Jesse Royal Wants to Make People Feel Powerful
“Overstanding” is a key word for this week’s TIDAL Rising Pick, Jesse Royal. “Compassion and overstanding is a key part of my life,” Royal says. “I feel like Christ, Muhammad and Haile Selassie, if they were all around today, they would all be friends. They wouldn’t be finding reasons to not get along.”
With his debut album, Lily of Da Valley, out now through Easy Star Records, Royal threads this practice of togetherness through each lyric. In a time where differences define the culture and shape identities, Royal encourages his listeners to unite.
Aside from its broader message, the album represents a trying time in Royal’s life and perhaps one that offered the most perspective. During the two-year period he was working on the LP, two of the most impactful events in his life took place: the birth of his first-born baby girl and the sudden death of his mother. “It was a reminder that we all come and go,” Royal says. “My mother passing away was an eye-opener, but my daughter’s birth was a lifesaver for me.”Thus, Lily of Da Valley is emblematic not only of life’s natural cycle but the perspective that it yields.
In this interview with TIDAL, Royal shares the insight he’s gleaned from his experiences of love, loss, life in Jamaica and more. Also, be sure to listen to his Small Axe playlist below, which features some of his personal favorites.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your upbringing?
I was born in St. James, Jamaica. Maroon Town town to be exact. There’s three different Maroon Towns in Jamaica. The one that I’m from is in St. James. The Maroons are basically the only set of Africans in Jamaica who were never enslaved, so they lived in the hills where nobody else could manage or maintain, so that’s my ancestry.
Then, we moved to Kingston in 1997, which was a completely different experience with how life is concerned for me. When you grow up in a countryside in Jamaica, you see things a little bit different. You take things a little bit slower. People are a lot more involved with each other’s lives because you are related or connected in some way, shape or form. When you’re in Kingston, it’s like a dog eat dog world. I was a young cub at the time but I could still feel the stark difference between living in the country and living in the city.
When we got to Kingston, I became really good friends with Ziggy Marley’s son, Daniel ‘Bambaata.’ We used to play football together, basketball together, listen to music, vibe out to music at the time. We were discussing the other day — in 2000, I believe it was — we were talking about this song Carl Thomas had ['Summer Rain']. It’s just funny to us how at that stage in our lives, we were really just engulfed in the music because we were from Jamaica but we were still trying to pick materials from everywhere.
I was exposed to a different side of the music and a different respect of the music because melody makers are still the height of what a band or music is, since the Wailers. To experience music from that perspective was good for me, as a youth, to understand the root of it, to understand where it came from and where it’s going.
A lot of this was happening subliminally and subconsciously, but as we grew older and music rattled our heads a little bit more and the seriousness that we approached music with, we began to realize that music plays a big part in how we approach our lives and our craft. From a young age, we realized that we needed to learn some things that school wasn’t teaching us, just to be who we are today.
What is it like to come out here to New York where there’s such a contrast in the lifestyle compared to your home, Kingston?
It’s good because the experience and exposure is always good for one’s life. It’s always good to meet different individuals, hear different perspectives. Try to find relations in different backgrounds and that helps develop a different being. Life is really about growing. How do you become a better man than you were yesterday? How do you become a little bit wiser? How do you become more caring? It’s really all about growth.
In Jamaica—because we are what we are, a former colony—sometimes the structure of our country itself is very blurred, and when you do come to Jamaica, there’s a lot of individuals who aren’t really aware of what’s going on in the world. Because we are in the age of information, there are some people who could tell you more about Bangladesh than you could tell them about Manhattan. So traveling is very enlightening for me: different people, different backgrounds. It all helps sharpen you. But at the same time, it humbles you enough to be understanding of everyone’s perspective because when I understand where a Muslim or a Christian individual is coming from, it strengthens me as a Rasta. I feel like when they themselves can see where I’m coming from, it strengthens them. On the grassroots level, it will help them understand that we preach peace. I feel like Christ and Muhammad and Haile Selassie, if they were all around today, they would all be friends. They wouldn’t be finding reasons to not get along. Compassion and overstanding is a key part of my life.
Tell me about your album, Lily of da Valley.
Lily of Da Valley is the title of my debut album. It’s good to be at this point in my career. It’s good to also show some of the youths that we can do it. There’s different ways to do it and different roads to take, but we have to do it, and being independent doesn’t mean that the work is easier. The workload gets heavier.
Tell me about the process of making the album.
It was a two-year thing. We had a concept for the album. We drafted some ideas. We had some voice memos of ideas we believed were worth this project. We just got in the studio and made some music, started with a blank page, really just allowed our creativity to just take control, which may come off as a little bit different or not be perceived as the typical reggae.
I still believe that what Bob Marley was doing in 1970 was so forward, and not everyone could grasp it. We don’t strive for applause; we do it for a cause. That’s why musicians, especially [Llamar] Riff Raff [Brown], he knows how to craft songs around the picture we’re trying to paint. We did some recording up by Woodstock, New York, which was an experience because we were out in the woods in New York with all these trees and rivers running through the property and fires. It was a nice vibe.
While you were doing this, your mom passed away and you also had a new daughter. How did that shape the process?
It was very tricky. I was the happiest I have ever been [having] my first child. I was gearing up to release my first album, and then, out of the blue, that reminds you that we’re all flesh and bone no matter what. My mother was one of the greatest people in this world, one of the most caring people I’ve ever met. This is the only person I’ve known all my life. It was a reminder that we all come and go. Because when somebody loses someone, you tell them you’re so sorry for your loss, but when it’s you, it like, ‘Ahh.’ And you have to deal with it every single day so that was that.
And then, this creator was so perfect in his time, that having this daughter, I had no idea she would be my saving grace until she came. My mother passing away was an eye opener, but my daughter’s birth was a lifesaver for me. Every day is a little bit easier knowing you have somebody else to take care of and be strong for.
What is the next generation of reggae? What does that mean, and who is a part of it?
This next generation is a conscious set of youth holding on to our roots, traditions and culture. Speaking on behalf of the people, this movement was birthed from the situations we were witnessing as youths—the need for certain changes, the lack of certain things. It’s more than music. There are some youths out there looking for books, and they bring them to our shows to make sure they are available to people.
The vegan and vegetarian lifestyle wasn’t cool 10 years ago. We couldn’t find places to eat but now we can offer our alternative message. There’s a whole lot more people out there who want to be enlightened rather than just be entertained. But entertainment makes a lot of money so you have to force it down their throat to keep the cycle going. If you go outside and tell somebody to jump and dance or you go to them and say, ‘You are the greatest person in the world, and I am waiting on you to make a change, now jump up and dance,’ you telling them how great they are will make them feel powerful. Powerful people are more effective. It is all just a conscious movement.
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