Popcaan, Dancehall's Driving Force, Discusses New Album and Gender Roles

Ivar Wigan


Ever since his breakthrough -- a feature on his now incarcerated mentor Vybz Kartel’s 2010 hit “Clarks” -- Popcaan has become the torchbearer for dancehall. The Portmore, Jamaica, native born Andrae Sutherland has soared from the island to countries worldwide, with 304.9 million total on-demand streams since spring 2012, according to Nielsen Music, thanks to his affable charm and guest spots on tracks from Kanye West and Gorillaz. As dancehall has re-entered the American mainstream in recent years -- with artists like Rihanna and Drake co-opting its conventions for sizable hits -- the 30-year-old has a bigger platform for his second album, Forever, arriving July 20 via Mixpak Records. As it happens, he has a new, more positive focus -- along with some eyebrow-raising views on gender relations.

Forever shies away from ­gangster themes in favor of more ­motivational material. Why is that?
Well, I’m from the streets, and my influence [there] is very strong, so I can use it to do anything. With my album right now, it makes me feel good, because it doesn't involve any gun lyrics and it’s not telling anybody to kill anyone. But I still got the side for the girls and the side for the audience that doesn't want to hear no slackness.

The album’s opening track “Watch Who You Tell,” talks a lot about fake people. Have you encountered more of that as you get older?
It’s just life experience, still. Just things I’ve encountered since I got famous and after, you know? Sometimes di people dem who you choose to share your secrets with and confide in and think you’re actually making a plan with them are the same people trying to mash up that plan. Sometimes you have to be careful of who you tell, it’s best to stay silent sometimes. It’s harder now that I’m famous, but I know how fi handle it. I’m experienced now.

And I think the “Happy Now” song comes at a good time, with all the violence happening in Jamaica right now. It’s uplifting.
That’s what I was aiming for. I was trying to send a message so that when people listen to it, they can actually feel happy from it. But that’s how I am still -- I don’t really like sadness. I’m always on a good vibe, so I try to spread it to my fans and also the non-fans.

The song “Strong Woman” is a ­highlight -- now seems like time for women to take over.
No, it’s not like one is taking over. Man is the ruler, man is the leader, man is first.

You think so? Many ­women are stepping up to do what some men can’t.
The world was created for man to go in front, and women should respect that -- in my world. But it only works if you have a strong woman [by your side]. I know this girl who was locked up, yet she pulled through. That’s what gave me the inspiration, just how strong that girl was while she was ­going through [her situation].

But my favorite track is “Firm and Strong,” which is in my opinion your most powerful song thus far.
Knowing this industry, people try to tarnish my name a lot in the media. When I do good things, they don’t publicize it. They’re always trying to hide all the good that I’m doing with songs like “Firm and Strong.” They don’t put those things in the media, but if they hear something negative about me, they’re quick to post it. So I always try to stay away from the whole craziness with the media. Even in interviews, people like to get into your personal life. So a lot of the times I just go away until I have things to talk about, like now. So that song, “Firm and Strong,” is just [about] things I’m going through in the industry. I was in a mood, so I just sang it and freed my mind. A lot of people don’t like to see somebody else striving. So you have to not pay attention and give that less energy. So the more positive thoughts you keep in your mind ... that’s why I just try to block negative thoughts in my mind.

A lot of the songs on the album are about love, do you have a special someone?
Well I’m not looking for any woman. God will soon elect whoever deserve the ring, she’ll get it. It’s a part of your love life to be romantic -- if you’re not romantic, you have to be at some point. But I wouldn't say I’m a romantic yute. [Laughs.]

You also featured Davido on the album, would you work with more Afrobeat artists?
Yeah, definitely I would because I appreciate their music. I won’t turn down an offer to collaborate with a different artist from a different genre. Even if it’s a different language, I’ll sing it in my language. But I’m not searching for collaborations, I just let it happen naturally.

I’ve been following your journey since “Clarks,” and I do believe you’re one of dancehall’s future icons. But do you want that title?
Of course, definitely! My music speaks for itself man. These artists, they know that what I’m singing is not what they’re singing. They [get their songs] from my topics. So that’s the way it is, that’s iconic! Yeah mon, I’m gonna be a legend and that’s no self-praise thing. Because I’m in dancehall music, I’m already a legend.

Dancehall as a whole has definitely shifted to being more vibrant and positive.
Gun lyrics is a part of the culture, nah mean? Those things are going on right now. Before, dancehall music used to be crazier than this. Lyrics are just like politics in Jamaica. When everybody used to fight and shoot each other when election time come ... but it’s not like that now. I think the only thing that dancehall needs right now is more flexibility to push the music forward. The industry makes it to where things can’t happen. But at least there’s no violence.

I’d like to see more collaborations within dancehall music, there’s not enough of it.
Yeah, people ego is bigger than dem these days. It can get bigger if more people work together, but yuh dun kno. That’s why dancehall now has a different vibe to it [compared to] previous times, because no artists want to link up. Now it’s like artists and artists are enemies in Jamaica, it’s crazy. But I don’t pree no artists’ violence, I wouldn't let any of my friends down and out.

You’re turning 30 soon, so looking back from your early career days what lessons have you learned?
I didn't really learn no lesson. I always say if you learned a lesson, then something happened that you regret. And I don’t regret anything, but I’ve learned a lot. But people will fight sometimes when they get into the industry, and that teaches me. I think that’s the best lesson to learn in the music business, how people can get swept up sometimes.

Many people know you from your early days with Vybz Kartel. Do you feel pressure from fans or the industry now that he's in prison and you're at the forefront of dancehall?
No one can pressure me to do anything. No, I do what I feel like. Vybz Kartel was always my idol from young, and he’s the one that helped me reach where I am today. I will always do me, in my music, on my shows, in my interviews. If there is pressure I will still be doing me. So it doesn't bother me or has any effect on me. I will still do great music for myself and my fans regardless of whatever perceived pressure there may be. I just try to keep making music that feels true to me, that can last forever, that’s my legacy. I want to keep making album projects and doing shows. Those are the things I love to do. Make music that me my fans my family can feel proud of.

What are your thoughts on stars borrowing from dancehall without working with its artists?
It doesn't bother me. We can’t force people to do anything, and you can’t stop them from being influenced by dancehall. I’ve worked with many artists who are big fans of Jamaican music like Jamie XX, Gorillaz, Kanye West, Giggs and Stefflon Don ... There’s a lot of talent in Jamaica. It’s natural people will be influenced by the sound or make their own version, people love it.

Do you think fans support dancehall overseas more than they do in Jamaica?
My fans support me at home and abroad. There are dancehall fans everywhere on earth, it’s a powerful music that can’t be stopped. Even if Jamaica is a small island still, the music has gone worldwide.

Of course your fans support you worldwide, but there's been conversations that people in Jamaica fail to support their own music.
Jamaicans are big supporters of my music, you can see that online, on Jamaican radio, in the streets. It’s true that not all the international digital stores and streaming services are available in Jamaica, but the the fans have always found a way to support me and I have always appreciated that.

This article originally appeared in the July 21 issue of Billboard.