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By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

Tuesday, December 29, 2009.


There is something going on, not just in Jamaica, but indeed everywhere. Something righteous is happening. Part of this welcomed development is made possible by wide availability of digital technology; but most of these righteous outpourings are due to the imagination and

I won’t go into detail about how digital technology both makes possible, as well as fuels artistic independence, but I will say it is now possible for any serious artist to professionally record and distribute their music worldwide without the support of a major label.

There are still numerous questions and issues to be resolved but right now I want to focus on the energy and will of artists such as this week’s contemporary feature, Etana.

The legendary reggae icon Burning Spear, back in the day recorded a track with lyrics that urged “I think we should live up in the hills.” African liberation leader Amilcar Cabral, explaining how the PAIGC movement was going to be a successful guerilla organization in a country without mountains, said “our people are our mountains.”

This is precisely where we are, as we go into the second decade of the new millennium—some artists are turning to their people for inspiration and sustenance, and it is a conscious decision not sour grapes. Not the “I couldn’t make it big so I’m going to settle for small and just play like it’s beautiful” kind of statement.

Shauna McKenzie was born May 22, 1983 in August Town, a suburb of Kingston, Jamaica. When Shauna was nine, her mother took her to Florida in search of a better life. Eventually Shauna enrolled in Broward Community College with intentions to become a nurse.

Her heart was not in school, so she decided to drop out and pursue a career as a vocalist. In one of those ironic twists of life, the pursuit of music led directly to her turning her back on the music industry and returning to Jamaica to live.

What had happened was, she auditioned for a girl-group called GIFT, and got the gig, which is when everything started to go sour. They wanted her to perm her hair, she negotiated to wear braids. They wanted her to sex up her image, wear shorter dresses, tighter and more revealing blouses, wear lingerie for video shoots. She was disgusted when a camera man came on to her at one of the shoots.

I was trying too hard to fit in. I just felt naked all the time, it was all about sex. In America, to me, it was all about sex. If it’s not about sex, then it doesn’t sell as fast. When you pinpoint [successful] soul artists in America, there’s only India.Arie, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and that’s about it really. Everything else is Pop and Sex. That’s it.

And then one day she saw a five-year-old girl singing the raunchy lyrics and mimicking provocative dance steps of a song Etana had sung.  Looking back, Etana said, “I could not believe I had introduced that to her.”

Instead of being flattered and thinking the mini-hoochie mama was cute, Etana admits:

“It was embarrassing for me. I knew that was not my goal, not my intention. That’s when I decided to write songs and do it the way that I do it.”

“I had a long perm going down to my shoulders. And when I [starting becoming Rasta] — I bald off my hair completely. My mother thought I was
completely crazy. When I moved back to Jamaica, she double thought I was crazy.”

An additional incentive to leave America was the research she had done on genetically modified foods: “All the food we eat, the water we drink and even skin products have some kind of element that can lead to cancer.”

So Shauna changed her name to Etana (‘strong one’) and went back to Jamaica.

My given name is Shauna, and it means pretty. I feel like woman are beautiful all over the world, but not every woman knows the power and strength of a woman. I looked up a bunch of names, African names, and I found this one that rhymed with Shauna. When I looked up the meaning it meant ‘the strong one‘, so I figured that would be the perfect name.

I came to Jamaica in 2005 to open up an internet cafe and start a new life away from music. I figured it would be a better thing to do than to be in a world of music where sex and material things are the only sure way to be top seller or to be appreciated in the initial stages of a female artist career. I was later introduced to Fifth Element Records by a friend a mine. I remember when I was going through the gate I said to him, "look, I am signed to a major label already. I don’t need to be here". He just looked at me and laughed. He walked in and told his friends that I was the girl he was always talking about that can sing. It took some time but I finally gave in and did about two or three songs for them. Then they asked me to do one show with Richie Spice in California as a back up singer and I ended up on the road with Richie for one year.

Every time I came in from one show there would be another ticket to go do another. I didn’t hesitate because I realize all these people were accepting me for me without the weave and tight revealing clothing.

In 2007, Etana got together with the guitarist and percussionist in Spice’s band to record her first single, “Wrong Address,” a song about how people from the ghetto are discriminated against (see “Wrong Address” video here). The song was an unplugged recording: voice, acoustic guitar and hand percussion. The lyrics struck a responsive chord reflecting the daily hardships of a majority of young and poor Jamaicans.

“Wrong Address” eventually held down the number one spot on Jamaican charts. And then came her second major hit “Roots.” As she prepared her debut album release, appropriately titled The Strong One, Etana performed featured appearances on a slew of singles, a number of which were lover’s rock/romantic oriented songs.

Etana’s style was established: a troika of Rastafarian roots, sultry romance and sharply-observed politics. “August Town,” one of her most recent singles, commemorates a police shooting that took place in her home neighborhood. Imagine, say Keysha Cole recording a major single about the Diallo shooting in New York.

 Increasingly her romances are bifurcated into traditional “I love you/miss you/want you” songs on one side and anthems like “Loose Talking,” which have a more feminist orientation on the other side.

Additionally, Etana is clear about her stylistic direction as a vocalist.

Your music is described as Reggae Soul, what’s the difference between Reggae Soul and Roots reggae?

Reggae Soul and Roots Reggae is somewhat of the same thing, only that Reggae Soul comes with a bit more of the Blues. When I say the Blues, you ever heard American Blues? When someone takes the guitar and moan? When they sing you can feel the pain of what they are singing? Reggae is pretty much the same thing, but with an R&B twist to it, and Jazz.

Etana is not the only vocalist talking this route but she is one of the most successful and as such serves as an example that there is another way. Coming from a country that gave the world dancehall slackness, Etana’s popularity is significant.

In today’s music industry, women who choose not to conform to a sexy-image seldom achieve popularity but Etana has not only had hit records in Jamaica, she has also won numerous awards as Artist of the Year and for Album of the Year. Every hit record by Etana, every award given to Etana creates more room and encouragement for women as self-determined, human beings presenting their musical talent for appreciation rather than their sexiness for public consumption. In order to turn back the “sex sells” syndrome there must be other images that the public supports, alternatives to selling sex.

Etana is a major challenge to the dominant discourse on how a popular female musical artist should present herself and what her music should sound like. The closest America has come to a popular artist akin to Etana is Tracy Chapman. Perhaps the fact that Etana covers Chapman’s "All That You Have Is Your Soul" is no coincidence. The point is not just what the industry pushes as a standard but also what the public buys. The industry knows that they must follow the public if they want to sell and that is why the industry is always trying to influence what the public wants to buy.

Depending on the social conditions, which include public "awareness" (awareness of both the public’s own social reality and awareness that the industry is attempting to manipulate public tastes), depending on the complex equation of full public awareness in relation to industry’s attempts to influence, if not outright determine public taste, depending on where our people’s heads are at, there is an opening for conscious artists to become popular.

Etana’s popularity is no simple coincidence and neither are her hits mere flashes in the pan. Her music sounds like music, not simply preaching but also getting down. Hopefully, Etana is a portent that a major change is finally coming to the music industry. Hopefully, public tastes are growing eventually to become mountains of resistance rather than merely molehills of media manipulation.

Kalamu ya Salaam is a writer, musician and film-maker based in New Orleans, USA.

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