Interview photos and multi-media
by Stephen Cooper
Hempress Sativa is one of the most dynamic and talented performers – male or woman – in reggae music today. Currently at work on her sophomore album following her extremely impressive debut “Unconquerebel” – and its dub version with legendary sound engineer Scientist (“Scientist Meets Hempress Sativa in Dub”) – Hempress Sativa is a spiritual, powerful, deeply conscious Rastafari singer. Born into a musical family, she grew up surrounded and nurtured by some of the biggest names in Jamaican music.
On July 31, I interviewed Hempress for over thirty minutes after her dynamite show at the famed Dub Club in Los Angeles with Scientist. We spoke about her live performance of “Wah Da Da Deng,” that has been viewed over 12 million times on YouTube; her new single “Boom Shakalak” and the official video; the cliquishness of the reggae industry; her relationship with reggae legends Sister Carol and Brigadier Jerry; how the reggae music business can provide fairer and more equal opportunities for women performers; marijuana; Rastafari culture; lingering discrimination against Rastas in Jamaica and what can be done to combat it; and much, much more. What follows is a transcript of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.
Q: Greetings Hempress, it’s a joy and a blessing to meet and reason with you. I’m a big fan of your music and I think your debut album “Unconquerebel,” that you released about two years ago, is superb.
Hempress Sativa: Thank you.
Q: But before talking about your album and your new single “Boom Shakalak” – which you sang tonight [and] which I really dig – if it’s okay, I’d like to begin by asking about the live performance you gave on February 25, 2015, at the Song Embassy Yard in Papine. [This is in] the part of Jamaica where I know you were raised; you performed your massive tune “Wah Da Da Deng” with [producer] Paolo Baldini.
Hempress Sativa: Yes.
Q: I want to ask about that because I along with more than twelve million other people have seen that video of you singing in Papine that day, over 4 years ago now, and there’s not a soul who knows anything about music who could watch that video and [not be blown away by your undeniable] talent.
Hempress Sativa: Thank you.
Q: Could you talk just for a minute about that performance, how it came about, and the reaction you’ve received from people who’ve seen [it]?
Hempress Sativa: I originally started out working with “Jah Over Evil” and he introduced me to “Mellow Mood” and that’s how I got in touch with Paolo Baldini. They told us they had a setup where they were just playing versions. [And they said,] “Feel free to come out and just pick a song.” And the day we went there we were reasoning with them about where they’re from and what they’re into and things like that. And we decided that we were gonna participate. Myself and other members in Jah Over Evil.
Q: Does that Song Embassy Yard in Papine have any particular significance?
Hempress Sativa: No. It’s just that it’s in Papine. I was born and raised in Papine but at the other side of that area, further down.
Q: And was that [dynamite, jaw-dropping performance recorded in] one take?
Hempress Sativa: Yeah that was one take. (Laughing)
Q: Wow. Ok.
Hempress Sativa: Some people don’t believe me. (Laughing)
Q: You have such an incredible focus and flow in that video. The last thing I want to ask about it is: What was going through your mind that day, because you were so serious, so focused when you walked up to the mic?
Hempress Sativa: Alright. Some people don’t understand, when you’re doing anything, you have to be focused. You have to lock-in. And hone-in. And give your all. And that’s what happened. Sometimes I tend to not recognize [my] facial expressions because I’m so [focused]. And people don’t necessarily understand that I’m not sad or angry. I’m so focused in my mind that it’s almost like I’m outside of myself, you know? So I don’t have no control over [my] facial expressions or movements. I kinda just go with the energy and that’s it.
Q: Let’s talk about your new single that you released in the spring, “Boom Shakalak.” This is a very cool song. In my opinion it bears some similarities to the song “Rock It Ina Dance” on your debut album [“Unconquerebel”]; they sound different but both have a definitive dancehall and a sound system vibe. Do you agree with that?
Hempress Sativa: I agree. And that’s very important to me because my whole life I grew up with a father who is a Selecta. He’s a person who would get up at five o’clock in the morning and start to play vinyl. And the music would continue throughout the day. And I’m not making up any type of story when I tell you he was a person who would stay around [his] sound system the whole day without eating, without breaking for nothing. That’s how serious music is to my father. I grew up in a household where constantly, all hours, we have to be listening to vinyl. And my father is a very conscious man. You never heard one slack song coming from his selection. Strictly roots music. So that sound system culture is something I am very proud of. Something I see almost dying out inna Jamaica. And it’s something I want to preserve. That’s why I’ve incorporated it so much in my music.
Q: In your lyrics you often hail up your dad –
Hempress Sativa: All the time. Because I personally feel that my father [doesn’t] get enough respect. I don’t feel like people recognize my father [despite] all the great works he’s put in the Jamaican music fraternity.
Q: And for the sake of the interview, we’re talking about Albert “Ilawi Malawi” Johnson, selector for the “Jah Love” sound system. This was a Brigadier Jerry sound system?
Hempress Sativa: The Jah Love sound system did not belong to Brigadier Jerry. Both of them being from the Twelve Tribes of Israel organization and just being there on a regular basis would participate; one playing [the] system and the other one would “toast” – which is DJ[’ ing] over the mic – which was Brigadier Jerry. My father was playing the music. So that’s how they first started out.
Q: One difference I noticed lyrically between those two songs, Boom Shakalak and Rock it Ina Dance, is your view on promoters. Because you “big up” the promoter in Rock it Ina Dance, but in Boom Shakalak you take a more critical stance.
Hempress Sativa: Yes!
Q: [I’m thinking about] [t]wo different lyrics [in that song]: (1) where you say “promoter pocket fat,” and (2) “promoters, advance my lion if you want…” Now I want to make sure I get this part right…
Hempress Sativa: “. . . if you want to dance ram.”
Q: Advance my lion if you want to dance “from?”
Hempress Sativa: (Laughing) “Ram.” It means make it full to capacity.
Q: Nice. It’s important to know these things –
Hempress Sativa: Yeah, because people have a hard time understanding my [accent]; it’s very strong. (Laughing)