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Reggae Star Jesse Royal On Elevating The Youth, Staying Receptive To All Styles & Why 'Royal' Is His Most "Vulnerable" Album To Date

Jesse Royal

Photo: Samo

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Reggae Star Jesse Royal On Elevating The Youth, Staying Receptive To All Styles & Why 'Royal' Is His Most "Vulnerable" Album To Date

Most people think of reggae as a vehicle to address social ills, but the genre has internal power, too. Case in point: Jesse Royal's new album 'Royal,' which is as much a long talk to himself as a message to the world.

GRAMMYs/Jun 16, 2021 - 07:55 pm

From Bob Marley encouraging the masses to "Get Up, Stand Up" to Peter Tosh exhorting the feds to "Legalize It," it's easy to think of reggae as a genre built to preach social consciousness—full stop. But to treat the genre as an ideological island isn't just unfair to its artists; it underestimates its ability to reflect the whole of the human condition. Take Jesse Royal, who recently took to music to work through the physical distance between himself and his daughter, who lives in Oslo, Norway.

"It's so far from Jamaica," Royal tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom. "During this pandemic, I haven't been able to get her to just be with me in Jamaica. So, it's been two years I haven't seen her. To the world, I'm Jesse Royal. But to her, I'm just daddy."

He addresses the feeling of missing his daughter in his song, "Home": "When daddy's not home and you feel alone/Don't get too lonely, 'cause Jah love surround."

"Home" appears midway through the singer/songwriter's new album Royal, which dropped June 11 on Easy Star Records. With highlights like "High Tide or Low," "Rich Forever" and "Strongest Link (Do My Best)," the album makes a clear argument that reggae is an emotional Swiss Army Knife. "Reggae is a different tone, a different feeling, a different mood. It speaks to you in different ways," Royal explained in a press release about the album. "It is definitely royal music."

Speaking of regality: While some reggae may be heard as 4/4 upbeats and some sung obeisance, it's certainly not all that, and such a characterization belies the open-mindedness of its greatest artists. For Royal's part, he loves everyone from Drake to Dua Lipa. "People tend to think we stay in the hills and sit and just make music, but no," Royal contends. "We appreciate other people's perspectives on music."

GRAMMY.com caught up with Jesse Royal to discuss the infinite potential of reggae, his artistic intent behind Royal, and why he continually keeps his ears open to new inspirations.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I love Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and all the other vanguards of this music. But where does reggae sit right now, artistically? What broader relevance does it maintain in 2021?

Reggae still has its roots. If you look around the world, reggae is literally the only genre whose message is dedicated to truth. If it's about love, it's about strife, it's about war, it's about spirituality, it's about reclaiming certain truths about our identity; that's what our genre is dedicated to. That will always be the root. The expression of it continues to grow. As we get exposed to other songs and other perspectives of music, we definitely incorporate that in our songs.

That's been going on since the beginning of time. I'm sure you've heard Bob Marley's covers. You've heard Alton Ellis cover so many greats. You've heard Ken Boothe cover Bread. "Everything I Own" is a classic in Jamaica that was a cover from Ken Boothe, but is an original song by Bread. "People Get Ready," [by] Curtis Mayfield, all these individuals—Otis Redding—had a heavy influence on Jamaica and Jamaican artists.

Read More: The Impressions' "People Get Ready" At 55

Before we had a real industry with certain radio stations in place, we were literally listening to what was offered. That definitely was part of Jamaica's expression of music. I don't think that has changed. People tend to think we stay in the hills and sit and just make music, but no. We appreciate other people's perspectives on music.

I still respect Bruno Mars as much as I respect Alton Ellis. I like Ziggy Marley, but Drake is also incredibly creative. I like Lila Iké and Protoje, but I also love Dua Lipa. She's incredible! I like to listen to other people and integrate ingredients from all music because I think it makes it more palatable for the broader world. 

I feel like reggae is a conversation that needs to be held with all of the youth around the world, so it's our duty as distributors of this gold to ensure it's palatable enough for the youth and they can get it and digest it and it can be impactful in life.

All these artists you mentioned, yourself included, have big ears and big tastes. I remember reading that Bob Marley's Exodus was influenced by British rock.

Yeah, man. British rock and punk rock. Johnny Nash was also a big part of some of Bob's songs. Bob spent some time in England. A lot of Bob's songs were mastered and mixed in England. It's just being open to the world and understanding, as well as appreciating what everyone brings to the table. I like to tell people that it's too bad they closed the Bible because I feel like there are still prophets that are here.

Read More: For The Record: Bob Marley & The Wailers' Exodus

You've laid out many of the ingredients, as it were. So, for Royal, what did you choose for your figurative plate?

The album Royal is just a stripped-down version of me. It's literally my most vulnerable project to date, meaning that we just took experiences and put them in melodies. We took songs we were exposed to and found ways to integrate [them] in our own genre. We were using some melodies that I personally felt good singing, but you can tell there's a side of me I wasn't tapping into enough.

