Reggae and hip-hop have each had a profound influence in shaping Kabaka’s artistry. Born Keron Salmon in Kingston, Jamaica, he started out making beats and singing reggae as Ini Kabaka and rapping as Ronny Pyramid. Around 2009, as his lyrics became more socially aware, he merged his rapper and reggae identities, delivering his songs in a hip-hop accented Jamaican sing-jay style. Accordingly, he chose the name Kabaka, a Ugandan designation for a king, and Pyramid, which he says signifies an ancient African representation of New Age thinking. “Hip-hop has been a part of my identity since Rebel Music (Kabaka’s debut 2011 EP, which he made available as a free download) when I declared this is a fusion of reggae and hip-hop; I definitely want to reach a hip-hop fan base with Kontraband,” Kabaka explained in an interview with Billboard at the newly opened Skylark Hotel along Negril’s renowned stretch of seven-mile beach. “Hip-hop audiences are more inclined toward dense lyrics than the average reggae crowd, and I feel like if the hip-hop world hears what I am doing on Kontraband, it would bridge a gap, bring that audience closer to seeing what’s happening in Jamaica and more collaborations between artists and other projects would come from that.”
Kontraband is a joint release between the Marley family imprint Ghetto Youths International and Bebble Rock Music, which is owned by Kabaka and his managers Abishai Hoilett and Duane McDonald; Stephen and Damian Marley are Kontraband’s executive producers. Kabaka and Damian initially collaborated in 2015 when Damian sent a rhythm track he produced, “On The Corner,” to Kabaka, over which Kabaka voiced his best-known song to date, “Well Done.” Kabaka traveled to Miami shortly thereafter, met Damian at his studio and a connection was made. “We started reasoning about doing more work together, doing an album,” shared Kabaka who has previously released two EPs and several mixtapes including Accurate, presented by Walshy Fire and Major Lazer. “As Bebble Rock Music we keep things moving and I think that is what attracted Damian to working with us. The fact that we are self-sufficient in a certain way makes his job easier; it’s a project he can invest in because he knows that we will pull our own weight.”
Damian produced five songs on Kontraband including the provocative title track, as he trades scorching lyrics with Kabaka, each depicting the profiling that reggae artists sometimes face in their international travels, a situation Kabaka summarizes with the lines: “dem (them) ask bout Illegal substance, if these things we packaging/El Chapo ‘ting shipping and the handling/these accusations are damaging/they say dem (them) heard reggae artists trafficking.”
“We definitely drew from our own experiences of being searched on the road,” Kabaka laughs in regards to “Kontraband,” the album’s fourth single, which dropped on May 18. “We wanted to get a specific vibe like we were talking to each other in that song, almost like acting. Damian sent me the beat, he came up with the word 'Kontraband' (intermittently chanted like a mantra throughout the track) and together we wrote all of the lyrics and if we had videoed ourselves as we recorded it, that would be epic.” Kabaka, whom Damian chose as his opening act on his 2017 Stony Hill tour, hastened to add that “Kontraband” also refers to music that enlightens and, ultimately, can mobilize the masses, which he believes has been silenced. “We not going to stop spread that type of music, no matter how unpopular it is and if we
haffi (have to) push it like a contraband, that we plan fi (to) do,” he proclaimed.
“Music, I believe, has a purpose, especially reggae, that’s what’s special about it and my songs are often amalgamations of many different things; sometimes I wish they were a little more straightforward, but I think that uniqueness makes them stand out,” Kabaka reasons. “The challenge is to find songs that maintain your individuality but still have that mass appeal. As an artist you want to be in the mix, you don’t always want to be on the fringes but then again, I don’t mind being on the fringes and having real content in my songs.”
The substantial topics Kabaka presents on his debut album may not lead to immediate mainstream success, but they reinforce reggae as a vehicle of social consciousness, Kabaka’s ranking as one the music’s most important lyricists, and Kontraband’s status as a pending classic.