Jamaica's Protoje Takes Control, Impacts New Markets With 'Ancient Future'

Joseph Okpako/Redferns via Getty Images
Protoje performs at Electric Brixton on March 27, 2015 in London, United Kingdom.

Throughout his much anticipated mid-March New York City debut performance before a capacity crowd at SOBs nightclub, Rastafarian sing-jay Protoje, backed by his 7-piece band The Indiggnation, presented vocal and instrumental snippets culled from six decades of popular (Jamaican) music, which he has juxtaposed with original music and reconfigured into contemporary reggae hits.

His shrewdly executed sonic feat is summed up by the title of his third album, Ancient Future and best exemplified by the single "Answer to Your Name," which samples a nearly 50-year old ska track by pioneering Jamaican singer/producer/sound system owner Prince Buster into a rollicking, modern rhythm that frames his deftly rhymed, complex narrative about a disinterested lover.

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Protoje’s lyrical prowess was partially developed, he says, by listening to calypso many years ago, at the urging of his father Mike Ollivierre, a former calypso king of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

"My dad always talked about (Trinidadian calypso legend) the Mighty Sparrow but I wasn’t trying to hear it; then I listened and said this guy is smart and very cheeky," Protoje told Billboard during an interview in New York City that encompassed his early aspirations as a rapper and the profound influence 1980s albums by veteran sing-jay Ini Kamoze ("Ini Kamoze," "Statement") and harmony trio Black Uhuru ("Red"), produced by Grammy Award winning Jamaican production/drum and bass duo Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, have had on his musical development; calypso's impact on his instinctively clever song lines, however, was an unexpected revelation.

"My dad is a very good story teller and when I was young he taught me about the double meaning of words in calypso's storytelling and that’s a part of my music too; on every album I try to do a wicked (great) story song like 'Answer To Your Name.'"

From the Rastafarian reasoning exchanged with sing-jay Kabaka Pyramid on "The Flame" to cautioning an ungrateful woman on "Stylin'," Protoje tells many "wicked" stories on Ancient Future, which was released on March 10 through his In.digg.nation Collective in association with producer Phillip "Winta" James' Overstand Entertainment. Winta (the keyboardist in Damian Marley's band) balances live drum and bass driven reggae riffs with synthesized beats, sampled song fragments, dub reverbs and an array of audio effects into an artfully constructed, sonic montage that expands the parameters of modern roots reggae or what is currently referred to in Jamaica as a "reggae revival."

"Ancient Future is my first album where I am the executive producer (alongside Winta); it took two years to come together, we went through many songs, everything Winta came up with connected with me and everything I came up with connected with him, so we really didn’t have to compromise anything," commented Protoje, 33, born Oje Ollivierre in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. 

Debuting atop the Reggae Albums chart for the week ending March 28th, Ancient Future has remained within the tally’s top 10 for the past five weeks, and this week (April 25th) sits at no. 7. Protoje’s previous albums, 2011’s "7 Year Itch" and 2013’s "8 Year Affair", produced by his cousin Don Bennett (a.k.a. Don Corleon), released on Don Corleon Records, debuted at no. 11 and no. 5, respectively on the Reggae Album chart; "8 Year Affair" entered the Next Big Sound Chart at no. 4.

"7 Year Itch" includes Protoje’s breakthrough single "Rasta Love" featuring Ky-Mani Marley, Bob’s second youngest son. Marley delivers the haunting refrain that underscores Protoje’s nimbly chanted tale of a young woman’s love for a Rasta man, despite her family’s disapproval. "Rasta Love" remains one of Protoje’s most popular songs, as confirmed by the cheering response to his performance of it at SOBs; the song’s video, directed by his younger sister LeAnn "Dreamseeker" Ollivierre, has more than 20 million YouTube views.

"Rasta Love" opened up the Jamaican market for Protoje, and with that buzz around him, the promoters in Europe that Don (Bennett) contacted were interested in booking him; he started out performing in small clubs and everything grew from there," explains Lorna Bennett who co-manages her son, Protoje, with Che Kothari of Toronto/Los Angeles based Dream Machine management (co founded by pop hit making duo Henry "Cirkut" Walter and Adrien "AG" Gough). Lorna, a former singer whose single "Breakfast in Bed" topped the Jamaican charts for six weeks is also a practicing attorney who led the negotiations for Ancient Future's sample clearances.

Continental Europe, which has embraced reggae for decades and hosts numerous reggae festivals throughout the summer, is now the strongest territory for Protoje’s music. Between April and early September he willperform more than 42 shows in 15 European countries including the venerable Montreaux Jazz Festival on July 7th, in Switzerland and Rototom Reggae Sunsplash in Bencassim, Spain on August 15th, which attracts 200,000 people over its 8-day duration, according to Protoje’s European booking agent Baco Records. Baco handles Ancient Future's physical and digital distribution in Europe; North American distribution is handled by New York City based Ruddy Rock Inc.

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Several tracks from Ancient Future are in rotation on mainstream European stations including "Love Gone Cold", a pop flavored reggae duet with female singer Sevana (who is signed to Protoje’s In.digg.nation Collective) added to Swiss National Radio, and the album’s first single "Who Knows" (featuring Chronixx, a marquee name in the reggae revival) added to France’s Radio Nova (101.5 FM). Originally released in February 2014, "Who Knows" topped many critics’ polls as the reggae song of the year; its video, directed by Storm Saulter, has garnered nearly 7 million views on YouTube.

Following Protoje’s inclusion on the ‘Hot for 2015’ list issued by BBC Radio 1Xtra (the BBC’s urban formatted digital station) in December 2014, the UK has emerged as another stronghold for Protoje. On March 27th, he pulled a capacity crowd of 1,700 to London's Electric, Brixton, headlining the Ram Jam series presented by the esteemed reggae selector/sound clash champion and BBC 1Xtra host David Rodigan MBE. Rodigan attributes Protoje’s UK/European success to his distinctive sound and substantive lyrics.

"Audiences are attracted to Protoje’s unique rapping-talking-singing style and his profound writing, especially in the context of recent/historical Jamaican political events on 'Sudden Flight' (featuring Sevana and Jesse Royal) or his gang culture indictment, "Criminal"; there is so much to take in when listening to him," Rodigan told Billboard.

Che Kothari believes the key to Protoje impacting new markets, particularly the U.S., lies in the coordination of targeted, comprehensive online content (videos, interviews, song lyrics) and consistent touring. "Live shows are key for organically reaching as many people as possible," he says. "Before the year ends Protoje and his band will have toured Europe, North and South America without major label backing and no real tour support. It isn’t easy but we are not compromising because his music needs to be felt in its totality."

For Protoje, the critical acclaim of Ancient Future and expansions into new territories are part of a larger mission. "The whole point of this album is to pay respect to the ones that came before me and let people of my generation know about Prince Buster, Ini Kamoze and others they might have never heard of," he reasons. "This music didn’t start with me, Chronixx or Kabaka, without the artists who preceded us, we would have nothing to stand on."