Perhaps it’s a reaction to Jamaica’s spiraling murder rate, which exceeded a chilling 1,500 in 2005. Or it could be a response to the international pressure placed upon dancehall deejays to clean up their acts, due primarily to the homophobic rants of a select few that grab a disproportionate share of the global headlines. Or maybe it’s just a cyclical return to the island’s greatest export: an exalted musical paradigm established in the 1970s.
Whatever the reason(s), in Jamaica there has been a resurgence in the popularity of roots reggae—traditional drum and bass-driven beats with lyrics rooted primarily in Rastafarian teachings—and it currently commands the Jamaican charts after several years of dancehall’s dominance.
The current roots rock renaissance has produced an abundant crop of talented newcomers and one of the most impressive is deejay (i.e., rapper) Fantan Mojah. Mojah struggled for several years prior to scoring two remarkable number one singles. First, he topped the Jamaican charts in late 2004 with “Hungry,” the song’s jaunty rhythm and catchy melody belying its tale of hardship, as he urges the powers-that-be to “give something for the poor, open up the door.” Then, in January 2005, Mojah ascended to the premier position again with “Hail The King,” a simple expression of piety (“it don’t take nothing at all to hail the King”) chanted over a stirring Nyabinghi drumming riddim created by legendary percussionist Bongo Herman. “Hail The King” is a testament to the Rastafarian faith that guided Mojah throughout his many hungry years.
“Yeah, man, dem songs authentic,” exclaims the effervescent artist, seated in the Kingston offices of his label Downsound Records. “They come with a power to let people know the struggle we go through; we can’t forget it because the struggle motivate you to rise higher.” That motivation, he observes, is at the core of the roots reggae revival. “Jamaica get violent so we try to keep the music positive, because them type of songs can create a better energy. Upful music can uplift people and derogatory music can lead people astray. Dancehall ruled for a while; now a one drop [traditional] reggae rule so that just keep the better type of music alive.”
Owen Moncrieffe, aka Fantan Mojah, was born to a Christian family in the southern Jamaican agricultural parish of St. Elizabeth. At 10 years old he refused to attend church any longer (“Mi no deal with Jesus,” he declares. “Mi deal with the Creator”) and his mother threw him out of the house.
Throughout his early teenage years Mojah alternated between staying with his grandmother and sleeping wherever he could. He was expelled from school for paying more attention to his deejaying than his reading, writing and ’rithmetic lessons. Possessing little more than boundless ambition, he ventured to Jamaica’s capital city Kingston in 1993 to pursue his musical calling. He moved in with his aunt and took the name Mad Killer in homage to Bounty Killer, who then reigned as the island’s top deejay, with blood-curdling lyrics depicting gritty ghetto realities but also unabashedly defending the rights of poor people. Mojah soon found greater inspiration in the righteous rebelliousness of late Rastafarian reggae icons Peter Tosh and Jacob Miller. He embraced Rastafarianism and grew his dreadlocks but his aunt could not accept his lifestyle so she asked him to leave.
Homeless once again, he adopted the name Phantom and occasionally sought shelter, quite ironically, in a church. He worked part-time as a baker and lifted speaker boxes for the venerable Jamaican sound system Killamanjaro, the latter endeavor providing an introduction to the idiosyncra
Recommended Listening: The Roots Reggae Renaissance
No Guns To Town
Deeply textured one drop grooves created by some of Kingston’s top musicians frame Natty King’s robust vocals and thoughtful lyrics on the tunes “Equality,” “Pray” and the compelling anti-violence title cut.
A stunning falsetto voice and three superb, lyrically complex singles (“Lava Ground,” “Living In Love” and his Billboard-charting hit “Can’t Satisfy Her”) served as the introduction to I Wayne and proved that roots reggae with positive lyrical content can attain mainstream hit status.
Spice In Your Life
The popularity of the “Earth A Run Red” single he initially released five years ago and one of the strongest albums of 2005, Spice In Your Life, catapulted Richie Spice to the top of the reggae charts and to the forefront of the roots reggae renaissance.