Raised by rasta patriarch Denroy Morgan, the Morgan Heritage family has been in the game from birth.
Formed in 1994 they played their first gig at Reggae Sunsplash in Jamaica and got signed to a major label deal as soon as the stepped off the stage. Although they were not creatively satisfied with their MCA Records debut ‘Miracles’, the family band - Peetah on lead vocals, brother Gramps and sister Una on keyboards and vocals, and Lukes and Mr. Mojo on guitar and percussion, respectively - has gone on to become one of reggae’s most prolific and consistent hit-makers.
Their seventeenth album, ‘Strictly Roots’ is a richly varied offering with touches of soul and dancehall augmenting the foundation sound that made the group famous, and comes at a time when reggae music finds itself at a creative crossroads. While dancehall continues to dominate the Jamaican scene, there is talk of a “reggae revival” in the music’s birthplace. Meanwhile the international scene is all about traditional roots reggae with bands from all over the world adapting the Jamaican art form to their own culture.
Just before the band embarked on a world tour for the summer of 2015 they sat down for an in-depth conversation about how they keep their family and musical roots so strong, and why they say it’s “cool to be conscious”.
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This album is called 'Strictly Roots'. Can you break down what that is all about?
Peetah: First and foremost it’s about the music but it’s more than just about the music. When we say “strictly roots” we talking about everything in existence, ’cause no matter what it is who it is where it’s from, everything comes from something, everything has a roots. So with everything we do we deal with the roots of all things.
So we say “strictly roots” is our motto, you know what I mean? Because if you can deal with the root of something you understand how it reach where it reach and you will understand where it’s going to go. But you cyan’t have trees and branches and leaves and all these things and fruits without the root. So we say “strictly roots” you know?
Now I was listening to the album and the first single, ‘Perform And Done’, which was really fun for me, I noticed it had more of a dancehall flavour. You know, it’s all about parties and partying with girls—how do you think that fits into the ‘Strictly Roots’ vision?
Peetah: Because people love go dance. That’s a reality. This is the whole concept where people feel like when you say roots it’s like a ites-up thing and Rasta. You can go party and still be conscious you know, and we say it’s “cool to be conscious” and being conscious is new cool. When you go to party, you party with a certain consciousness you’re not gonna get over drunk, and if you do then someone is gonna drive you home. You’re not going to drive home yourself. You understand? You are partying with a conscious awareness.
And being conscious doesn’t mean that you’re religious. And this is where we want to break the barriers of all these stigmas of all these things cause people say when we say “strictly roots” people say “Yeah mon Selassie I and Jah Rastafari…” We know who we are. I don’t have to sell that to you. You know you look pon me and you know what it is. if you want to know, you ask me and I tell you. So we leave it for everyone to have their own perception.
Una: To even take it further as a woman, in my vision of ‘Perform And Done’, it’s about women empowerment. When you listen to the song it’s about telling a girl—and the video displays that as well. The underdog came in, and the hot girls thought they were so fly, and the underdog came in and won. So for me it was “Woman do your thing—perform and kill it!” You know, it’s a two-sided thing, what my brothers see and how I see it. It’s about bigging up yourself.
Peetah: Where does it fit in? Strictly roots? Everybody love fi dance. Put on your dancing shoes. David - when he realised the spirit of God was upon him from the Bible, he danced on the streets until he danced out of his clothes. So you can’t say David wasn’t being conscious before he was dancing before the lord! Alright! Strictly Roots!
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Also the Vibe that I’m getting from you guys seems to be an inner peace, an inner acceptance. When people think about roots reggae, you guys are always at the top of the list somewhere. But have you guys had to deal with this inner peace yourselves?
Peetah: Of course. It’s like… it’s rising above the stigma that the audience will put on you. Because everyone who knows Morgan heritage knows Morgan Heritage is a Rasta but I don’t have to sell that to you - you know what I mean? It’s like when Bob Marley said [sings] “Oh please don’t you rock my boat” and the next time he says “Exodus, movement of Jah people.” Does that change who Bob Marley is? So when Morgan Heritage says “She’s my one and only.” That’s conscious. I’m conscious that she’s my one and only.
So you always get love songs from Morgan Heritage, you always get social commentary songs and you always get [shrugs] religious songs about our faith as Rastafarians. So that’s why if you look at the album cover, it’s no picture. It’s just the planet Earth. And when we say strictly roots everything is from here - from the planet earth. Everything good, bad, conscious, unconscious, everything is here. And everything has a root. So when we say strictly roots we talk about everything globally.
