Protoje, for your first two albums you still joined forces with your cousin Donovan 'Don Corleon' Bennett, but for 'Ancient Future' you linked up with Phillip 'Winta' James. How did you guys meet?
Protoje: "I first got to know Winta as musician, playing at a session for Don Corleon. A few months later he sent me the Roots Man riddim, which I didn't record on for God knows what reason! (laughs) But I immediately recognized his talent, so I asked him to send over some more of his stuff and that's when he sent me the riddim for what eventually would become 'Criminal'. When I heared a couple more tracks he was working on, I was convinced he was into the same sound I also wanted to go for, so I told him we should do a project together and the rest as they say is history!"
Commenting on the 'Ancient Future' album, a lot of people called the collaboration a match made in heaven.
Protoje: "Doing that album together has made us become really good friends. I would even go as far as to say I now consider Winta to be one of my closest friends and we really look out for one another. Musically he's a true genius; he's very musical and has a great imagination. I could produce myself if I wanted to, but I like working with great producers like Winta, who I can learn from, in the hope that one day I can pass on that knowledge and do the same for other artists."
In your performances I've heard you use influences ranging from Anita Ward's disco smash 'Ring My Bell' to Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', so your musical influences obviously extend beyond the reggae genre?
Protoje: "For sure! I love a broad range of music, like movie soundtracks for example. When Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan work together they create magic every time! But I also love The Black Keys, my favorite band from the US. And I'm also into UK grime, artists like Skepta, Stormzy and Lady Leshurr. Nirvana and Rage Against The Machine have always been two of my most important stage influences. At one stage I even wanted to look like Zack (de la Rocha, red.)! (laughs) If all I would listen to was reggae music, then my music would sound like reggae music of the past and even though there obvious influences from that era in my music, I want my music to have an edge. Winta is the same and has a broad musical taste as well."
That being said, you do seem to have a slight predilection for Black Uhuru or is it Sly & Robbie, you tell me?
Protoje: "I used to watch old eighties shows from Black Uhuru on YouTube. I just love how they sounded and I can say that in reggae, together with Ini Kamoze, they are my biggest influence. But of course it's really about Sly & Robbie as they were the motor behind both Ini Kamoze and Black Uhuru. It's a sound I've always emulated and that's something I'm not ashamed of, on the contrary!"
A project you produced yourself was 'Royalty Free', where you offered the 'B Side' as a free download to your fans, but whatever happened to the 'A Side'?
Protoje: "With that project I just wanted to try out something new. At that point I wasn't working on an album, so I felt like I just wanted to test out my production skills and some new sounds. People seemed to like it, so eventually there will also be a 'Side A', but perhaps not in the way people will expect it! That's all I can say… (laughs)"
At the moment you're promoting your new single 'Blood Money'. For the visuals you opted to switch the O's with X's, almost like making blood into an X-rated term.
Protoje: "I just liked the way it looked, to be honest. My tour is called the BLXXDCLXXT Tour, which of course is a pejorative term, so there it definitely works. It makes the words stand out and gives them a bit of an aggressive feel. Also I really wanted people to take the tune serious."
The song is about political corruption and criminality in Jamaica; two things often going hand in hand. On the poster for the tour you're pictured with your face hidden behind a bandana, as you would often see rioters wear during protest marches.
Protoje: "Taj (Francis, red.) did the artwork for that poster. He's always the one to bring my visual ideas to life. If you look at the details in the bandana you'll see palm trees wrapped in barbed wire, so I felt it's a very strong image perfectly capturing the spirit of the song."
Taj was also responsible for the impressive video accompanying the song. Can you tell us a little bit more about him?
Protoje: "In my view Taj is one of the most brilliant visual artists, illustrators and graphic designers from Jamaica. Apart from that he's also a painter, specializing in murals and does animation as well, the video for 'Blood Money' being a great example. I met him at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts when he was only 19 years old and we've been collaborating ever since. So far he's been responsible for all my album covers. He came up with the whole visual concept for 'Blood Money' together with Yannick (Reid, red.), who's my creative director."
The whole 'Blood Money' project breathes the vibe of a protest song. Do you see yourself as a protest singer or do prefer the term soothsayer?
Protoje: "Well, first and foremost for me it's about doing what I feel I need to be doing. Sometimes that will be protest music, other times it will just be a tune for you to enjoy and dance on. That being said, I'm someone who observes what's going on all the time, and whenever I see something where I feel I have to speak up, I'll do so. But in this world it's important to know when to speak and when to remain silent. I think I'm quite good at writing the type of songs like 'Blood Money' as that's what I started out doing when I first started out doing music. It's a challenge to write a good protest song, and when I set myself the task, I always think back of great examples like 'I Shot The Sheriff' or 'Get Up, Stand Up'. Hopefully, in time, some of my songs will be added to that list of iconic protest songs."
You'll be travelling to Ethiopia soon to perform in Addis Abeba. What are your expectations?
Protoje: "I don't like to have expectations, as perfection is easily imagined, but very difficult to attain. Meaning that when you've got expectations, more often than not you get let down. My mind is open and my heart is ready for the experience. I'm looking forward to visiting the only nation in Africa never having been colonized, a country with un uninterrupted history that stretches back millennia and of course was home to His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie. It's also a crossroads of religions and cultures and definitely one of the spiritual Mecca's of the world. More than anything I'm looking forward to meeting the people though, to find out how they feel about reggae music, about Rastafarianism and so on. I've taken out a week to explore the country, so it will definitely be an interesting experience!"