Two years ago, PRØHBTD listed Protoje as one of the roots reggae artists you needed to know now, but most of our readers likely knew the Jamaican star already from hit singles like "This Is Not a Marijuana Song." The artist born Oje Ken Ollivierre comes from a family filled with talent artists, and the hip-hop influence on his flow helps him stand out and reach a much wider audience, which he has with tracks like "Kingston Be Wise," "Who Knows" and now "Blood Money," a new single that addresses social injustice in Jamaica. Here's what Protoje—who returns to the U.S. this month on tour—had to say.
What are some of the injustices in Jamaica that you wanted to call attention to with "Blood Money"?
The constant oppression of the people, students were murdered allegedly by people in important positions, the babies of low-income families being born and not treated right—deaths have occurred—and just the smokescreen of successful people who like to believe that they've got the parliament [support], and they are involved in the crime. That's the general idea of the song.
What drives the inequality?
People are the same around the world. It's capitalism, just people who want to have more and don't care who is getting less. They are just seeing that they get more of their own thing.
If someone came to you and asked what specific steps they could take to make a difference in their community, what would you say?
First of all, the voice must be heard, and that is all about the Jamaican community coming together and not let this thing happen. Much of this time it's just a matter of people trying to make sure they always stay in power, and the main way to do that is to keep the majority uneducated and not being able to be critical thinkers. One of the main things is to fix the education system. Even in America, the main thing is to keep people uneducated. I saw in this last election, people did not even know what they were voting for and what it means. That is the main thing.
When trying to affect change, how would you differentiate between anger and activism?
Love and hate, I guess, the two big things. I mean, anger is good at times, but it has to be channeled right. The main way to make a difference is through positive reinforcement as opposed to negative. It's always going to be togetherness. It's weird because you have to stand up and fight, and I do get that, but even within the fight you are on, it's going to take togetherness and understanding and love and compassion between people before any change to happen.
What are your thoughts on government's use of cannabis prohibition as a tool to inflict social injustice?
We all know about the drug wars in America and what's behind all that. So many people are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes in America that it's unbelievable. I could never have imagined that. Marijuana is just one more thing used as a tool of control over people. Once the government figures out how to make it in their [best] interest, it would be legal just like it is for tobacco and alcohol. It's ridiculous that in 2017 we're still talking about that.
What role does cannabis play in your life? Is it a spiritual sacrament?
It helps me to look closer into myself and be more thoughtful and be more philosophical and I guess spiritual. Obviously it used to be very recreational, although not as much anymore, but still just something to get my mind right and get my creative thoughts going and, most important, to make me be more introspective.
Your father was a successful coach, and you traveled a lot with him at an early age. What impact do you think all those travels affected how you view the world and who you became as an adult?
Enormous impact. Anyone who can travel should do so as soon as they can and expand their thought process and expand their knowledge base and realize that world all around is pretty much the same. It's just colored differently and thinking differently. I think the most enormous impact was musically to hear lots of different music and not be limited by just what I experienced here.
Music is very prominent in your family with your mother, cousin and others. What did they help teach you about what defines success with the arts?
Just being able to do what I love to do, being able to make a living off it, to be able to travel the world, to meet people and experience different things without compromising what I'm doing. That's the main focus, to be able to do what I love to do. That's how I define success.
You have an incredible knowledge of hip-hop. How did that knowledge influence the way you deliver your vocals as a reggae artist?
I can't even quantify that. Hip-hop is what made me want to write lyrics and be smart with the lyrics and be creative and change my flows and my patterns. I learned so much stuff from it that I really think my delivery is more hip-hop than reggae and dancehall. If you could do a chart, it would a higher percentage of that. The music comes around and makes it more reggae and Jamaican, and obviously in my natural accent, but I can definitely say that hip-hop for sure has colored how I deliver and perform the whole thing.
With the Royalty Free EP last year, what made you decide to make it a free download?
I had some time off in between albums, and I wanted to try some different sounds. I didn't want to do anything officially, I just wanted to do something for free that people could download. It's not really a mixtape, it was a full album, and I decided to put out half of it and see what the response would be, and it was really good. People liked it.
When you compare this release to Ancient Future, what areas of growth do you see that people can expect more of on your next album?
I would say, musically, the extension of the sound and the slow pattern that are different that what I'm used to doing. It let me see some stuff I'd like to do more of, some stuff that I maybe won't do more of, and it was all a process to get me ready for the next album and keep me in shape musically, delivery wise, keep new ideas coming and learn things.
You're touring Europe this month. Any city you are excited to see again?
London, for sure, it's always crazy. Holland, Belgium, Germany.
When you play in Amsterdam, do you ever visit the coffee shops?
There is one spot that I go to, but I don't know it by name. I just know where it is. But the California stuff is crazier anyway. I like California better, for sure. Cali is where it's at.
What are your favorite characteristics of California cannabis?
The density of the bud, the different strains, so many to pick from, so much to choose from, organic, hydro stuff, indoor stuff—it's so wide and so much more plentiful in California. I guess it's regulated in Amsterdam a lot, but it's just the California culture, the marijuana culture is so much better than the culture in Amsterdam. In California, you are meeting farmers directly when you go up into [Northern California]. It's just different... a different experience.
We were obviously very excited that California legalized cannabis last November.
Anything else you want to add?
Just that I return to California May 27 for the California Roots Festival [in Monterey] and just looking to push the music out more and get the message out more.