica] is at Christmas time. Especially in December. People are always drinking sorrel at family functions super-late. It’s quite crazy.
Q: One of my favorite [lyrics on your song “A Matter of Time”] is: “Middle of Mexico at midnight, on account of all the things that I did right.” And I just imagined you writing that lyric late at night [in Mexico]. Is that actually what happened? You were at some spot in Mexico, and that’s how that lyric evolved?
Protoje: The lyric didn’t come when I was in Mexico. I’d left Mexico and I was thinking about being in Mexico when I wrote it. I know it’s cool[er] if I said I was in Mexico, but I’m being honest.
Q: In your video for the song “Blood Money” which is mesmerizing and a must-watch, at one point in the video you are singing in what looks like a graveyard of tires. It’s so wicked!
Q: Where is that location in Jamaica?
Protoje: Bro, that is the Riverton dump in Jamaica. That’s possibly the vilest smelling place in Jamaica. It’s where all the garbage goes. And we got a permit – we had to go through so much shit to get a permit to film there. Because they don’t allow people to film there. [But] we had to go and film there. Just imagine a country’s entire garbage pile. Just imagine the smell of that. And that’s where I was. In the middle of that. Mosquitos! They had to spray us and give us stuff [so] we wouldn’t get infected.
Q: But it was totally worth it because the visual is fantastic.
Protoje: Well, yeah, but then YouTube [suppresses] that video because of some sort of partial nudity in it, and so they hold down the views. But that was my favorite shot [in the video] when [you see] the overview [of the Riverton dump]. And there were all these garbage trucks. I even jumped on the back of one while [we] were filming. Bro, I almost threw up. It was crazy.
Q: You just released a stunningly beautiful video for “No Guarantee,” your smash hit on the new album with Chronixx. Can you talk about what vibe you were projecting with the visuals in that video?
Protoje: The last three videos I’ve done – for [my songs] “No Guarantee,” “Bout Noon,” and “Blood Money” – it’s just showing Jamaica through real people. So I didn’t want to be all up in the video all the time. So we went out to Port Royal and shot that. Port Royal was once the most famous city in the western hemisphere. Have you ever seen [the movie] Pirates of the Caribbean?
Protoje: So that’s where it’s set, around Port Royal. That was the hub of the western world. It has major history. And I wanted to show [the] people [there]. They’re like cut-off from Jamaica. Port Royal is at an end [of Jamaica] past the airport. It’s almost different than Jamaica. So we just shot out there the people living their normal lives. [We wanted to show] that nothing is guaranteed in life. So have fun [and] love the people around you.
About the Author: Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveCooperEsq