Walshy Fire Is Strengthening the Cultural Ties Between Dancehall & Afrobeat on Debut Album 'ABENG'
“I feel a weight from the entire Caribbean of representing properly... If there was like a political race for this, I'm the guy.”
For what may be the first time in Walshy Fire’s career, he’s feeling the pressure of what a new album release brings.
The Jamaican-born, Miami-raised DJ and producer born Leighton Paul Walsh has already experienced international success as one-third of dancehall/reggae-inspired electronic dance outfit Major Lazer. But as he geared up for the release of his debut dancehall-afrobeat fusion album ABENG (released on June 7), he felt surprisingly nervous. After getting his start in 2004 as part of sound system Black Chiney (a Miami-based DJ/sound engineer collective that he continues to tour with as an emcee and DJ) and spending years helping to inject dancehall sounds into Major Lazer’s music, this marks the first time that Fire is standing alone in the spotlight.
The pressure that comes with this solo album is also indicative of an industry in need of more authenticity when it comes to dancehall, reggae and afrobeat -- and Fire knows he's the one to help the movement. From Drake's afrobeat-tinged "One Dance" to the reggae-reminiscent melody of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” to the sample of Snow's dancehall-driven "Informer" driving Daddy Yankee’s recent hit “Con Calma,” dancehall and afrobeat have experienced another resurgence in the mid-2010s, as key genres that continue to influence many mainstream artists. But with ABENG, Fire is fighting against the stream of watered-down dancehall-lite pop music with his careful fusion of the two genres. And it’s the real deal: As soon as you press play, the album floods your ears with music coming directly from Caribbean and African natives.
“I think I’m in a special place as a member of Major Lazer," Fire tells Billboard backstage at a Brooklyn warehouse. "How many other Caribbean people are standing on EDM stages every weekend? You could have Marshmello, Steve Aoki... I'm the only Caribbean person on that whole lineup."
We’re on the set of the video shoot for “Call Me,” featuring dancehall star Kranium and Nigerian afrobeat sensation Mr. Eazi, which stands out as one of ABENG’s highlights. The album’s title was inspired by the name of one of the producer’s close friends. Fire initially thought the name was a little weird before his friend explained its origin. “It’s basically a horn that you use to communicate long distances,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh man, I one day I want to make an album that's going to be doing that.’ So when he died in a car accident, it was sealed. I had to dedicate this to him.”
ABENG also includes the sweet voices of Jamaican reggae singer Chris Martin and Trinidad’s soca princess Nailah Blackman, the rugged dancehall lyricism of Alkaline and Masicka, and the tender tones of Nigerian singer Adekunle Gold and Ghana’s own Stonebwoy. These names are widely respected in the Caribbean and African spaces, and Fire knows the expectations of his set collecting all of them are high.
“I feel a weight from the entire Caribbean of representing properly. I feel the weight of all the ancestors that have put in all the work -- the Celia Cruzes, Calypso Roses, Gregory Isaacs,” Fire continues. “So imagine now, if I’m on the stage and it's 40,000 people in the crowd. You see that one Guyanese flag and you know that that guy is looking at you thinking, ‘You better bring it.’ I give thanks for that opportunity. If there was like a political race for this, I'm the guy.”
Interestingly enough, the socio-economic and cultural ties between Caribbean and African countries is what initially sparked the idea for ABENG two years ago. Before then, Fire was creating a mixtape series titled Africa Is the Future with friend and fellow DJ Fully Focus, which made him realize just how similar the cultures were. That likeness became more prevalent once Fire began touring countries like Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi and Ethiopia, both with Major Lazer and on his own.
“The driver for our bus in Kenya had fallen asleep and wasn't answering his phone. [The passengers] were like, ‘Oh man, you kimbo! You’re so lazy,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘You know that’s what we say in Jamaica?’ One of the biggest dancehall songs ever was [Reggie Stepper’s 1991 hit] ‘Kimbo King.’ I never thought the word was African. How could something have fought through slavery and remained? And how devastating is that to the brain, right? To to see people who look like you, eat what you eat, have your mannerisms and are using the same word. And you guys are on the other side of the planet. What the hell just happened? It blew my mind.”
As Caribbean and African culture continues to be embedded in mainstream music, fashion and art, it’s important for artists like Fire to make sure those voices don’t get lost. He realizes now is the time to reclaim Africa’s narrative -- and to make sure that everyone within the diaspora understands where they're listening to or seeing in magazines originates from. “Don't feel that this body of water makes you this totally unique, different person. You had no choice in where you were born. So don't feel special,” he explains. “Hopefully we can come together and really put this under one umbrella and begin to take over spaces."
He recalls an argument he had with a friend, who used the excuse of Africa being too far to travel as he was trying to give her options for summer vacation destinations: “You're a black person in America who thinks Spain is a better trip than going to Africa. I had to literally break the map out, and I was like, 'You're talking about a couple hours difference.' But then I started to realize her mind was saying, ‘This is an unenjoyable trip. I'm going to come up with excuses as to why this is not good.’ She only sees what the American media gives her. And that's the other reason [why I did this album] -- to continuously reinforce how diverse the cultures of Africa are, and how 54 countries could each be so individually different.”
Fire’s creative epiphany has proven to be years ahead of its time, as now more dancehall and afrobeat stars are coming together in the studio than ever. Popcaan and Davido have worked together on 2017’s “My Story” and last year’s “Dun Rich,” while Kranium called upon Wizkid and Ty Dolla $ign for his 2017 single “Can’t Believe.” So what was the producer’s hold up? For one, trying to confirm this many artists for a single album isn’t an easy feat.
"There's a lot of lawyers involved ... and I can't express to you how difficult that is," he explains. "You try to remind them to sign off on something and ask how much publishing [rights] everybody wants. I had to drop several songs. I'd be working on the paperwork, then all of a sudden it's just on YouTube one day -- and it'll be a beat that I made. It's truly shocking because you end up trying to stay as much as a business person as possible. But not everybody's like that, and that’s across all genres.”
But now that the album is officially out, Fire hopes it causes a ripple effect across the industry, where various genres can create not just fusion singles, but hybrid projects like ABENG. "I think you'll see some more artists [begin to] do Brazil baile funk with hip-hop artists," he says. “[Every artist] should collaborate more often. The government should say no visas are needed. We should just take down all the walls." The producer also wants entertainment outlets to take note of the shift, see that dancehall and afrobeat are only going to get bigger, and to give these artists their due credit.
“You might be one of four Carribean people in my entire career to interview me. I'm not talking about [veteran BBC radio hosts] like Seani B and Robbo Ranx, but the ones who are working for [other major publications],” he tells me, relieved that I am of Jamaican descent. “They're asking me questions about a culture they know almost nothing about, or they know of it but they’re an outsider. Or they know that what's going to sell are the negative headlines. So then you end up not wanting to really talk to them too much, because you know that they're going to probably focus on something bad. It's so hard to give you guys context when so much is taken out of it.”
With the release of ABENG, Fire also wants its message of inclusivity to reach all people across the diaspora. "[Latin artists] did a great job of uniting -- I think the same thing could happen for Caribbean and Africa where all across America, every little white girl in Idaho is singing the music," he explains. "The message really is to make the world smaller by making the party bigger, so people start to really realize just how similar we are. And I think that music is the best way to communicate that.”