The Jamaican singer and creative force reacts to his first nomination, the importance of honoring tradition by embracing change, and how reggae crowns connect him to musicians like Bob Marley and Black UhuruLIOR PHILLIPSGRAMMYS FEB 1, 2019 – 12:48 PM
Protoje sounds urgent on A Matter of Time—fitting, of course, as the Jamaican star’s fourth album captures an artist carving a new space within the genre’s most persuasive tools: energy and elation. The album honors the genre’s deep-rooted traditions, but bursts forth into bold, bright territory, infusing pummeling hip-hop beats, sheets of orchestral jazz, and dancehall claps into transcendent party grooves.
Protoje’s intense connection to his country’s music comes in part from family, as the son of Calypso king Mike Ollivierre and chart-topping Jamaican vocalist Lorna Bennett. Just as important, though, is the way the music has brought Jamaica to the rest of the world: Protoje spent 2018 on the road, sharing reggae with festival crowds like Reading & Leeds and opening for Lauryn Hill in the United States.
But he isn’t an artist content to rest on his laurels—nor those of reggae as a genre. “I can evolve, and I leave myself free to do so,” he says, low-slung yet resolute. Whether traditions in fashion or music, the 37-year-old artist finds comfort and strength in constantly pushing the envelope.
Protoje spoke with the Recording Academy about his first GRAMMY nomination for Best Reggae Album, his hope for a conversation with Jay-Z, and how proud he is to help make reggae a bigger part of the world conversation.
What a way to start the year! This is your fourth record, and your first GRAMMY nomination for Best Reggae Album. Did you see awards as a goal when you first started out in your career?
Let me tell you, I thought that my third album, Ancient Future, I thought that would have been nominated because it was groundbreaking when it came out in terms of modern reggae music. Winning a GRAMMY was definitely a goal when I started out. It’s in the back of your mind always, you know, maybe one day I’ll get that GRAMMY award, I’ll be nominated. So I guess I thought about it but I was not obsessing on it. So much has happened since Ancient Future. It was very influential. When it came out we had the biggest song in reggae of like this decade. When I didn’t get nominated, I took my mind off the GRAMMYs. I didn’t expect to get nominated on my fourth because I thought the third was the sure thing. That’s how it goes sometimes. It just works out that way. I was delighted when I heard that this [A Matter of Time] was nominated. Things happen and when it’s your time. You don’t have to worry about anything. Take your time and see what happens.
That’s an amazing way to see things, and especially fitting considering the album is called A Matter of Time. What was that instant feeling when you first heard about the nomination? How did you react?
My mom called and told me. We’ve been together a lot in my career, making progress. I just felt that my team, everybody was excited, and everybody works so hard for me. So it’s great to let them get that vibe and feel proud about it. I just know that I appreciate my family a lot and how they have supported me. Not every family is supportive, you know; not every parent is supportive, and I’m grateful for the ones I have, and I’m happy to make them proud. In the Jamaican music scene, there’s a lot of people who are supportive of each other. Everybody tries to support and help each other. I really like where it’s heading.
Beyond the feeling of the nomination, how are you feeling about attending the GRAMMY Awards? Do you have any idea what you’re going to feel as the awards start getting given out?
For me, it’s chill just to be there. I’m a very low-key, chill person. I’m not going to be overwhelmed or too excited. I’m not going to have too many expectations. I’ll be there with some of my friends, the people on my team, and my family. I’m looking forward to seeing things I’ve never seen before—just seeing how things are done at this level. It’s all just a learning experience for me.
Where did you get that low-key chill from? Is it from watching your parents in the industry?
When I was seven years old, I didn’t want a birthday party. It’s just my personality. I never wanted a party, I never wanted excitement. I didn’t want to blow the candles out on the cake. I just wanted to chill out and be cool. I’ve just never been this excitable type of person. I’m just very grateful, you know? I just experience things and express myself differently. So I’m happy of course, but I don’t feel any, “Oh my God, I’m going to the GRAMMYs” kind of thing. It’s cool to be there and I’m just grateful to have been invited. I won’t be asking everybody for selfies or anything like that. That said, I’d love to have a conversation with Jay-Z. I don’t think he’ll be there this year, but I would love to have a conversation.
When was the moment when you knew you wanted to be a musician, when you knew that this is the industry you wanted to pursue?
I was always obsessed with music, as early as I can remember. I think when I was about 13 or 14 years old. I first said maybe I could do this as a job, maybe I could do this so I don’t have to work. I just loved being able to express myself, to spend time with myself, just thinking about ideas and writing. I didn’t need company. It would just get my mind flowing. That was the main thing before anything else, just something to do with my time and not feel agitated, bored, or uninspired.
