No Angry Language – An Interview with Taj Weekes

CANNABIS CULTURE – The Sun had finally gone down, bringing one of the hottest days of the year to an end, just as a gentle breeze began to blow our way. After speaking for nearly two hours about a variety of subjects ranging from reggae to marijuana to international politics, the cooling wind was most welcome as Taj Weekes and I shared a spliff of fresh Congolese Sativa while watching the evening skies gather around us.

‘You know, coming to B.C. has been the most surprising discovery on this long tour we’ve been on,’ Weekes smiled, taking another draw from his joint before passing it back to me. ‘I think they must pipe kindness and compassion directly into the water here. It really is quite an astounding place.’ I took that as a compliment because there aren’t many places around the globe that Taj Weekes and his band Adowa haven’t travelled to in the last few years due to his growing popularity, thus proving that no matter how musical fashions may come and go, there will always be an enthusiastic audience for the type of roots reggae that he plays and still loves so deeply.

A person doesn’t have to spend much time with Taj Weekes before realizing that he’s not your typical reggae artist. Sure, he’s got dreadlocks, loves to use marijuana and sings, dances and gestures in a way that recalls Bob Marley at his most transcendent, but first impressions can be deceiving. In addition to carrying the torch for roots reggae, Taj is also a poet, UN ambassador for orphan children in the Caribbean, and a burgeoning photographer.

A true humanitarian, Weekes spends a lot of time when he’s not on the road with his band visiting schools, delivering sports equipment to neglected corners of the Caribbean, and working with communities to reduce domestic abuse in St. Lucia. In short, if someone showed you Taj Weekes’ resume, you might find it hard to believe, but that wouldn’t faze him one bit. Soft spoken, reflective, and quick to smile or make a joke, Taj Weekes is a keen observer of the human condition. It’s been a long time since I’ve shared time with a musician blessed with the vision and integrity, and I feel better for the experience.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

DR: Hi Taj! It’s good to meet you. I first became aware of your music about five years ago. A friend gave me an album of yours called ‘Hope and Doubt.’ To me, it sounded like a real return to the roots reggae sound that’s been missing in a lot of new music from the Caribbean.

TW: Thank you very much. I am still surprised at how far my music has reached and how people I never would have suspected have heard about what we do.

DR: For people that haven’t heard of you before this, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? First, you’re not Jamaican like so many reggae artists are. You’re from St. Lucia. What was the musical scene there like while you were growing up?

TW: I grew up as the last child in a family of ten. For entertainment at night, we would all line up and sing for our parents. On every other night, he’d get up and sing for us. I only realized in retrospect, that he was actually teaching us how to breathe. He was an incredible singer. He always liked to sing Nat King Cole songs for us. It just kind of grew from that. I sang in church and I sang in school. My brothers and I had a band together on the island, and whenever we could, we would sing and perform at state shows. But, when the Rastafarian culture came into St. Lucia, it came like a hurricane and just kind of swept everyone off of their feet.

DR: Was that in the seventies?

TW: Yes, I was growing up in the middle of all of this and three of my brothers became Rastas and my parents were very uncomfortable with it.

DR: You’d identified with the Christian church before this?

TW: That’s how we were brought up – with Christian religion and ‘God Save The Queen’ and then my brothers came along saying ‘to Hell with the Queen’ and it was very upsetting for my parents. They were very uncomfortable with the fact that we worshipped a black king from Ethiopia and we were moving away from the colonial yoke. So, when we broke away from that, we no longer had to deal with Christianity. I sat around on many a night sitting around and listening to all the reasonings of the Rastas. It wasn’t that they weren’t supporting Christianity because they saw His Majesty (Haile Selassie) as Christ, but the form of Christianity they didn’t support.

I remember going back to St. Lucia after a long time and I went to visit my mother. She had a picture of a white Jesus over the door, and I said ‘Who’s that man over the door?’ ‘What?’, she said. ‘There’s a man over the door and he doesn’t look like any of us. Who is he?’ She said, ‘Jesus’, and I said, ‘Really and truly mother. That’s not Jesus. He didn’t look like that.’ At that moment, she sat down with my father and said to me finally, ‘Tell us about this Rasta business.’ I was surprised and really happy about that. So, I explained what I understood.

DR: I don’t even think Christianity needs to be incompatible with following Rastafari.

