Poet Jah9 on womanhood, intuition and doing what you love

Back in August, Jamaican dub poet and vocalist Jah9 braved the relative cold of Kelmarsh to grace the main stage of Shambala Festival 2016. We caught up with her after the show to talk about her experience of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, the power of intuition and why doing what you love matters.

As a Jamaican woman and a Rasta, do you have any comments about being female in such a male-dominated, arguably hyper-masculine culture?

I think the world is pretty male-dominated. In Jamaica, as in most of the diaspora, there is a lot of male energy and dominance in the music as in all industries. But more and more I find that women are rising, stepping forward and getting into music.

There are women who've inspired me to step forward, like Etana, Queen Ifrica and so on. And then I've seen women who've been inspired by me step forward. They're educated women who now see that music is a viable option. You're not limited to simply being a backing singer or whatever any more. You can stand up do your own thing, you know?

I own my own publishing company, I'm a producer, I have a record label. I mean, this is the information age, it doesn't take that much to be a record executive. You can do your own thing, you can create. And it's important that women especially realise this because we have a significant role to play in creation. We are connected to life, to cycle, to earth.

How did you get into music in the first place? Did you follow in the footsteps of your family?

I didn't force my way into this industry, and I wouldn't have. I don't believe in forcing myself into any situation. It was really more of a pull factor for me.

No one in my family is a musician, I am an anomaly. I had a good job, I was making good money in corporate Jamaica but it wasn't the life I felt comfortable in, I wasn't getting the fulfilment I wanted. When I stepped away from all of that and started to just serve my genie, serve my spirit, you know? Doors just started to open.

So how did that come about? Were you singing on the side in the space around your day job?

My father is a pastor so there was a lot of hymns and scriptures and singing in the church. I was on every choir and I would learn all the parts. My voice was my instrument and I was always writing poetry. I'd never written music or songs but the singing and the writing were happening at the same time.

Later in my life I got introduced to roots music. Instrumental dub gave me so much space to put my words. As a poet it really inspired and drew words out of me. I started to share what I created.

Do you think women are forced to choose between family and career in a way that men are not? Is that a choice you've had to make?

I don't have children yet because I am carefully planning how I want to tread this earth. No disrespect to anyone who has done it another way but I want to be there for my youths. I want to set a good foundation for them, even in finding the person I'm going to have my youths with.

All of these are serious decisions and while I am working on those things I can do music and spread my message. But I intend to have both.

Do you have a final message for our readers?

We have to tune in to our feminine intuition and ask ourselves, what is my purpose? Strip away all of the expectations of society and family and man and whatever and just say, what do I love? What gives me life and makes me feel good? Then do it. It will feed you. You can't doubt it, just do it. I am evidence of that, you know?

Jah9's latest album, 9 - produced by Steam Chalice Records and released on VP Records - is out now.

First published on theworldislistening.co.uk

Salt, a not-so-quiet trauma

My first step towards Salt, the compelling new solo show from Leeds-based artist Selina Thompson, is wrong-footed. Miscommunication has the friend I'm going to see it with thinking it's on at Tobacco Factory, so we decide to drive. But it's on at Arnolfini. In the centre of Bristol. At 6.30pm. On a sunny Friday.

Needless to say we arrive late.

As we stumble blindly through the stalls, Thompson is already on stage wearing safety goggles and a white colonial-era dress, smashing away at a lump of, what is presumably, salt.

I got a free ticket to review the show. As we sit down I can't help but think, Shit.

But then Thompson starts talking again and my fleeting panic about what we may have missed dissolves.

The woman is incredible. Only a month since the experience(s) upon which Salt is based, here she is bold as blue sky, on a stage, telling the world what happened to her. What has always happened to her.

So what did happen to her, exactly? Well, in partnership with another artist she retraced a well-sailed route of the Transatlantic Slave Triangle, from the UK to Ghana to Jamaica and back again.

She sets out to journey deep into the past in order to understand some things that are at once intangible and very, very real.

Racism. Diaspora. Grief. The unresolved shame of many nations. There are some pretty heavyweight themes running through this work. Thompson is nothing if not ambitious.

She begins to lay out the pieces from the once-whole lump of salt. Each piece is slightly bigger than the last and represents both the characters on the ship of the first leg of her journey (described by Thompson as a "quiet trauma") and a centuries-old chain of which she, a dark-skinned black woman, forms the weakest, smallest link. A chain in which she, a dark-skinned black woman born in another time and place, would have been tied and beaten and raped and drowned.

