Zak Starkey & Sshh Liguz on Starting New Reggae Label Trojan Jamaica

Jill Furmanovsky
Zak Starkey

Zak Starkey has made his mark drumming for British rock mainstays Oasis, the Who and Johnny Marr, but in 2019, he's focused on reggae, rocksteady and the sounds of Jamaica. He and his partner Sharna "Sshh" Liguz have launched Trojan Jamaica, a new BMG-funded and -distributed record label focusing on Jamaican music.

The son of avowed reggae fan Ringo Starr, Starkey grew up listening to Toots & the Maytals, Bob Marley and Burning Spear. "I was first exposed to Funky Kingston, and then to Bob Marley's Live!, and then Man in the Hills, when I was 12 or 13," he tells Billboard. "I was also listening to the Clash and the Pistols because they were both delivering reggae to my door."

The flashpoint for the label came in 2016, when Starkey and Liguz's band SSHH premiered a video for their cover of Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up," featuring Eddie Vedder. According to a press release, the cover came to the attention of Kingsley Cooper, curator of the Peter Tosh Museum in Kingston, Jamaica. He was so impressed that he invited SSHH to perform "Get Up, Stand Up" at the museum's opening ceremony alongside members of Tosh's backing band.

Today, Starkey and Liguz are keeping their reggae fires burning -- with a twist. Trojan Jamaica's first release, titled Red, Gold, Green and Blue and due out summer 2019, features classic blues lyrics set to fresh Jamaican music. "I didn't want to copy the music," Starkey says. "I just wanted to take the words."

Trojan Jamaica was announced to the world with "I Put a Spell On You," a reggae-fied version of the Screamin' Jay Hawkins classic by Jamaican singer Mykal Rose. "Zak told me that he wanted me to cover the song," he says. "I'd heard Nina [Simone] sing that song before, but I hadn't heard anybody else." Haunting and mellow, its stylistic and regional blend speaks to Trojan Jamaica's ethos.

Liguz, for her part, aims to curate a borderless, genre-agnostic experience: America and the West Indies in the same stew. "We don't want to try and put it in any specific box," she says. "And it ticks all the boxes in any language.

"It’s a subculture that’s always been there. It’s just time to turn up the volume," she says. "The world seems to be waking up again to the groove of Jamaica on an international scale. The time has come to bring this further to the forefront."

BMG, who Liguz established a prior distribution deal with via SSHH, was only happy to help bring her and Starkey's vision to the light. "We are delighted to partner with Zak and Sharna," said BMG's CEO Hartwig Masuch in a press release. "This is a wonderful opportunity to reflect the new sounds of reggae's homeland."

For now, Trojan Jamaica's focus is on established artists like Big Youth, Toots & The Maytals, Sly & Robbie and Mykal Rose; it plans to leverage this clout to give a home to Jamaican upstarts. "We've got to get a foothold, otherwise we've got records that no one will have heard of," Starkey says. "I would hate to sign an act and hinder them, or not help move them forward."

Rose agrees that it's a step-by-step process. "We're just testing the waters right now to see if it will boil like a volcano," he says. "I think it can help a lot of young talents coming out of Jamaica. We just have to put our shoulders to it and make it happen."

Liguz, too, believes their young label will bring unheard voices to new ears. "You can't really go a day without hearing reggae somewhere," she says, calling from Jamaica. "It's a culture that we don't often think of, but it's there. I just want to bring it to the forefront."