Veteran Jamaican artist Spragga Benz made history Thursday night (Oct. 3) as the first dancehall/reggae act featured in the Spotlight Series at the Grammy Museum Experience, Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. The Spotlight Series, which takes place two-to-three times each month, provides intimate conversations with recording artists about their creative process, history, current and future projects. Mark Conklin, director of artists relation and programming, Grammy Museum Experience Prudential Center, interviewed Spragga for 45 minutes, then took questions from a large, enthusiastic audience. The dancehall veteran capped the evening with an energetic performance of some of the biggest hits of his nearly 30-year career, including selections from Chiliagon (Easy Star/Buttercuts/Red Square Productions), his first album in nine years, released on Sept. 27.
Spragga’s participation in the Museum Experience’s Spotlight Series is another milestone achievement for the legendary artist, now 50, who has enjoyed a career resurgence over the past year; he’s performed on several high-profile events including Damian Marley’s Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise, Jamaica’s Reggae Sumfest and at WQHT’s (Hot 97) On Da Reggae and Soca Tip at Brooklyn’s Ford Amphitheater.
“It feels very good that reggae and dancehall was represented at the Grammy Museum,” Spragga told Billboard following last night’s Spotlight Series. “Being interviewed by Mark Conklin was a very big thing for me and for the music. He asked very pertinent questions and I’m glad the interview will be available for future generations to learn about authentic dancehall from an artist with many years of experience.” Archived conversations from the Grammy Museum Experience are accessible to students attending 15 colleges and universities across the U.S.
The museum’s educational programming includes the Summer Sessions, Spotlight Series and An Evening With series, as well as interactive permanent and traveling exhibits, including a focus on Grammy winners from New Jersey. “A museum is a great place to see artifacts but it’s another thing to bring in live energy and performances; having Spragga Benz here was very special, that’s why the Grammy Foundation opened this museum to have these kinds of experiences, specifically in Newark,” Mark Conklin told Billboard following his conversation with Spragga. “Spragga has an aura about him that I immediately found very engaging. He’s an icon and was a great fit as our first dancehall/reggae artist.”
Conklin’s questions brought an insightful balance between introductory and deeper probes into Spragga’s longstanding career. Spragga reminisced on the origins of his stage name (nicknamed Spaghetti because he was so skinny, Spag eventually became Sprag), signing to a major label (Capitol Records) in 1994 and the nine-year gap between his 2010 acclaimed album Shotta Culture and Chiliagon. He detailed the objectives of his Stay in School Foundation, renamed the Carlyle Foundation, after the death of his 17-year-old son Carlyle Grant in 2008, allegedly at the hands of Jamaican police. Spragga briefly discussed his role as Wayne in the popular Jamaican gangster film Shottas, co-starring Ky-Mani Marley and the late Louie Rankin. When asked if he gets pushback from speaking out against crime, violence and political corruption in Jamaica, he countered: “It’s our duty as artists to tell people about these things; giving a voice to the voiceless, that’s our job.”
“It’s great to see dancehall/reggae get some recognition and acceptance by the Grammys, which is the pinnacle of mainstream music; it’s about time,” commented Remy Gerstein, vice president/co-founder of Easy Star Records, the New York City based independent reggae label that released Chiliagon as a joint venture with U.K. producer Andy Oury’s Buttercuts Records and Spragga’s Red Square Productions. “We grew up on Spragga’s music and the fact we’re part of the music he’s releasing now means everything we did to get to this point was worth it.”
Adds Easy Star COO/Co-founder Lem Oppenheimer: “Easy Star wanted to broaden the acceptance of reggae without watering it down, so tonight’s session was really gratifying. It’s great the Grammy Museum Experience chose Spragga as the first reggae/dancehall artist in this series; hopefully it doesn’t end with him.”
Given the interest in the music from the surrounding community, and Conklin’s professed fondness for Jamaica, reggae and dancehall will undoubtedly continue be a part of future programming at the Grammy Museum Experience. “I can’t announce the details yet, but we are working on a reggae event for next month that will be very interesting,” Conklin shared. “I got married in Ocho Rios, Jamaica and we want to go back there for an anniversary. Jamaica is a beautiful place with a beautiful culture, and I am glad we can showcase some of that right here.”