TW: Right! That’s the beauty of it! After speaking with me, my parents said that I was the only one who had ever explained to them what it is that we’re defending. She had no problem with it after that.

DR: I think ‘real Christianity’ is up for grabs anyway. It’s been used as an instrument of control since Constantine saw the way the wind was blowing in Ancient Rome and converted. The Church has had a lot to answer for from way back then….

TW: That’s right! I tell people that it’s not a cross! It’s a sword, you know! So, I grew up singing as I told you, but there’s one incident that I remember. I was singing at a primary school and I was really nervous. My dad was backstage and he said not to be nervous and asked me if it would be a problem if I talked to all those people individually. I said, ‘Of course not’, and he said, ‘Well, they’re all together in the room there. Go and talk to them.’ I’ve never been nervous performing since that time. It was a powerful lesson for me. They’re only people. If they don’t like you, what are you going to do?

DR: Have you had to encounter a lot of people who don’t like you or perhaps more accurately what they perceive you represent?

TW: I saw a lot of brutality leveled against the Rastafarians. Our government didn’t know what to do with them. They tried violent suppression, but the more they tried to suppress, the more the movement grew. The reggae songs we listened to on the radio, they were the support system, so the Rastas kept coming and coming. But, in some countries in the Caribbean like Dominica the policy was to shoot Rastas on sight. I know a couple of brothers who got killed in that way. People been put in prison for a long time and Amnesty International had to come down and try and deal with it. So, that was my childhood. From a musical standpoint, I was lucky because I was a DJ at a local radio station when I was thirteen. I was chosen in a local contest, and what was nice was that the radio station was not formatted, so we’d switch from some Beethoven to some way down dirty Louisiana blues to Calypso and no one would mind. We had everything from the Mighty Sparrow to Elton John.

DR: So, what was the special appeal of reggae and the Rastafarian movement?

TW: Well, my brothers and I always supported the underdog, and reggae was the music of the underdog. I played reggae music in my school band, but I moved to Toronto, Canada for a while and there was nothing happening there. So, I moved to New York and started an acoustic rock band there. But, soon I was drawn back to the music of my childhood and I got gigs singing over pre-recorded music in restaurants. Someone came into the restaurant one day and told me that there was a show coming up called ‘The Future of Reggae’ that he’d like me to be a part of, but I needed a band. So, I found – or rather I rented – a band (big laugh) and I played the show. After we played, everyone who played with me stayed on and we formed our own band. Some of those guys are still with me today. We played the local scene for a while and as time passed I thought I had enough good songs to record. It was a hard time because friends were telling me to focus on something other than music and get a real job. That’s why I called the album ‘Hope and Doubt.’ I was feeling hopeful, but could feel the doubt out there. I was caught in between. The signature song on that album was ‘MPLA’ because it was about my brother who was poisoned. Most journalists who wrote about that album, wrote about that song and that’s how it all started out for me.

DR: Your music is a lot more serious, more rootsy than most of the reggae I hear these days. Songs like ‘Angry Language’ are complex and metaphorical. They’re very intense pieces of work. It’s not light entertainment. Needless to say, you haven’t really gotten into the dancehall thing very much.

TW: Well, I look at it in a couple of ways. You can only do what you can do. Maybe some people can’t sing about the types of things we sing about. I believe there’s space for everything. There is a time to dance, a time to listen, and a time to fight, you know. I do think that there needs to be a bird’s eye view of what’s happening because – if not – the music will eventually die because we’ve been overwhelmed by the dancehall thing. It’s a thing to think of that the music that still sells the most is the conscious music. We have a man who died thirty years ago and he’s still outselling everybody else.

DR: What do you attribute that to – other than Bob Marley’s obvious enduring artistic brilliance?

TW: Well, of course it was a lot of things. There was a lot of marketing going on. He filled a void with a message I think. It’s a good question. There have been a million great artists, but why do people still gravitate to this particular one? I think it’s because he told the stories of the day and sadly from then till now nothing has actually changed. It’s funny. I was listening to Marvin Gaye the other day and he was singing about Mercury way back when….

DR: Yeah, his album ‘What’s Going On’ is still so pertinent….

TW: Nothing has changed! It takes me back to my understanding of the end of Roman times as we were discussing – the people were filled with all kinds of nonsense.

