Zia Benjamin Laments a Lost Boy In 'Mr. Neverman' Video: Premiere
Jamaican singer/songwriter Christina "Zia" Benjamin's recording career was jumpstarted by a chorus that she wrote and sang on Major Lazer's "Jet Blue Jet." The song's video has received nearly 100 million YouTube views and Diplo described Zia's vocals as having "Billie Holiday swag." Zia has also collaborated with Sean Paul on the 2012 dancehall single "Standing There." "Working with Major Lazer and Sean Paul happened when I was so new to the industry and when you are a young woman, you basically do what you are told," Zia told Billboard on the phone from her Kingston, Jamaica home. "Sean remains a humble, guiding force in my career and it was amazing to be a part of a Major Lazer song that has so many views, but I would rather build my own brand among listeners who genuinely want to hear what I release."
Zia's brand combines her resonant, soulful voice with genre-blurring songs that fuse smoky jazz, retro dancehall and bubbling roots reggae into a style she calls rum shop blues. Unlike her high-profile collaborations, Zia's recent singles -- including "No Fame," which details music industry misogyny, and "Rudie," where she boldly confronts her man's other woman -- fully showcase her deep, sultry vocal tone, which has earned comparisons to Amy Winehouse. Zia appreciates the appraisal, even if she doesn't agree with it. "Amy is irreplaceable, our generation misses her and is looking for someone with her jazzy sound. While my music does have jazzy undertones, I am Jamaican and my subject matter, use of patois, and spectrum of experiences is very different from hers," comments Zia, who was born and raised in Kingston but attended high school and university in Canada. Zia's (late) father, of African, Carib Indian and French descent, was from the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica, and her mother is German; her parents met in Jamaica where they had each migrated seeking better lives. "I think people want to place my music somewhere, because it's different than what is playing in Jamaica," Zia adds, "that's why most producers here weren't really interested in recording my songs."
Zia found an enthusiastic supporter in producer Rory "Stone Love" Gilligan, the legendary reggae/dancehall selector who came to prominence in the mid-'80s with renowned Jamaican sound system Stone Love Movement. Born in England and raised in Jamaica, Rory's innovative approach to selecting and his distinctive voice on the microphone as he introduced records has influenced an entire generation of selectors and remains a benchmark within the sound system world. (Rory delivers the Jamaican patois opening to Jay-Z and Beyonce's "Summer" from The Carters' 2018 album Everything Is Love.) Still an in-demand selector, Rory now primarily devotes his to time to production. He has earned accolades for his work on albums by Samory I (Black Gold), Jah9 (New Name) and Kristine Alicia (Songs From Zion). With his decades-deep industry links, Rory could collaborate with any reggae artist he chooses (he produced the remix of Sting and Shaggy's "Morning Is Coming") but he prefers to work with obscure talents. "I am interested in how someone sounds, so I like to produce unknown people, artists no one has heard from in a while, artists who have maybe been rejected by other producers, and I try to get magic from them," Rory told Billboard.
Rory met Zia through another Jamaican singer, Makeida "Keida" Beckford (who, alongside dancehall artist Shenseea, can be heard on Christina Aguilera's "Right Moves.") Keida brought Zia to Rory's studio, Zia sang for him and he was immediately impressed by her vocals and subsequently, her tireless work ethic. "When I heard her voice, it blew me away and I knew I could do something with it," Rory explained. "She's a go-getter, always working on her craft, striving for excellence and I think she has a great future."
Rory produced "No Fame" and its follow up "Mr. Neverman," which Zia wrote about her frustrations within a long-term relationship. Rory posted "Mr. Neverman" on his Instagram page and DJ Khaled reposted it, which took Zia's talents to a larger audience; it also brought her an opportunity to write for a certain pop superstar's much anticipated reggae/dancehall album. Zia is reluctant to talk about the project because she doesn't know if any of her songs have been chosen. "If it doesn't happen," Zia reasons, "I am honored to have been asked and I take that as a challenge to better myself as a songwriter. But if it does happen, that's a fantastic look for Jamaican female artists."
Also providing an inspiration for "Mr. Neverman" is Peter Pan's Never Neverland, where inhabitants are ageless. "In the song, I am talking about love that will never grow old. Neverland was inhabited by the Lost Boys, so the song is about being in love with boys who are lost," Zia sighs. "After eight years, my boyfriend still didn't really see me. Love completely broke me, but I put myself together, filled the cracks with gold and made art from it."
Zia directed the "Mr. Neverman" video, which references scenes from classic films including Romeo + Juliet and Casablanca, the latter suggested by Rory Stone Love. Moving between black and white and color frames, the captivating clip depicts the story of a love lost and another, possibly, gained. Filmed in locations across Jamaica, including Port Antonio's spectacular Blue Lagoon, Zia sought to create a fantasy land by highlighting the island's exquisite beauty and the creativity of its people in various disciplines including fashion and jewelry design. "The video looks like it cost a lot more than it did because I work with great people who believe in my vision, including editor Danille 'DeeGo' Gordon and cinematographer Corey Hamilton," notes Zia.
Many pivotal scenes were filmed at Celine's rum shop, Hellshire Beach, located about 30 minutes outside of Kingston. "I call my sound rum shop blues, so I always include rum shops in my videos. Jamaican rum shops play popular music but also nostalgic reggae and dancehall hits; rum shop blues combines that feeling with the vibe I imagine you'd get at a smoky 1950s jazz club; it's like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone meets Shabba Ranks and Sister Nancy."
Zia Benjamin's debut EP Love in A Plastic Cup is scheduled for release later this year.