That may sound hyperbolic. It is not. Some of the stories Thompson carries back with her, the insults she endured, the way she was made to feel as a direct consequence of her blackness, may sound (if you are not black) like they're from another time. But, shamefully, that simply isn't true.

There is a rawness to the work, in every sense of the word. Over a post-show drink another friend says she felt it wasn't fully formed. More of a sapling than a tree. She certainly has a point.

As a piece of theatre is does feel a little raw, undercooked. Thompson's words are strong and firmly glue the piece together but the way those words manifest on stage does feel like a work in progress. It would be interesting to see again in six or so months time.

It is also, of course, emotionally raw. Thompson is at times breathless not just from the effort of repeatedly taking a sledgehammer to salt (there is more to the show than this by the way) but the weight of it all too. The sheer, physical weight of a lifetime of racism and a centuries-old system which is not gone but all too easily forgotten.

And ultimately it's the rawness of her emotion that makes this work so impressive. Her vulnerability is a weapon and a shield. She stands alone, boldly claiming a space in a world that would – as her journey at times brings into painfully sharp relief – have her disappear.

She peels back her skin and says, Here. Look. This is how my insides are.

That takes courage of the highest order. And what is art if not the junction at the crossroads of courage and vulnerability?

Despite any theatrical polish she may yet apply, Thompson's show is unforgettable.

Selina, we salute you. Keep doing what you're doing.

First published on theworldislistening.co.uk

Let it breathe

Grandma's hand

My Grandmother wasn't the most affectionate woman. Her love ran deep but its journey through and out of her was less than straightforward.

I used to dread a visit to the shops. She'd grip my hand so tightly when we crossed the road that it hurt and frightened me. As a child I didn't understand why she squeezed so hard. As an adult the answer seems obvious: her grip was born of love but ruled by fear.

I sometimes wonder if my creative projects can relate.

The thing

I'm making a documentary which has my family at its centre. For over a decade it lived inside me as an idea but it's now taking shape. It has become a thing.

Heading up a tiny but talented team, I have to take this thing (footage from three weeks in Jamaica, where my brother and I grew up) and shape it into a story. Needless to say I've had my fair share of fears about pulling it off.

Sometimes these fears manifest themselves as an inability to let go, an unwillingness to accept help or even admit that I need it. But a recent light bulb moment changed all that.

I've been so afraid of all the things this film might not be that I've neglected to let it be what it is. Just like Granny wringing the trust from my six year old hand, I've been suffocating the emerging narrative by holding on way too tight.


I have, at times, found it difficult to shape what I've come to think of as an unyielding clay. But I'm the reason the clay won't yield. It needs room to manoeuvre.

Although unfinished, Pick Me & Turn Me Round no longer lives in my head. It has claimed a space in the world. If I let go it's not going to hurl itself under the first car it sees. It's going to stretch its limbs and look around and start growing the way it's supposed to grow. Just like anything else that's alive.

Of course it will need guidance and encouragement and perhaps even reprimand at times. But I need to trust and listen to it, not force it to tell. I need to let it breathe.

Whether you're working on a speech, a bid or even a difficult relationship, the temptation to hold on too tight when things get tricky is significant. But real freedom and creative reward can come from loosening your grip.


Life goes better with oxygen. Here are a few of my favourite ways to let things breathe:

  • Go for a walk

    Walking is a well-known problem solver. It takes you away from the issue that you're tackling and gets you closer to the nature that you're part of, even in the middle of a city. 

    It makes a clearing in the forest of your mind and allows new thought to emerge. Just the ticket when the well runs dry.
  • Spend time alone

    Modern life is busy. Solitude often eludes. But if you don't make time and space for yourself what hope does your project have?

    Joseph Roux once said: “Solitude vivifies.” Whether you read, go for a walk or meditate, spending time alone is an excellent way to vivify your project, and yourself.
  • Do something else

    The blank page. The obstinate paragraph. We've all been there.

    There's a time to grit your teeth and plough on and there's a time to walk away. If you're strangling the life out of something then you might want to consider the latter.

    Play that hard-to-get muse at her own game and take someone else out for dinner. The work will still be there when you get back.