Storm Saulter


protoje: the afropunk interview

August 28, 2020
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Despite Jamaica’s history of hardships stemming from European colonialism, the country has never stopped innovating. So, for its greatest export, music, to have a banner year, despite the 2020 global pandemic comes as no surprise. Protoje is a current force defying the odds. This year, Protoje announced a landmark partnership with his label In.Digg.Nation Collective and Six Course/RCA Records. Through the multi-album deal, he executive-produced the debut EPs of his signees, Lila Iké and Sevana. Next up is Protoje’s fifth studio album, In Search Of Lost Time, his best effort to date. 

It’s been three years since Protoje performed at AFROPUNK. A lot has happened for the reggae OG. He became a father in 2018. Then in 2019, his previous opus, A Matter Of Time was nominated for a Grammy award for Best Reggae album. On In Search Of Lost Time, he reconciles with the price of fame. He recorded most of the 10-track album in isolation at his newly-built studio, The Habitat, in the hills of Kingston, Jamaica. That isolation gave way to reflection. Our recent conversation with Protoje opened a window to his outlook on life. 


2017 was your first time performing at AFROPUNK. Can you take me back to what that experience was like?

Yo AFROPUNK was wild bro. I never knew anything about it like that. The music was dope. Just Black people in crazy fashion, very free-spirited. I got to meet Anderson .Paak. It was really a culture shock for me to be honest. I never expected that type of thing. But they were very receptive. And it let me know that I’m put in a position where I can perform music to these people, even though they may not be reggae music fans. I was like, “Wow, I can really connect.” It gave me confidence. 

You have some very important topics on your album right now. Can you tell me specifically what things you wanted to address?

In search of my lost time. The name of the album, every song is very reflective. Listen, I was up here in isolation writing music. Thinking about “Arguments” being 10 years ago. How did I get here? My head has been down working. When did it turn into 10 years since I did my first project? Seven Year Itch is about to have its 10-year anniversary. When did I turn into an OG? Am I not like an upcoming artist? It’s wild! So this whole project has just been [about] seeing the things that I’ve missed out on, not only in my own career [but for instance] my friend’s kid is 11-years-old, and I don’t think I’ve been to two of their birthday parties. Or missing my daughter’s first birthday. You see me on the cover chasing her [on the cover]; it’s symbolic of trying to catch up. When people work, we’re focused. Sometimes we don’t even see the things we’re missing. My schedule is unbelievable, bro–I’m running a label, producing three albums, managing artists, doing my career. I’m locked in. If I’m not locked in, there’s no chance.

That changes the way I’m gonna listen to the album now. 

“A Vibe,” it’s speaking about being in a room full of people but feeling alone. Me being more of a recluse now, being more in my head, and really thinking about all the things that I’ve missed. My mom and my dad are getting old and I know this because I’m not getting any younger. All of that nostalgic feeling is really the backbone of this record.

After everything wrapped with A Matter Of Time, the first solo release I heard from you was “Still I Wonder.” I definitely got a sense that you were creatively going in a whole new dimension than what I was used to and what other people were used to.

I initially started on this album in 2016. I did three songs for it, which are the three Supa Dups songs: tracks 3, 4, and 5. I actually did eight songs with Dups that were pretty much geared towards being this album. All of them are crazy. But I guess along the way, working on A Matter Of Time, and doing other stuff, I gradually changed it. It’s not until October of 2019, when my studio got finished, I made up my mind that I wasn’t gonna do any recording or anything until my studio was built. 

I appreciate hearing the more technical side. 

Vocally, Supa Dups coached me through how he wanted me to deliver my hook. I haven’t done background vocals on any album so far. He’s like, “Bro, I wanna use your voice how I think it can be used.” That was his main thing. “I’m a fan of your music but I just think you could do so much more vocally.”

It seems like you and Supa Dups met in the middle.

Trying a song like “Still I Wonder,” I needed to go find somebody who is an expert at this type of sound. And very importantly, I never wanted to put out these songs without having the right machine. Being in the normal spaces that my music exists, I don’t think it would thrive with only that space for it. And same with “Weed & Ting.” He kind of reworked it for me. The other song with Wiz [“A Vibe”], he had the beat, hook, and bridge. Theron from R. City wrote the hook. He played it for me, and was like, “Yo, I think I want you to do this song.” And I was like, “Nah bro it’s too hip-hop. I don’t think I can sing that chorus.” I tried it, and I actually love it. I waited four years until I finally got the Wiz Khalifa feature. So that’s the history of me and Dups. 

