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What Tessanne Chin’s ‘Voice’ Win Means for the Jamaican Music Scene

Jamaican songstress Tessanne Chin’s stratospheric ascent from relative obscurity, even in her birthplace, to international fame via her Dec. 17 triumph on NBC’s singing competition “The Voice” is…

Jamaican songstress Tessanne Chin’s stratospheric ascent from relative obscurity, even in her birthplace, to international fame via her Dec. 17 triumph on NBC’s singing competition “The Voice” is undoubtedly the island’s biggest music story of 2013.

Displaying stunning vocal control while performing a variety of genres throughout “The Voice”‘s fifth season, Tessanne, 29, won a recording contract with Universal Music Group and is positioned for a transformative career breakthrough in 2014 that has already begun to take shape: two songs she performed on “The Voice” sit on the Hot 100 for the week of Jan. 4: Tessanne’s stirring interpretation of Whitney Houston’s classic “I Have Nothing” is No. 51 and her duet with her “Voice” coach Adam Levine on The Beatles’ “Let It Be”, sits at No. 76. 

In Jamaica, where Tessanne’s dynamic reggae-soul-pop-fusion received scant airplay, her “Voice” victory has engendered great excitement among the music industry and far beyond (see Tweets from Olympic gold-medal winner Usain Bolt, above; and picture with prime minister Portia Simpson Miller, below) and perhaps paved the way for a wider acceptance of local acts outside the dominant dancehall and reggae purview.

“Tessanne had reached a ceiling in Jamaica and in humbling herself to take on an American singing competition she made history as the first Jamaican to win,” says Walter Elmore, CEO of Art of Music Productions, promoters of the annual Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival, which will be held Jan. 30 to Feb. 1, 2014, at the Trelawny Multi Purpose Stadium.

Known for its eclectic lineup spanning rock, jazz, pop and reggae, the Festival has featured Tessanne numerous times, initially as the lead singer of Jamaican rock band Mile High and most recently in 2012 when she shared the stage with her older sister Tami Chynn, the opening act for Celine Dion, with whom she sang on The Voice finale. “I hope Tessanne’s victory expands Jamaica’s vision of its musical talent because it exists in all styles and our radio stations need to support these artists,” he added.

Elmore’s sentiments are echoed by dancehall superstar Shaggy whom Tessanne calls a mentor and part of her professional support team that includes sister Tami, Tami’s husband sing-jay Wayne Marshall (who is signed to the Marley family’s Ghetto Youths International imprint), Tessanne’s husband, radio personality Michael Cuffe Jr. and her booking agent Sharon Burke, owner of Kingston’s Solid Agency. Shaggy has collaborated with Tessanne on several singles including “Rise Again”, the all-star Caribbean tribute to Haiti (recorded after the 2010 earthquake which devastated that Caribbean country), featuring Sean Paul and Sean Kingston.

Because Tessanne’s talents weren’t fully recognized in Jamaica, Shaggy urged her to audition for “The Voice” as a vehicle for showcasing her skills on a broader platform. “In Jamaica, if you are doing music with an international flair then you have a fight; a lot of the music that busts (breaks through) in Jamaica is raw, in the street, but it nah have no visa, it stuck at (Kingston’s) Norman Manley airport,” Shaggy explained. “Jamaica has not had a major chart hit since Gyptian’s “Hold Yuh” (which reached several tallies, peaking at No. 77 on the Hot 100) so Tessanne’s win might help us revise our thing and see where we are going wrong.”

In a late December 2013 interview with at the Kingston home of her sister Tami, Tessanne lamented the marginal support she has received from Jamaican radio, prior to her “Voice” victory, but never doubted the love of her people, who displayed unwavering commitment throughout her journey, as demonstrated through various social media driven voting campaigns and “Voice” viewing parties. “What dominates on Jamaican radio now is mostly dancehall deejays (the Jamaican equivalent of rappers) and there is no real place for singers; I perform a fusion of styles so that made it even trickier,” she offered. “I hope that ‘The Voice’ win has opened a door not just for reggae singers but artists who want to sing R&B, pop or soul here. Why should we be limited to just one thing?”