It was good to feel that. To not feel like I was going to the same source for every song. It was good to feel like there were songs that were forcing me to go into a different place. There [are] songs like "Home" that I wrote for my daughters that took me to a place I had never been. I was literally wiping tears listening to the playback in the booth just because of how honest a conversation it was.

I feel like when some people think of reggae, they think of messaging about the state of the world. But it sounds like you're more preoccupied with your internal world for this one.

It's [moreso] that we're more palatable and honest with the audience. Reggae has done what it's done and it's our time now to take it a little further. Let me put it this way: The fact that my sister Koffee sang "Toast" and celebrated life in such an honest way, it created such a real impact. I think people appreciate that, too, from reggae. We're giving thanks for blessings, yes, but I feel like we're dealing with some you-know-what. 

We still have to be able to communicate with them because I don't care how intelligent or learned you are. For us, that is important, coming from the islands. The assurance that people understand the conversation. It's personal, but it's personal from the point of view that, "Yo, everybody's going through things like this!"

Read More: Popcaan Talks FIXTAPE, Working With Drake And The Globalization Of Dancehall And Reggae

Tell me about working with Protoje and Popcaan.

Popcaan is one of Jamaica's greatest dancehall artists. Very few people around the world don't know who Popcaan is. He's definitely waving the flag for Jamaican dancehall very high. He's also somebody who I consider a brother as well as a mentor, too. I definitely learned a lot from him, and he is humble enough to share experiences with me and a lot of other people.

Proto is my brother from another mother. He's definitely one of the realest individuals I've ever met in life, separate and apart from music. He is a very solid individual who is incredibly creative and caring about the genre as a whole. Protoje is somebody who wants the best for reggae music, not just for himself. It's a duty and a mission.

What do you hope listeners take away from Royal? What do you hope they learn about you?

What I hope people learn from me as an artist is that it's OK to be tough, but it's also OK to be honest. We have gone through a lot, but we're still here, standing. I say that as a people, not as an individual. There are songs like "Rich Forever" in which we are reminding people of their identity and ensuring they don't see themselves from a lower point, but understand they have a richer heritage than even I can describe.

We've given the world so much. The world has robbed so much—they've taken so much—and there's still so much left in Africa to give. We just be as real as it gets when it comes to the value of what our nation provides to the world. That in itself is one of the things we aim to achieve with this project in terms of reminding youths of our real place, our real position in the world.

Everybody's got to play their part for the team to work. You could have the best strikers on the field, but without a goalkeeper, you're still going to lose. You can have the best power forward and center forward on the court, but if you don't have a point guard to pass them the ball in the right place, things won't work right. 

Just like that, in the bigger game of life, I feel like we as a nation have a role to play in the bigger picture of moving forward where the world is concerned. We need to get our s* together so that we can be as beneficial to the bigger picture as possible.

The Women Essential To Reggae And Dancehall

Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry

Janet Jackson

Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

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Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry

Selections by Albert King, Labelle, Connie Smith, Nas, Jackson Browne, Pat Metheny, Kermit the Frog and others have also been marked for federal preservation

GRAMMYs/Mar 25, 2021 - 02:37 am

The Librarian of Congress Carla Haden has named 25 new inductees into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. They include Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814,” Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Nas’ “Illmatic,” Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” Kermit the Frog’s “The Rainbow Connection” and more.

“The National Recording Registry will preserve our history through these vibrant recordings of music and voices that have reflected our humanity and shaped our culture from the past 143 years,” Hayden said in a statement. “We received about 900 public nominations this year for recordings to add to the registry, and we welcome the public’s input as the Library of Congress and its partners preserve the diverse sounds of history and culture.”

The National Recording Preservation Board is an advisory board consisting of professional organizations and experts who aim to preserve important recorded sounds. The Recording Academy is involved on a voting level. The 25 new entries bring the number of musical titles on the registry to 575; the entire sound collection includes nearly 3 million titles. Check out the full list of new inductees below:

National Recording Registry Selections for 2020

  1. Edison’s “St. Louis tinfoil” recording (1878)

  2. “Nikolina” — Hjalmar Peterson (1917) (single)

  3. “Smyrneikos Balos” — Marika Papagika (1928) (single)

  4. “When the Saints Go Marching In” — Louis Armstrong & his Orchestra (1938) (single)

  5. Christmas Eve Broadcast--Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (December 24, 1941)

  6. “The Guiding Light” — Nov. 22, 1945

  7. “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues” — Odetta (1957) (album)

  8. “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day” — Albertina Walker and the Caravans (1959) (single)  

  9. Roger Maris hits his 61st homerun (October 1, 1961)

  10. “Aida” — Leontyne Price, et.al. (1962) (album)

  11. “Once a Day” — Connie Smith (1964) (single)