Your Grammy nomination for Best Reggae Album in 2019 was a groundbreaking moment for you, for Jamaica, everybody around you. What were you thinking about when you touched down in L.A.? 

All I was really doing was watching my team and my family. My thing is just observing. Seeing my mom get this gown and my sister … it’s like they were nominated! Even my friend, he had his suit and he was hyped. That’s why I said in “Like Royalty,” “It’s like a-him get nominated, watch the Grammys side of me.”

It seemed like you were really trying to remember every single detail about it. 

I’m able to write “Like Royalty” because I’m present in the moment watching all of it. Getting a scope of what it means, and what it means to them. I’m really not like, “Yo, we’re at the Grammys!” I just go into moments. When I was a child, if they have a birthday party, my sister cuts my cake for me, and she blows out my candles. And I’m just there like, ‘I’m cool; I’m 10; it’s chill.’ I need you to understand how happy and grateful I am. In those moments, I’m almost at tears. I’m emotional because I see the people that mean a lot to me and are very instrumental in me getting there. At least 50% of my success … 50% of the contribution is my mom alone. The other is my friends, and my girlfriend, and my team—everybody plays this huge role. 

This year, you pivoted into an executive role on the Rock and Groove riddim, Lila Iké’s and Sevana’s EPs, and now your project. What was your creative process going into those?

Rock and Groove, I wanted to do something before I went into the albums with Sev and Lila. I was very confident in my ability to do Lila’s EP. I knew exactly the sound Lila should have and wanted to have. Sevana was very concerned with what her music is gonna sound like. So the approach was very different. I learned a lot from Winta James. I learned a lot from Don Corleone. I pay attention. As I told Sevana, “Trust me. We have dope taste. We’re really good at what we do. If we keep going to work, we’re going to find a groove.”

What did you learn from working on Sevana’s that was different from Lila’s EP?

They both want very different things musically at this point, and they’re really two different artists. Obviously, with Lila, I was already doing all of her shit from “Biggest Fan” to “Second Chance.”  Be Somebody is a very groundbreaking record for Jamaican music because there’s never been a Jamaican artist that sounds like what Sevana’s project sounds like. I’ll stand corrected if somebody can tell me. It’s gonna make people say, “Wow, Jamaican artists can sound like this?” It’s wild. Again, for me, more experience putting a project together, tracklisting, how to manage producers, how to get them all on the same page, that’s what those two projects have really helped me to build more. Both of my artists are very involved; they were in there with me and anytime I needed them for an extra ear or opinion, they were both very supportive. That’s why they’re listed as executive producers. 

How do you feel about this new sound of Jamaica? It’s not about blending genres, it’s about just like using what you have and making something really great, right?

Yeah, I love it. I love what Chronixx is doing. I love what Koffee is doing. I love [how] everybody is just doing their thing — how music sounds in their head. It’s so different now. These kids are producing: J.L.L., iotosh, all of these guys, they all have their own sound. They listen to Winta, Stephen Marley, RZA or Alchemist, Kanye West, or whoever. It’s like, “How can I be groundbreaking in reggae music, how he was in hip-hop (without trying to be hip-hop)?” I want it to keep growing and evolving. 

When I listen to Lila or Sevana’s album, I think about how they could be compared to American artists, or Amy Winehouse if she was still with us, or if Adele was to record an album in Jamaica, something like that. These are white musicians who have crossed over into Black music in a way where it feels very natural for them to make the type of soulful, R&B type of sounds that we are used to from Black musicians. When you are in a certain environment you get immersed in the culture, you soak up different sounds and energies you normally wouldn’t have in your typical environment. So the fact that Lila and Sevana make those types of records and it’s coming from home—but it thinks bigger than Jamaica—that speaks to a bigger concept of making music beyond your culture.