DR: Yes, at the end of the Empire there were over 250 holidays a year and the people were totally overfed, anaesthetized….

TW: So, they wouldn’t be aware of what was actually happening. It’s sad though that things like dancehall could have been a vehicle of change. A few artists like Bunny Wailer have done some incredible work, but the reason why I have had little to do with Dancehall is that it is based on excess – how many women I have had, how much bling. It gets really boring to me. Anything built on excess is not going to last.

DR: So, let’s think about this. You’re obviously an idealist, but you travel through the great cities of the world, the pollution, the traffic, the weird shit everywhere. Does it affect you or seem contradictory to what you say and believe to be sitting at a busy Starbucks in downtown Vancouver?

TW: No, I am in it, but I am not of it. There’s no thing that I care about that much that I can’t walk away from on any given day. Really and truly, this is not real life to me. You get on stage and people scream, but that’s our job. When I walk down the street, people don’t scream or recognize me. I think that’s where we have to learn to balance things out and not to believe the hype that comes with our job. Me singing does not define who I am. I am who I am regardless. My three kids don’t think I’m anyone but their Daddy. One day I came home from playing a reggae festival in front of thirty thousand people and the first thing someone said to me was, ‘Could you please put the garbage out.’ I was so excited and I said, ‘You know thirty thousand people came to…’ and they said, ‘Please, you’re making to much noise! It was nice and quiet before you came in.’ (laugh) So, that’s the beauty of it. It keeps me together. When I get home, I’m Dad.’

DR: So, you’re a working musician and a parent. For most people, that’d be enough, but I know that you do a lot of humanitarian work as well. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

TW: Yes. In 2007, when we released our second album, Diedem, there’s a song on there ‘The Orphan’s Cry’ and there was a woman named Dr. Hope who worked for the UN asked us if we were willing to do some work in the Caribbean. They were concerned that everyone thought the Caribbean was just a place where people went for fun in the sun, but there’s a lot more going on there that they wanted us to help shine a spotlight on. So, they made me an ambassador to the region and we formed an organization called ‘The Orphan Cry Outreach’ or TOCO to work with underprivileged children in the Caribbean. So, the first thing we did was donate over 500 soccer balls and 600 uniforms to the kids there. We also focused in on that St. Lucia has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world due to the North American lifestyle and diet they’ve adopted. We have tons of people on the waiting list for dialysis and about four or five amputations a week in a country with a population of only 160,000! We decided to fight this, and we just finished work on a diabetes documentary that will come out in November called ‘Bittersweet.’ We are doing everything we can to educate the people.

DR: The trend should be reversible if people in St. Lucia can start eating their traditional diet again.

TW: Yes, theoretically diabetes can be reversed in thirty days. We’re also doing something called ‘The Clothesline Project’ in which women who are going through abuse write down what’s happening to them on a T shirt and hang it in a public place. Literally airing their dirty laundry. And, you have to realize that in a small country like ours everyone’s lives are intertwined and everything is always ‘hush hush.’ There are counselors available on the periphery, but there is always shame in a place like this. The first year a couple of people came to the project and they weren’t the people I’d expected. Some of them came from high society. We got a lot of response because of a terrible event in which a man stabbed his pregnant girlfriend. It mobilized us.

DR: Modern life is so full of so much pain and confusion. No one wants to do that.

TW: True. I am really proud of this work. We’ve had law enforcement people from America come to St. Lucia to talk to police there about how important it is to fight domestic abuse.

DR: I’m amazed you ever have time to pick up your guitar.

TW: In my mind, the charity work and the music are one. There is no separation.

DR: And you have a book coming out?

TW: Yeah, it’s called ‘Brown Lawns’ and it was written during the financial crisis. We were on tour and as we drove all we saw were brown lawns. The poem goes like this- ‘Brown lawns and boarded up houses, Tumbleweeds, for sale shingles, lock boxes… From Cracker box houses to gated estates, we’ve all fallen prey to sub-prime lending rates’

DR: You know here in Canada we have a very different, a very staid and more British banking system. There wasn’t nearly the same kind of suffering in evidence here….

TW: I had a few friends who lost their houses in New York. Some places we tour when we drive down the street, all we see are ‘for sale’ shingles. It’s really sad. We have a song from the upcoming album called ‘Giant Beast’ that’s about all of this. It’s about how sad it is that the giant beast doesn’t realize its distress and that it still thinks it’s big and mighty. A sling and a stone is all it needs! It’s gonna fall down.

