Interview and multimedia by: Stephen Cooper
In a career spanning fifty-five years, legendary reggae star Max Romeo’s many hit songs have brought joy to millions of fans and influenced generations of artists, including rap mogul Jay-Z, who famously sampled Romeo’s (1976) “Chase the Devil” in his (2003) song “Lucifer.”
So when Selecta Jerry, host of highly respected reggae radio show “Sounds of the Caribbean,” advised me via tweet I should “run[,]don’t walk” to see Romeo perform live at the famous Dub Club in Los Angeles, I did what any sensible California-based reggae journalist would: I got on the freeway early the evening of March 27 to make sure traffic – as predictable as the jerk chicken-sellers outside the Dub Club – wouldn’t impede my ability to capture every minute of reggae royalty possible.
I wasn’t disappointed. Mr. Romeo’s performance was sensational; his music after all these years is as rootsy and righteous – and as capable of igniting a revolution – as ever. Amazingly, afterward, though I wasn’t scheduled to meet with him, Mr. Romeo graciously agreed to be interviewed in a small room behind the stage.
There amidst a motley of musicians, security guards, and lucky super fans who walked in to pay Mr. Romeo respect, we spoke for fifteen minutes about: his 2017 song “The Farmer’s Story” and the exploitation of farmers generally; Romeo’s self-owned, family-operated “Charmax” music label and recording studio in Saint Catherine, Jamaica; the most important advice Romeo’s given those of his children who’ve followed him into the music business; his friendship and collaboration with musical genius Lee “Scratch” Perry; obstacles to the Jamaican government’s proper investment in reggae; his unsatisfactory experience with Island Records; the kind of man Bob Marley was, and more. What follows is a transcript of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.
Q: Mr. Romeo, it’s a blessing to meet you. I just met your son, Azizzi. He’s an extremely talented young man. And I was just talking with him about the video that you released for a tune called “The Farmer’s Story” highlighting the exploitation of farmers in Jamaica. [What were your] motivations in writing and releasing that song?
Max Romeo: Well the fact is I’m a farmer myself. I’m a part-time artist, part-time farmer. I’m into livestock. Raising cows. And goats.
Q: In St. Catherine?
Max Romeo: (Nodding) In St. Catherine. But what happened now [is] I used to be into ground produce. But I couldn’t keep up with it because it’s like working for nothing. The farmers get a very small little mass of the produce. And then when they go to the market they find the produce selling for a lot of money. So that’s what really inspired that song.
Q: There’s been a lot of news in the press about the relaxation of laws surrounding marijuana in Jamaica. Was your song [“The Farmer’s Story”] addressing that issue as well?
Max Romeo: Well it covers the whole spectrum of farming. Whatever farming you are in. All farmers have been exploited. Especially in Jamaica. It’s a worldwide thing. Cause a lot of places I’ve been in the world, [farmers] who hear the song congratulate me. And tell me, I’m telling their story.
Q: Do you think that the Jamaican government, given how Rastas have been persecuted over marijuana for so long – back to the days of Pinnacle – and after, that they will be particularly attentive to making sure that the Rasta farmer will also be able to benefit from the changes in the law?
Max Romeo: Well for now that’s not the case, but it’s shaping up to be like that in the future. Because what they are trying to get us to do, they’re getting the small farmers to work for the big farmers. It’s been that way all along. And the small farmers don’t get nothing. Everything goes in the pocket of the big farmers. [Marijuana’s] not legalized. It’s decriminalized. And that kinda mockery – because you’re still getting your herb burned in the fields. And you’re still getting the youth being arrested for herb. It’s like one step forward, two steps backward.
Q: This video [for “The Farmer’s Story”] you made with your son [Azizzi] is a beautiful video. It’s the first official video you’ve made in over fifty years of music –
Max Romeo: Fifty-five years.
Q: Did you enjoy making that video and will you make another?
Max Romeo: Yeah I enjoyed making it. Because one the beautiful parts about it is: it’s mine. I didn’t record [“The Farmer’s Story”] for anyone else. I have total control over it. And the album that the track is on is also mine.
Q: On your label the “Charmax” music label, right?
Max Romeo: Yeah.
Q: You have a lot of adult children who are now in the music industry – you discussed this onstage tonight.
Max Romeo: Yeah.