Speaking of being inspired, you recorded this album at the Tuff Gong Studios. Did knowing its legacy and its impact have any effect on your process?
That’s interesting. There’s so much history, and it’s just a huge room. It’s very spacious. It left me time to be alone. It’s not one of the most popular studios in Jamaica today, it’s not where the industry goes. It’s really private, I get to take my time, and that to me has an impact on how the music comes out. It’s not rushed and not frantic.
While it’s clear that your latest record honors the traditions of reggae music, it’s also perhaps your most experimental work to date, blending genres and influences—a fusion. When you set out to record the album, did you have a specific goal or outline in mind?
I wanted to do things musically to push the genre further forward, to update it. Every genre of music grows and evolves, so reggae music should be no less evolved. I like to be at the forefront of change with my producer Winta James. He to me is one of the most innovative guys making music. So naturally it’s going to sound innovative. We could have easily made another Ancient Future again. But I wanted to try to do things differently and move the thing forward. I don’t worry about genres feeling too sacred. I have a commitment to myself and to those that listen to my music—or even those that don’t. My job is to make the music, to make what I like and feels good to me, and then live with whatever happens after that. I don’t feel pressure about the songs that I’m making.
It’s just making the record the best way you can, taking the songs that are in your head and putting them down on record. That’s it. It’s not like I said, “Let me find a way to be different.” We listened to certain types of music, we wanted to try new stuff, and incorporate influences from everything that we do. My mind naturally works like that, and if I do something, I don’t want to spend the next two years doing the same thing all over again.
Your 2018 tour spanned the world and featured so many thrilling accomplishments—Reading and Leeds, opening for Lauryn Hill. And now 2019 keeps that tour going into new continents and new opportunities. What was it like to bring your music to so many different audiences?
Music has given me everything in my life—where I live, what I drive, what I eat. It has provided everything for me and my family. It’s amazing to travel the world through music. To get to tour, to see people’s reaction first-hand to the songs that you sing in your house, it’s very humbling. I’m just very grateful, and again I must say that I am grateful to be able to be living my dream.
That said, performing in Jamaica is very important. Those are always my favorite shows. There’s nothing like it. Those are the core fans. Those are the people who were there from the start. Those are people excited. You know, we get to invite the youth, people get to come out and celebrate the album. I know it’s going to be crazy. The presales are going like crazy. I just must say, I am really thankful that I get the support here and people actually come out and share their vibes. Jamaican crowds chill out more. They’re not as hyped as international audiences. They don’t come out to party as much. Jamaica is very much profiling. They come out dressed super well—you know, too cool for school. They don’t dance much.
What does it mean to be a Jamaican artist?
Jamaica is a very blessed place, very influential in world music. I can guarantee there’s no comparison to any other place this small that has that much impact on world culture and world sound. For me, the music should be highlighted more, helped more, pushed more.
Your performance style is incredible—and I use style intentionally, because you always look so fashionable. Can you tell me about your fashion philosophy and your clothing line?
[laughs] Thank you! I think presentation has always been a thing I’ve been key on. I just do what I feel, and have an eye for what I like. My girl always tells me that. Sometimes I want to wear a shirt with shoes and pants that don’t really go together. I always like to do what I feel comfortable with. I express myself through that. It all plays together, especially with this generation, which is so audio-visual.
Then how can fashion connect specifically to music? I know one big part of your fashion sense is the reggae crown.
Yes! The reggae crown, specifically, is an expression of culture, another way to identify and to stand out, to carry on the tradition. It’s always been a thing in Jamaican fashion. You see it and you think of Bob Marley, Black Uhuru, and all of those guys. I grew up seeing it and thinking it was cool, and thought I was gonna rock it but do my thing a bit different now.
What drives you to bring people to your label, In.Digg.Nation? And then to bring their art to the world?
I always wanted to be in charge of a label and managing artists. That was that my goal for the second decade of my career, which starts on January 1st, 2020. I’ve always wanted to set up a place where young artists that are coming up can have a space to go and be creative and have a way to get their music out. So I have two artists now, Lila Ike and Sevana. They’re doing well. I’m just trying to get that going, releasing more and producing more music. Just making the industry turn more reggae.
What’s next in your trajectory? Do you have plans for another album coming soon?
More music, more music, more music! This year. I’m just building my studio now, so more music than usual. I won’t have to go and get studio time anymore. I don’t have to wait. If I want to record three songs tonight at 3:30, I can go and do it. So that’s going to make things happen a lot quicker.
As time has passed, my perspective changes with it. I don’t have to stay to any understanding of what my path is. Times change, music changes, equipment changes, sound changes. You have to be able to move and adapt.
Written by: Lior Phillips