Interview: Protoje on the Reggae Roots Revival and His Low-Key Love of Pop Music

Jamaica’s latest export burns bright with aspirations.

Photographer Che Kothari
June 26, 2014

"Reggae isn’t just for the beach. It's hard hitting lyrics, flows, patterns, beats, storytelling."

Hailed as the front-runner of reggae's musics Roots' second coming (REVIVAL?), Protoje is Jamaica's latest musical export that's making waves the world over. With lyrical content that ranks social justice over frivolity, Protoje's music sits in the proudly positive lineage of legends like Peter Tosh and Bob Marley, with a uniquely Millennial spin. This summer Protoje and his band, the Indiggnation, will the hit the international tour circuit, spanning from Portugal to Poland, spreading the gospel of Roots music and proselytizing a new audience along the way. Ahead of his third studio album Ancient Future, due out this fall, we spoke with Protoje about his humble music beginnings and which mega-pop star he loves to bump in his car.

You’ve been branded as a leader of the current roots revival. How do you feel about having terms like that ascribed to your music? You just have to kind of take what’s given to you, play the cards your dealt. I don’t really dive too much into it. I know there’s a movement coming up out of Jamaica. I know that a lot a the times, since I’m out here [in America], that attention comes to me. I don’t mind it, but I just know that at the same time I’ll have to use it to shine light on others that are also bringing in good music. Right now is just a good time to be doing music in Jamaica and it’s exciting that the outside world is noticing and appreciating it.

Do you feel pressure to represent something larger with these titles that are given to you? Do they feel heavy to you? No. Music is fun. There’s no pressure off of me, and I don’t want to bring pressure into it. You know, these titles they come and go. So I know it’s just a time for that to be said and I don’t really mind it. I don’t really feel pressure. What’s the pressure in expressing yourself? That’s all I’m doing, being true to who I am. I don’t take on everything else that’s happening I just try to focus on what I’m doing.

Who are the other artists that are part of the roots revival in Jamaica right now? There are so many artists. There’s Chronixx, there’s Kabaka Pyramid, Jesse Royal, Raging Fyah. There are so many; I’m going to leave out names, you know? There’s a lot of positive music that’s coming up right now.

How did you first get started in music? Just writing. I’m from the country, so I figured if I go to Kingston and maybe be a selector and play music, I’ll meet producers, I’ll meet artists, and that’s what I started to do.

Did your time as DJ affect the way you create music? It made me listen to a lot of music and dig in crates for old stuff, and it made me find songs that I would never had heard on the radio. I didn’t DJ for long, but the focus on digging for music never went away. So songs that I found while looking for music ten years ago might just resonate in me now, and I get something out of that. So, it’s delayed gratification.

What’s your most recent musical discovery? I used to be a big hip-hop head and then I backed off of it. And now, again, I have a reemerging interest. I found out about Joey Bada$$. I like his song “Waves,” and “Til Infinity.” I really love that. I like Lana Del Rey. She’s dope. Sometimes I’ll be in my car singing “Video Games” out loud. Just weirding out my friends.

What would you say is message in your latest single, “Who Knows?” Its just about accepting. I like to say play the cards that your dealt. I mean its just like in Jamaica, lots of things could be better, but at the same time you have health and strength. It’s a song about really feeling good in the moment, going with the flow, going with what comes your way. I'd say it’s a song about perspective. Something that may seem bad can be good with the right perspective. That’s the whole energy of that song; sending love to my friends and my foes. Its just like whatever is coming at me, we're going to send back as positive energy. I really think the song brings that across and especially with the video gives that energy of like happiness and freedom and a free spirit.

You’ve toured internationally, where are the big markets for you? Where are the places you would like to see roots music grow? We're doing very, very well in Europe right now and, naturally, at home. But I'd like to see Roots more spread in the US. That’s something that Bob Marley really wanted to do and right before his death he had big plans to come and bring Roots here, which if he had got the chance to do who knows what the music landscape would be like right now. We're trying to make the eyes of the music world look back to Jamaica again. It’s about bringing back attention to what’s happening, merging the genres and bringing them close. Reggae music and hip hop has gone through a period of distance where it used to be much closer. The industries are really tight, and my generation is here to change the perspective of what reggae is. Reggae isn’t just for the beach, la la la – you know what I mean? Its hard hitting lyrics, flows, patterns, beats, drum and bass, storytelling, heavy kicks, heavy snares and we're here to show that too.

What's the next step in this revival? With the album coming out in September, I’m really working on bringing energy behind that. As I say, the main thing is just to bring the music to people, in a way they can relate to. I feel that right now, its one world and everyone is getting their music the same way with the Internet. Like if I put out a song and Drake puts out a song, its in the same medium, its not different. Its not gonna be like ok this is a hip hop website, its just music. We're trying to bring our music into that forum. Give it the chance to resonate there. We're all going though the same things and the same way that I can learn and appreciate music from the US, from UK and Europe, its the same way that people can appreciate our stuff. But we need to make it fresh enough, which I think we are doing.

Interview: Protoje on the Reggae Roots Revival and His Low-Key Love of Pop Music