DR: There are a lot of Goliaths out there, ready to fall.

TW: Yes, it’s funny you mention Goliath. We wrote a song for the ‘Occupy’ movement called ‘Against the Machine.’ I stood in the rain with thousands of people. When I got to the house, I turned on to the corporate media and they claimed only a few hundred people had gathered there.

DR: I see that kind of thing over and over again. As if it’ll change the truth…

TW: I was truly amazed and to hear them say that. I realized how dangerous the media really is.

DR: Yeah, most of the media outlets in the world are owned by the same handful of people.

TW: Rupert Murdoch has been able to buy everything and it makes it all so boring. All the radio stations play the same songs.

DR: It’s the LiveNation effect. They own everything.

TW: It’s a funny thing. Here we are talking about megacorporations while sitting in a Starbucks.

DR: It is ironic.

TW: (big laugh) Ooooh yeah! It’s interesting to watch the evolution of all of it. Things rise and fall. The mom and pop video store disappeared with Blockbuster, and it is satisfying to see them fall with the rise of Netflix. There are so many examples…

DR: Change is happening so fast. The way we approach work, creativity, ownership has all altered so drastically in the last decade that we’re just beginning to assimilate it. As an artist, you must have had your work ‘stolen’ and downloaded without paying you. Intellectual property rights simply don’t exist. Does that worry you at all?

TW: Well, not really. As much as any of us want to be independent, life involves a little selling out because the intention is always to get whatever form of art we’re involved with out to as many people as possible. At some time, you have to kiss the beast to make it happen. At some point, you have to deal with the LiveNations, Ticketmasters and Itunes of this world. We have to deal with Amazon, but I am aware that many who start off as independents begin to do the things that they said they would never do. We like to deal with CDBaby because they treat artists well. Independence and the Internet are great, but they also allow for a lot of mediocrity.

DR: I get over-stimulated easily. The Internet can often be about information overload. I get more music sent to me than I can possibly listen to.

TW: Yes, it’s the age where you can go into your basement and come out with a CD and think it’s the greatest thing ever. This is truly an interesting life…

DR: …and time to be alive.

TW: Yes, I like to sit back and watch the carnival. I try to chronicle it the best I can. I am amazed at how some artists can travel through fifty cities, drive through the wasteland and not have it affect you, or not mention or comment on it. Maybe they’re not songwriters. Maybe, they’re just hustlers playing the game. Me, I feel like I have to write a little something every day. It may not be significant; I may never use it, but I like to do it. One way that I write is to sing the words to every sign I see on the street. Sometimes a nice rhyme or melody comes out of it and I write it down to revisit later. I think it keeps my mind sharp and wakes me up to the world around me.

DR: Anything else you do regularly to keep your mind sharp?

TW: Well, my friend, you work for Cannabis Culture, don’t you? I think you may know the answer to that question. (big laugh) Who are you at Cannabis Culture anyway?

DR: We’re advocates for freedom and informed personal choice. We know that cannabis can be part of a healthy lifestyle. There is so much research to support the use of cannabis for healing disease, reducing stress…and I don’t need to tell you about how people have been using it creatively for centuries.

TW: Is cannabis legal here in B.C.?

DR: It’s a gray area. There are an increasing number of licensed dispensaries, medical growers, and a general tolerance for marijuana use in British Columbia. Technically, it’s not fully legal, but there is very little will here to make a big deal about pot smoking for medical or recreational purposes.

TW: It seems that I need to move to B.C.! On my next album, I have a song about marijuana.

DR: Two joints in my pocket? I like that song.

TW: No, this is a new one. It is actually my third song about weed. There’s another song called ‘One Draw.’ I had a song called ‘Janjaweed’ about the terrible situation in Darfur, but there was some misunderstanding, so I’ve written a song called ‘Ganja weed’ to clear up the confusion. The song says that the laws against marijuana have done more harm than marijuana itself has ever done. It’s a new song. Let’s go outside and get some inspiration and tonight I will sing it!

DR: Thanks Taj! Let’s get some fresh air and spark one up!

TW: Nice!

You can hear Taj Weekes on itunes or check out his website at www.tajweekes.com.
A new live album will be released soon!

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