  12. “Born Under a Bad Sign” — Albert King (1967) (album)

  13. “Free to Be…You & Me” — Marlo Thomas and Friends (1972) (album)

  14. “The Harder They Come” — Jimmy Cliff (1972) (album)

  15. “Lady Marmalade” — Labelle (1974) (single)

  16. “Late for the Sky” — Jackson Browne (1974) (album)

  17. “Bright Size Life” — Pat Metheny (1976) (album)

  18. “The Rainbow Connection” — Kermit the Frog (1979) (single)

  19. “Celebration” — Kool & the Gang (1980) (single)

  20. “Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs” — Jessye Norman (1983) (album)

  21. “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” — Janet Jackson (1989) (album)

  22. “Partners” — Flaco Jiménez (1992) (album)

  23. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/”What A Wonderful World” — Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1993) (single)

  24. “Illmatic” — Nas (1994) (album)

  25. “This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money” (May 9, 2008)

Learn To Make Beats With Library Of Congress' New Digital DJ Tool

Press Play At Home: Watch Dodie Perform A Morning-After Version Of "Four Tequilas Down"

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Press Play At Home: Watch Dodie Perform A Morning-After Version Of "Four Tequilas Down"

In the latest episode of Press Play At Home, singer/songwriter dodie conjures a bleary last call in a hushed performance of "Four Tequilas Down"

GRAMMYs/Jun 24, 2021 - 07:38 pm

"Four Tequilas Down" is as much a song as it is a memory—a half-remembered one. "Did you make your eyes blur?/So that in the dark, I'd look like her?" dodie, the song's writer and performer, asks. To almost anyone who's engaged in a buzzed rebound, that detail alone should elicit a wince of recognition.

Such is dodie's beyond-her-years mastery of her craft: Over a simple, spare chord progression, she can use an economy of words to twist the knife. "So just hold me like you mean it," dodie sings at the song's end. "We'll pretend because we need it."

In the latest episode of Press Play At Home, watch dodie stretch her songwriting muscles while conjuring a chemically altered Saturday night—and the Sunday morning full of regrets, too.

Check out dodie's hushed-yet-intense performance of "Four Tequilas Down" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of Press Play At Home.

Press Play At Home: Watch Yola Perform A Rock-Solid Rendition Of "Stand For Myself"

Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Why Dead Poet Society's Jack Underkofler Has The "Least Picky" Backstage Rider

Jack Underkofler

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Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Why Dead Poet Society's Jack Underkofler Has The "Least Picky" Backstage Rider

In the latest episode of Herbal Tea & White Sofas, learn why Dead Poet Society lead singer Jack Underkofler is committed to having the world's most reasonable backstage rider

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2021 - 12:26 am

Some artists make larger-than-life demands on their tour riders—hence the classic urban legend about Van Halen requiring the removal of brown M&Ms. 

For their part, Dead Poet Society have decided to take the opposite tack, as their lead singer, Jack Underkofler, attests in the below clip.

In the latest episode of Herbal Tea & White Sofas, learn why Dead Poet Society's Underkofler is committed to having the world's most reasonable backstage rider—including one ordinary pillow to nap on.

Check out the cheeky clip above and click here to enjoy more episodes of Herbal Tea & White Sofas.

Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Why Greyson Chance Swapped Candy For Champagne & Candles Backstage

GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Santana & Rob Thomas Self-Assuredly Win Record Of The Year For "Smooth" In 2000

Rob Thomas And Carlos Santana

Photo: Vince Bucci/AFP via Getty Images

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GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Santana & Rob Thomas Self-Assuredly Win Record Of The Year For "Smooth" In 2000

In the newest episode of GRAMMY Rewind, watch Santana and Rob Thomas win Record Of The Year at the 42nd GRAMMY Awards for "Smooth," the unlikely smash-hit pairing of the classic rock legend and Matchbox Twenty leader

GRAMMYs/Jul 30, 2021 - 06:56 pm

By all accounts, Santana's and Rob Thomas' 1999 megahit "Smooth" almost didn't happen. In its embryonic stages, Carlos Santana was skeptical of the tune; the AM-radio effect on Thomas's voice alone engendered its own smattering of arguments.

But in a quintessential lesson about why you should never, ever give up, "Smooth" became the second-biggest single of all time, second only to Chubby Checker's "The Twist." It also led to the 2000 GRAMMY Awards, where the unlikely pair won the GRAMMY for Record Of The Year.

In the newest episode of GRAMMY Rewind, revisit the moment 21 years ago when an unlikely gambit paid off in dividends, putting a feather in the cap of Matchbox Twenty's leader and landing a classic rocker back on the airwaves.

Check out the throwback GRAMMY moment above and click here to enjoy more episodes of GRAMMY Rewind.

Why Can't Anyone Get Woodstock Right? 15 Of The Original Fest's Performers Weigh In