Tessanne hails from a musical family. Her father Richard Chin was the drummer in the world’s first (otherwise) all-female ska band The Carnations, featuring Tessanne’s mom Christine Levy-Weston on trumpet and aunt, Ingrid Chin, on bass. Mr. Chin, the owner of a sound and light rental business, built a recording studio in the family home to facilitate the aspirations of Tessanne and Tami. Tami Chynn’s 2006 debut album “Out of Many . . . One” (Universal Motown/SRC Records) never charted in the U.S. but reached no. 41 on the Japanese Oricon charts. Singing from the time she was a child, Tessanne’s career commenced more than 10 years ago as a teenaged backing vocalist for the legendary Jimmy Cliff.

She went on to front Mile High before embarking on a solo career. The tough edged rock-reggae fusion Tessanne brought to “Messenger” and the sultry soulfulness of her lover’s rock breakout hit “Hideaway”, although critically lauded, garnered limited airplay on the island’s airwaves while the majority of her other recordings, including her debut self released album “In Between Words” were largely ignored.

“Tessanne has always operated outside Jamaica music industry norm,” acknowledges Kingston based Seretse Small, former guitarist in Sean Paul’s band, music business consultant, and educator. “But her win has inspired a renewed interest in singing versus deejaying while young and old singers might be empowered to perform more diversified sets. Producers might now be willing to explore various fusions in their productions, endorsing Shaggy’s concept of making music with a visa.”

Displaying phenomenal vocal skills at her performances in small venues around Kingston, Tessanne nonetheless was often overlooked for bookings at the island’s festivals and major stage shows. The “bread and butter” she earned through music, as she captivatingly told “The Voice”‘s judges panel in the blind auditions segment, was primarily derived from singing at corporate functions. She briefly considered relocating to pursue her career but the apprehension of leaving home, coupled with a strong sense of national pride, especially towards her country’s music, kept her rooted in Jamaican soil. “Jamaica is responsible for some heavy influence in the music industry, the ‘Beyonce’ album for example, definitely has dancehall and reggae influences,” Tessanne noted, “so I feel very strongly that anything I sing, it might not be outright reggae or dancehall because I don’t like to be put in a box but it will always have that island swag.”

Tessanne’s first major appearance in Jamaica since winning “The Voice” is as the headliner for the Jan. 4 Shaggy and Friends Make A Difference concert. The event, which will be held on the lawns of Jamaica House, Kingston, is a benefit for the capital city’s Bustamante Children’s Hospital, the sole pediatric facility in the English-speaking Caribbean. Initially staged in 2009, Shaggy’s Make A Difference Foundation has raised more than $1 million for the hospital.

This year’s extensive lineup also includes Ne-Yo, Shaggy’s collaborator on the 2013 single “You Girl”, Damian Marley, Sean Paul, Tarrus Riley, and Matthew Schuler, who made it into “The Voice”‘s season 5 Top 6.

Tessanne then returns to Los Angeles where she’ll begin work on her debut album for Universal Republic, tentatively scheduled for a March 25 release. Neither the songs, the producers, nor the recording studio for the project have been determined but Tessanne told she hopes GeeJam Studios outside of Port Antonio, Jamaica, which has been utilized by Drake, Diplo and Snoop Lion among others, will be the chosen recording destination.

Geejam owner Jon Baker, who is thrilled by the possibility of Tessanne recording there, says her Voice achievement “has brought Jamaica back into the higher echelon of the mainstream music industry rather than the underground where it has been in recent years. The industry is now based around TV and mass marketing,” observes Baker, “so it’s important that people see the island’s broad spectrum of talent; Tessanne is now the flag bearer for that.”