Possessing an alluring voice steeped in roots reggae’s mysticism and wreathed in a smoky jazz vibrato, Jah9 is blazing a singular trail across the international music landscape. Born Janine Cunningham in Falmouth, Jamaica, the daughter of a preacher father and social worker mother, whom she describes as revolutionaries, Jah9 became aware of the world’s injustices at an early age. That awareness has defined Jah9’s artistry, from her earliest days performing as a dub poet while attending Kingston’s University of the West Indies (where she became immersed in the Rastafari movement) onto the release of three outstanding albums for New York City based reggae independent VP Records, New Name (2013), 9 (2016) and Note to Self, due on March 13.
Note To Self demonstrates Jah9’s maturation as an adventurous vocalist and nuanced lyricist who conveys her perspective with passion and sophistication. Fusing dub-drenched, one drop reggae with traditional Rasta drumming, Fela-esque Afrobeat, and neo-soul and jazz flourishes, Jah9 co-produced all 15 tracks, collaborating with an intergenerational cast of visionaries. Among them are Romaine “Teflon” Arnett, whose production credits include “Blazin” featured on Koffee’s Grammy winning EP Rapture; Jeremy Harding, responsible for numerous dancehall classics for superstars including Sean Paul, whom he managed for many years, and veteran Clive Hunt who, throughout his extraordinary 45-year career, has worked with icons including Peter Tosh, Grace Jones, The Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder. “Bringing all the generations together, that is what we do as the feminine, there is never a separation,” Jah9 told Billboard on the phone from her Kingston home. “But Clive anchored the project, even songs that I wasn’t doing with him, I wanted him to be a part of because I have learned so much from him. He has immersed himself in his craft since he was very young and I relate to him because I was aware of purpose for a long time, too.”
A luminous, confident, dreadlocked spiritual warrior, Jah9 is amplifying the female voice within Rastafari, which influences every song on Note to Self, including the title track featuring Chronixx, the empowering rallying cry “Heaven (Ready Fi Di Feeling),” “New Race (A Way)” featuring British rapper/author/activist Akala, advocating unity over superficial differences, and the joyful “Love Has Found I,” which references the exemplary marital relationship between Rastafari Messiah, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and Empress Menen Asfaw.
On “Highly (Get To Me),” co-produced by Romario “Runkus” Bennett and Iotosh Poyser, Jah9 considers a potential suitor’s affections; her ultimate decision will be determined by the inspiration he derives from Haile Selassie, whom Jah9 cites as “the highest standard of a man.” “The truth of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie is obvious when we observe the uninterrupted union he shared with Empress Menen,” she comments. “”Highly” is a departure from my type of love songs, which are usually in praise of my brothers. I grew up with a father who treats my mother with great respect; it’s in stepping outside of that bubble, I realize what society has done to my brothers, wanting to love them and them not understanding how to relate in the interpersonal beyond the sexual. ‘Highly’ is having that conversation out loud.”
The video for “Highly (Get To Me),” directed by Samo, co-directed by Fernando F. Hevia (also the director of photography,) offers sweeping images of Jamaica’s mountainous terrain as Jah9 pensively chants the lyrics, “he don’t love highly (Haile), so his chances kind of slim…I can’t let him get to me.” In scenes shot at Ibo Spice Portal, an outdoor Rastafarian vegan restaurant/craft space in downtown Kingston, Jah9 cuts a striking image, blazing ganja from a steam chalice, essentially a large coconut shell attached to a bamboo stem (a Rasta ceremonial ritual celebrated in her 2016 single “Steamers A Bubble”), while wearing pants, considered unconventional garb for a Rasta woman, particularly among the elders of the faith. “My wearing pants in the video is to spark conversations. Sometimes I will be very regal in my African attire, other times I wear jeans and some (Rastas) shun me,” Jah9 notes. “But we have to make sure we don’t get lost in the fashion conversation because it’s a distraction. We have to look at why we wear certain things. Is it because we think it’s a man’s world and we are trying to fit in? My identity is firm in my mind, I love Rastafari, how it represents Africa, what it stands for, but I adhere to my standards and I am ready to have some serious discussions.”
The video for “Highly” premieres below.
On Feb. 26-March 8, Jah9, in association with the tour company Away to Africa, will embark on the inaugural Feel Trip, a wellness retreat and curated tour of Kenya, which culminates in the Lamu Yoga Festival held on Lamu Island, located off of Kenya’s east coast.
Jah9 is a certified teacher of Kemetic yoga and trained in Ashtanga, Iyengar and Yin methods, disciplines she often incorporates within her live performances. “I am planning similar events in other territories, which tie into the context of Note To Self, so everybody, including the record label, has to be involved in changing people’s lives because this is how the artist wants to promote herself,” Jah9 declares, shifting to a third person observation. “Instead of keeping parties, she wants to do yoga sessions with journaling; instead of serving Hennessey, there could be something nutritional offered. We are trying to authentically use the culture of reggae and I will be myself in front of people as usual, out loud, on purpose.”