Agent Sasco Embodies Hope on New Album
For reggae and dancehall artist Agent Sasco, hope and home are one in the same. His new album, Hope River (released on Aug. 31), pays homage to a river of the same name that was, as he puts it, “an integral part of [his community's] existence” in Kintyre in the Saint Andrew parish of Jamaica.
Hope, as Sasco sees it, is not only a river but a word that defines his story and a theme he wants to share with his audience. He enlists prominent reggae, dancehall and Afrobeats artists like Kabaka Pyramid, Stonebwoy, Stephen Marley and Sevana to help spread his message. “[Hope] is one of the things that if you lose that, you lose everything,” he tells TIDAL. In songs like “Winning Right Now” and “My Song,” Sasco keeps this message alive through uplifting lyrics and anthemic hooks. “I’ve got a song that makes me feel like I can conquer the world/ I’ve got a song that lifts my spirits, I find strength in the world,” he sings on “My Song.”
Sasco, who has been active in the music scene since he was a 16-year-old high schooler, was introduced to a larger audience in 2013 with his verse on Kanye West’s “I’m In It” and again in 2015 on Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry.” The tracks went on to be among the most impactful within their respective years with Sasco’s powerful delivery largely to thank. More recently, he’s collaborated with Royce Da 5’9″, Jadakiss and Pusha T on “Summer on Lock” and on Royce’s May 2018 LP, Book of Ryan.
Whether in the hip-hop and reggae/dancehall communities or that of his own in Jamaica amongst the Hope River banks, Sasco continues to make his mark. Below, he talks about the importance of Hope River — the album and place, why he changed his stage name from Assassin to Agent Sasco and being mentored by the living legend, Buju Banton.
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Hope River was your fourth studio album but you recorded the first own in your own home studio. I’m sure the creative process was much different for you being in your own space.
Yeah, absolutely. I can’t compare it to anything I’ve done before. There are certain intricacies and details that you can’t foresee. [For example,] whenever you’re booking studio time outside of a situation where you have access 24/7, you’re literally trying to summon your creativity. Sometimes you’re just not in the right mood or whatever it is. On the very simple basis of getting to work when I feel most in the mood to, I would imagine that would also lend itself to me getting the best expression out.
I live up in the mountains in St. Andrew overlooking Kingston surrounded by trees in the backyard. I have windows in the studio, and I deliberately wanted to have that connection with the outside [world]. Home is my most comfortable and desirable place to be. I love to be around my family. The album being the texture that it is and the things I’m sharing being personal things, it also helped get me in a comfortable place.
Hope River is the name of a river where you grew up. Can you talk about why you wanted to focus on that in this album?
The album cover is a picture of my younger self at 10 years old. I wanted this album to represent material that means more to people than just music. I get the most fulfillment that motivates and inspires people. The word “hope” itself was a perfect fit because it’s one of the overarching themes of the album. Hope River is going back to a time when a lot of my formation took place along the Hope River.
Looking back at that time, as old as I am and what my mindset now is, [I see] the river wasn’t just a passive feature. It was an integral part of our existence. It was recreational — you go to the river to swim or bathe. It was survival because at times, there was no water available if there was a hurricane or whatever, and you’d have to go to the river to fetch water to drink. You’d wash in the river, so it’s a life-giver. But sometimes, there’s terrible weather and it overflows the banks and people are washed away. I lived on the side of the river where there were mountains so I had to cross the river to get to any urban center.
How do you feel like your story is a story of hope?
How I grew up in those circumstances, chances are you find some way to become part of the dominant statistics, which is high school dropouts or finding yourself in the penal system. For me, looking at the album cover of a ten-year-old me, I remember dreaming of performing all over the world — not even in a way to just pursue it, but just to dream it. So when I was taking that picture, I would never even dare think that it would become [a reality]. That within itself is hope. It’s one of the things that, if you lose that, you lose everything.
For people who were introduced to you by your verses on Kanye and Kendrick’s tracks, which are more aggressive, are people ever surprised that your music can be so light and uplifting as well?
Not necessarily in a direct way. With [my former] name Assassin, I think people appreciate the diversity of what I bring to the table. I think it takes some figuring out as well. I guess people like to know exactly what they’re dealing with.
Why did you change your name from Assassin to Agent Sasco?
I got the name Assassin when I was in high school. My career started when I was still in high school, 16 years old. By 2000, things started to advance, and then September came. After 9/11, the world just became a different place, and all of a sudden, the name Assassin is not just an artist name. It had a little more weight to it. People were having a difficult time reconciling the name with the music. Then it was actively preventing opportunities from going through.
There was this time that the government included me in a campaign for Jamaica as a business destination, the time I was starting to pursue my business degree, and I was given a plaque and pictures were taken, and then I was looking at a group of people that were huddled together. One of them said, ‘Boy, we love what you represent, and we really appreciate you, but the name. We just can’t get it government approved.’ So that fell through.
Flipside of that as well, our information age, and you find that googling Assassin, it’s video games and TV shows [that come up] versus a name that is more unique.
You have an excerpt from Buju Banton on the album, and I know that he’s been a mentor of yours as well as someone you’ve been compared to. Can you talk about your relationship with him?
Buju is one of the central influences while I was growing up. There was a time when Buju owned the industry — from dancehall champion to becoming a master in the reggae arena, best of both worlds kind of thing. When Buju came out, me being a student of the music and being so immersed in trying to learn every song — picture me being impressed with the lyrical content at 9 years old. I really was. I appreciated how next level it was. So that’s me being a fan.
Then when I started to pursue music myself, Buju’s studio was one of the first places I’d try to get into. I was still in my school uniform, and I would audition for him and he was impressed. Getting a stamp of approval from a Buju Banton will do wonders for your confidence. Touring with Buju, I tried to learn all I could by being around him, but even being in situations where he’s actively trying to impart things. It means everything to find yourself in a situation with one of the greats. At no time was that lost on me that that was a great opportunity and blessing. I guess people can’t help themselves to compare, but for me, it is no easy feat to be compared to someone as iconic and legendary as Buju.
When I started putting the album together and recording the song “Journey,” I just remembered thinking about that excerpt [from Buju] and thinking that it fits perfectly into the idea of that song — the journey but also it’s another one of the principles that I live by. Time is a tool for you to use; it’s not something to fear. It’s something for you to embrace and understand that you can use time to change things over time. The words took on a whole new gravity when I put it into that context. That excerpt was from ’04 and recognizing that 14 years in, I’m still trying to master those things that Buju was talking about.
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