How Jamaica's Sizzla Kalongi can sing righteous lyrics decrying social and political injustice on his new album The Chan" (out on Afro jam, a subsidiary of the Munich-based Kosmo Music), while violently and unjustly denouncing homosexuality on older songs is something many people find disturbing. So much so that Sizzla's recent European tour had four shows canceled following protests against the veteran singer.
Twenty-five albums from Sizzla's voluminous 67-album catalogue, recorded over the past 17 years, have reached the Reggae Album tally; The Journey: The Very Best of Sizzla (Greensleeves) spent 72 weeks on the chart, peaking at no. 4 on July 12, 2008. Sizzla has previously ventured into hardcore dancehall, R&B, and Hip-Hop, but it's the burnished roots reggae rhythms utilized by his longstanding collaborator and producer Everton "Caveman" Moore, that provide the ideal complement to his passionate, melodic sing-jay approach and rather thoughtful subject matter on The Chant. Here songs address the plight of "Hungry Children" and offer evocative impressions of "Zimbabwe," where Sizzla and Caveman own a recording studio in the capital Harare.
"I sing about Jah, love for the ladies and liberation, positive vibrations that are part of the culture; gangster songs and gal songs only last for a time, roots reggae can last forever," explained Sizzla (born Miguel Collins), 36, in a rare interview granted to Billboard.biz at the recording studio he recently opened with Caveman at the Eastern Peace Center (EPC) in the Mountain View area of Kingston. For years, Mountain View was gripped by gang violence, which climaxed in 2003 with 40 lives lost in 90 days. The EPC's director Orlando "King" Hamilton, a significant mediator between Mountain View's warring factions, is also a partner in the studio.
"After all that music has done for me, I want to help the youths learn production, engineering and other industry skills that bring an honest income to them, that's why I am here," Sizzla explained.
While still a high school student, Sizzla began refining his vocal talent by working with Moore's Caveman Sound System. Producer Homer Harris guided the early development of Sizzla's career. Now the director of The Kalongi Youth Foundation (which provides financial assistance towards the education of children in the August Town community where Sizzla operates a studio at his Judgment Yard headquarters), Harris gave the sing-jay his fiery moniker. He also introduced him to other notable mentors, including acclaimed saxophonist/producer Dean Fraser and producer Philip "Fattis" Burrell who remained Sizzla's manager until his death in December 2011. With the release of his second and third albums in 1997, Praise Ye Jah, produced by Fattis, and Bobby Digital's Black Woman and Child, Sizzla emerged as that era's most influential reggae artist, his songs providing a powerful, provocative voice echoing the struggles faced by disenfranchised ghetto youths.
However, as he concludes a month-long European tour supporting The Chant, Sizzla experienced renewed rounds of demonstrations there by activists who say nearly a dozen songs he recorded between 2000-2005, aggressively denouncing homosexuality, incite violence towards gays. Commencing in the early '00s, organized campaigns against the references to shooting and burning "batty boys" (gay males) in such songs as "Pump Up" and "Get To The Point", resulted in the revocation of Sizzla's UK and Canadian visas, in 2004 and 2007, respectively. The rescinding of Sizzla's US visa in 2008, says the artist, stems from a possession of marijuana charge in 2000. Sizzla has since been granted a US work-permit, notes Harris, while the restoration of his US Visa is pending.
Members of the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights (Riksförbundet för homosexuellas, bisexuellas och transpersoners rättigheter, RFSL) say some of Sizzla's lyrics advocate violence towards LGBT people and started a petition. The chairman of RFSL, Rickard Svahn, called for promoters to take a stand against the concert as it could tarnish Stockholm's gay friendly reputation. This helped bring about the cancellation of Sizzla's March 28th concert in Stockholm. Three dates in Spain (April 12-14) were also cancelled, the outcome of online petitions and an email campaign led by the State Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals, and Bisexuals. The remaining tour dates, spanning eight European countries, took place as scheduled with Sizzla refraining from performing any offensive material.
On March 23rd Sizzla issued a press release citing the concert cancellations as "censorship designed to create maximum economic damage for everyone involved in the tour and the reggae industry at large." Querying the lack of protests against marquee names in hip-hop and pop "who make clear stances against these same issues" the statement attributed the international community's lack of understanding of Rastafari, which traditionally rebukes homosexuality (as it does violence) and "the metaphoric and allegoric expression" of Sizzla's Jamaican patois lyrics, as significant factors in the ongoing battle waged against his music.
When asked about these songs at the EPC, Sizzla, who subscribes to the Bobo Ashanti order of Rastafari, would ony say that, "They are fighting Rastafarian artists who have different insights based on their song lyrics; when we say we bash you, it doesn't mean we will attack you, but it is word, sound and power we use to speak out against you."
Kosmo Music founder/CEO Michael Rank says the continual opposition to a few Sizzla songs has obscured the artist's expansive body of culturally enriching work. It has also stifled his label's promotional strategies for The Chant beyond the core reggae audience.
"I wanted to release "Hungry Children" to mainstream radio (in Europe) but several programmers said they would have problems if they played a Sizzla tune now," explained Rank on the phone from Kosmo Music's annex office in Lisbon, Portugal. According to Rank, his European distributor Good To Go/Rough Trade reported "certain record store chains would not stock a Sizzla album at this time." The U.S. distributor, New York based VP Records, meanwhile, has not received any complaints. "The amount of units shipped through our distribution arm VPAL were typical for their markets," says Dane Bogle, VP's A&R/Radio Promotions.
Back in Kingston Sizzla remains focused on his new studio and its extended community outreach, seemingly resigned to taking his scaled back touring options in stride. "Yes, you do lose a great percentage of your income by not performing in those countries," he admitted. "They use those things to stop you but they can't stop the word, sound and power."