Yeah, I think so. Bro, the first time I ever heard Sevana, she was singing “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse. And I got chills. I literally got chills. I had goosebumps. The first time I heard Lila, this is what Garnett Silk would sound like if I heard him when he was 16-years-old. It was the same thing. I was like, “I have to see this.” Those two voices are so unique. My body reacted to both of them. They can do something for Jamaican music that can widen the definition of a Jamaican artist. They can do that, just like what Koffee has done. Koffee has changed what it means to be reggae or dancehall. She is why everybody is confused as to what to call stuff. 

How have you managed to keep your finger on the pulse of music to stay so relevant and stay so ahead of the curve?

I think one [way] by signing artists. Being at the start of Sevana’s career, mentally being at the start of Lila’s career, it puts my creative consciousness at the start of something new. So I think that keeps me, as an artist as well, very current. I think it’s also the people I have around me like Yannick Reid and Jamila Pinto – the main thing is just having youths around you. When you hear “Weed & Ting” and “Deliverance,” Travis Scott had a big influence on me on those two songs. I wanted it to be ethereal. Even though I’m not into hip-hop like I used to be, I try to listen to a lot of music and see what’s new. Those types of things keep me current. Because if you don’t adapt, you’re done. You’re a relic. That’s why you have to be fearless. That’s what I’m hoping with this album. It’s very different from my previous work. I don’t think it’s a gratuitous change. It’s not change for change’s sake. 

We’re so limited now with quarantining, and COVID-19 and everything. How do you maintain a sense of hope in this current time when you don’t know when this will end. What do you look forward to right now? Well, aside from putting out your album. 

[Laughs] That’s a huge part. I don’t know how you can say apart from that. That’s all I have bro! The biggest thing I’m missing though is the feedback. The energy, the show, to be able to sing “Like Royalty,” and hear “Pop! Pop! Pop!” [When] the energy is there, then I get motivated, I get re-energized, and I work double-hard. I’m missing that. It’s really hard. My favorite part of doing music is being on stage. It’s like you’ve taken the most precious part of my life, the thing that makes me feel like a 10-year-old again. For the people who live for stage, it’s very very hard psychologically. You’ll be snapping at times, and you’ll be short and you’ll be frustrated. I know it’s gonna get more difficult when I put my record out. I’m not gonna want to go back in and work on a project, which I will do or whatever. But it’s so great to tour and come back and work on a project. I’m sure every type of person in all types of life is going through some wild shit as it pertains to their mental state and what’s happening. So the most you can do is just maintain and musically be active. I’m not a psychologist, so I’m not 100, but I believe that when people are going through times of heightened sensibility, they will remember stuff and things will have more of an impact.

Do you think this album is a change of pace given the time that it’s coming out in? You can give them something that’s very militant and reactionary and angry and critical. I know you can give them that, but you didn’t take that route on this album. 

No, no, no. That’s what people expect. With so much things that are happening in the world now. There’s this conspiracy here, dem a do dis, and dis a gwan, Babylon dis, and doing dat and all of dat… There’s so much theory flying around right now. I was just thinking about it, and I really don’t know what my opinion is on any of these things anymore. I don’t know what’s the cause of Corona. I don’t know what’s the cause of what’s happening. It’s so crazy bro. I don’t want to use my time thinking about all of that. Because it’s a loop. It’s every day. Every day there’s something else. You know what, I don’t want to get caught in that loop right now. We have time to reflect. I’m sure you have had more time to reflect and think than you probably ever had in your adult life this year. I’m betting on everybody is in the same thing. So I’m thinking people are so warped with what’s happening. I don’t want to sing about what’s happening. I don’t want to hear about it, bro. I swear to God, if I listen to music and I’m hearing about what’s happening, I’m like, “Bro, I’m hearing that every single minute of every day.” So here’s something refreshing. But at the same time, I think it’s preparing you to go through what life is presenting you now. Maybe think about what really matters. Maybe someone reaches out to their dad because they heard me randomly say that. Maybe someone pays more attention to their daughter or their lover. I don’t know bro. I just feel like when people listen to it, they’ll have a feeling. Once you give people a feeling, that to me is better than to give people an instruction or to give people a review of what 2020 has been. Dat a my meds right now with music.

You couldn’t have said it any better.