Shortly after concluding his hectic west coast tour in San Francisco in the early hours of May 5, reggae artist Kabaka Pyramid boarded an Atlanta bound flight; 45 minutes after landing there he caught a connecting flight to Jamaica. Nearly three hours later, upon his arrival in Montego Bay, the artist and his managers drove another 90 minutes in the drenching rain to reach Negril, a laid-back seaside resort town located on Jamaica’s westernmost tip, where Kabaka headlined the Tmrw.Tday Culture Fest. Once Kabaka and his band The Bebble Rockers took the stage, for over 75 minutes, they worked their way through established hits and introduced new tracks from his debut album Kontraband, which drops on May 25 and premieres here. Kabaka’s engaging onstage energy and interactions with an audience comprised almost equally of locals and visitors belied his minimal sleep and harried schedule, the details of which he eventually shared with the crowd. “We did many shows on the west coast, including five back to back dates; we landed this afternoon and drove straight here, it’s tiring, but these are the things we do for reggae music.”
With his multifaceted, forthright lyrics — drawn from Rastafari philosophies and global observations — set to reggae/dancehall infused rhythms delivered with a decidedly hip-hop edge, Kabaka Pyramid, in his early 30s, is an ideal headliner for the Tmrw.Tday Culture Fest. “Tmrw.Tday was the perfect environment to showcase the powerful talent of Kabaka Pyramid; the festival’s goal is to send hard hitting messages that change is needed and Kabaka, through his militant lyrics and potent delivery, is simply magic,” notes Tmrw.Tday co-founder Kevin Bourke. “Kabaka and his team are serious about their mission, they are true professionals in delivering their brand to the world and our festival’s international audience fell in love with Kabaka’s Jamaican authenticity paired with his swaggy, hip-hop influenced flow.”
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
Bitingly political and socially challenging lyrics characterize Kontraband’s 16 tracks, with several of Kabaka’s contemporaries, among reggae’s most vibrant millennial voices, onboard for the musical crusade. Pressure Busspipe, a dynamic singer hailing from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, contributes a powerful chorus to Kontraband’s lead off track or more appropriately, its mission statement, the thunderous “Make Way” as Kabaka avows he’ll “stand stronger than the pyramids weh stand up on mi homeland.” Uncompromising strength combats the widespread deteriorating societal conditions depicted on “Everywhere I Go” with Protoje (who co-produced “Make Way”), supports the topical refugee issue on “Borders,” featuring Ghanaian Afrobeat/dancehall artist Stonebwoy, and enhances the spiritual mysticism of “Blessed Is The Man” featuring and co-produced by Chronixx, which offers a vivid encapsulation of the accomplishments of former Ethiopian Emperor and Rastafarian Deity Haile Selassie. Not to be overlooked is the classic soul inflected autobiographical “Just A Man” as Kabaka’s nimble rhymes detail his personal aspirations alongside current career challenges, concerns he expounded on during his interview in Negril.
“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.