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Jah9: “I didn’t plan to be an artist"

TOP OF HER GAME: After ‘retiring’ at 25, Jah9 has dedicated her time and energy to creating the music she loves

IT’S ONLY after the interview is finished that Jah9 smiles at the prospect of being the best known globally renowned female Rasta traversing the earth performing reggae music with a conscious message.

I honestly cannot remember any Rasta women who have earned the type of audience that have fast become the Jah9 fan club in the way that Janine Cunningham (her real name) has managed.

Her truly galvanising come up story and indelible sonic offerings have captivated the type of hardcore support that usually provides a solid foundation for continued growth and if her recent UK tour was any indication, it won’t be long before she’s a universal household name.

Jah9 spent her first nine years in Falmouth, Trelawny, on the rural western edge of Jamaica before moving into the city of Kingston, in 1991.

Inspired by the open spaces in the instrumental dub of 1970s Jamaican roots music, Jah9 sings with a voice that belies the dimensions of her physical body, according to her website.

Poetry, however, was her entry point into the music business but that’s not all that borders on the slightly unconventional where Jah9 is concerned.

“For me getting into music was very natural, I was born to a pastor so music in the church growing up was a staple. It was mostly gospel music, though – soulful, spirit music.

“So as I grew up it was natural for me to look at music in that way and music has always been a parallel for me, music and poetry and words always ran parallel to the life of going to school, going to university, corporate Jamaica – but then there was this other side of myself which was the creative side which was very, very dominant,” she explained.

She added: “I didn’t plan to be an artist. I had no aspirations of being an artist. For me it really was one of those callings that stayed with me from I was a child.

“I decided I would retire when I was 25 years old and I have been doing music ever since. It’s full time. “I immersed myself in the journey of learning about who I am and writing the music that comes from that journey.”

TEACHINGS
The light bulb moment, which invariably led her to retirement, came when she was at university.

It was on campus at University of the West Indies (UWI) that her heart was opened to the teachings of Haile Selassie I and her ears to the hypnotic bass of the heavy dub rhythms of roots reggae.

Janine eventually embraced her childhood nickname, Jah9, as she learnt the significance of the word “Jah” and the number “9”.

“When I decided that the corporate world [wasn’t for me], as much as I could end up very wealthy, my system rejected it. I couldn’t sit in an air conditioned building for hours on end.

“And as much as they would have loved me to stay, I knew it wasn’t where I was supposed to be.

“The moment I released all of those things that weren’t serving me, I started to see opportunities coming.”

Talking about her first ever project, New Name, Jah9 enthused: “That was establishing who I was going to be as an artist, who I represented, what I stood for, the way I saw the world, it was really to introduce people to my philosophy and my politics.

“The 9 album got a little bit more personal because it talked about who I was as a women and where I was in my spiritual evolution and how my world view was evolving.

“My next record will also be a further step forward, even more personal and accessible, meaning I am breaking down some of these themes now because it’s less about introducing myself and more about connecting.”


EVOLUTION: Jah9 has spent a lot of time exploring her own sound

The process so far has seen neutral observers describe Jah9 as an artist with a jazz soloist’s fluidity, a singer’s voice and a poet’s flow, but is that accurate?

“I am told all of time that vocally, I don’t look the way I sound,” Jah9 said.

“So when people end up encountering me having heard my music they will be surprised at my frame and stature. But for me I found my voice through jazz. Hearing the liberated women of jazz sing with their own sounds, their brilliant voices like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan but you also have Nina Simone and Billie Holiday who aren’t necessarily your traditional exceptional vocalists, but they had a unique sound and they encouraged me to do that.

“I would sing in choirs and I would be able to match a sound, I’m great with harmony and I have a great ear, my ear is my instrument so I can match a sound and blend but finding ones own voice, that takes courage and patience. I’ve put in a lot of time just singing and exploring my own sound.”

Jah9’s last project was overseen by famous soundman and musician Rory Gilligan, who produced it in its entirety. She says working with the legend was easy as he “understands what the music is supposed to sound like because he’s played so much of it”. Clearly in good company and having worked with contemporary artists from her beloved island like Chronixx, Protoje and Kabaka Pyramid, who would Jah9 like to collaborate with away from the reggae genre?

“I would love to work with Tracy Chapman and I would love to work with Sade, I would also love to work with Mos Def, and there are a few more I can’t recall right now.

“Within the reggae industry I feel like they are accessible and it’ just a matter of stepping up and working. In terms of voices, I would like to work with Michael Rose and Barrington Levy. The producer side of me would love to work with those voices.”

As voices go, get used to hearing Jah9 because as fans who flocked to see her during her recent six-stop UK tour will know, these dulcet tones are here to stay.

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