Talking about roots, everyone in Jamaica is talking about this roots reggae revival. That’s kind of debatable because roots never really went away, but let’s say for argument sakes there is a roots revival why do you think that’s the case?
Peetah: Let me tell you something. The whole term came from Jamaica and all those who follow and promote what comes out of Jamaica. We all know everything out of Jamaica for the past ten years from Vybz Kartel to the Alliance thing has all been about dancehall music. Vybz Kartel is in prison and he’s still... if not the number one dancehall artist in the world, at least he’s in the top five. And the man is not even on the streets - he’s in prison.
So in Jamaica now you have artists like Protoje, Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid, and the whole movement of these young artists come out, it seems like Jamaica is returning to identify what we created, which is reggae music. They say “Oh it’s a roots revival, reggae revival.” But the rest of the world never let go of reggae music. So this has no bearing on the rest of the world. It’s just a media thing you all promote and it take off to the rest of the world. You have to realise that media have power, you know.
Who, us? [laughs]
Peetah: Of course [laughs] you all have power. You know what I mean? When you say reggae revival people take it as law. But we know that reggae music don’t gone nowhere. And when Jamaica put reggae music aside and say OK, we have enough of that, we like dancehall, the world take up reggae music and you get Gentleman, you get Albosorie, you get Wyre out of Africa. In America you have SOJA, you have Rebelution, you have Iration. In the Pacific you have J-Boog, Fiji and the list goes.
Now you go on the internet and you type in “reggae tour dates”. Now if weh dem ah do in Jamaica is a “reggae revival” why are they not on tour? You type in tour dates and the top five touring bands for reggae music - SOJA, Rebelution, Slightly Stoopid, J-Boog, Iration. So if we want to be real and talk about who’s reviving reggae, them boys is doing it.
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...this music is beyond any one people, any one country. Reggae music is for the world.
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On that note I watched you guys onstage at this year’s Jamaica Jazz Fest. It was great to see you guys performing in Jamaica to a Jamaican audience but there are also some people who feel that the festival is not a great thing for the island.
Peetah: Well let me tell you something. It’s not about what’s great for Jamaica. Because the music has gone bigger than Jamaica. Bob Marley said it when he was alive - he said “Reggae music will only get bigger and bigger until it finds its rightful people.” So if Jamaica no want it world is gonna take it. Jamaica need to step up to the game. Jamaica the country, the government of Jamaica should look at what we have created and realize that this has become a global music. Where if the government doesn’t recognise and acknowledge it as something powerful and something that’s doing great for Jamaica.
We can’t sit here and complain now and say “Bwoy, Jamaica is missing out.” Yeah we’re missing out! Cause we as a people, as a country, as an Island, we’re not even promoting reggae music! You cannot complain about what’s going on in the world if you’re not doing nothing about it at home.
Well there’s this talk about a legislation, you may have heard about it, where now they’re trying to say that there has to be some authenticity now, some kind of Jamaican approval for reggae bands. Because they’ve seen groups like Slightly Stoopid, and groups like SOJA...
Peetah: That’s like you going to Africa and Europe and saying if they want to do hip-hop they got to get approved by America. They can’t do that. Hip-hop has become global. You go to France and listen to some French hip-hop. It’s huge. So reggae music is global. And reggae music is captive to no border. And reggae music is the King’s music, so whoever wants to pick it up and play it and promote it, from you do it with a clean heart and a clear conscience, do your thing. Reggae music is for all people. So Jamaica can pass a legislation but it doesn’t mean nuttin’ to the world.
And that’s the message that you’ve been promoting since I’ve followed your careers. It’s about getting that message out to the rest of the world.
The world! You have to realise when Bob Marley was here Bob Marley did more shows all over the world. And the history is online. 90% of the interviews from Bob Marley and the concerts you see from Bob Marley were not in Jamaica, they were all over the world. Obama goes to Jamaica and one of the first places he went to was the Bob Marley museum. When Bob Marley was alive they didn’t support Bob Marley. It wasn’t like Jamaica was behind Bob Marley. No, they call him “dutty Rasta” and he does rebel music and we don’t want those kind of things.
So this music is beyond any one people, any one country. Reggae music is for the world. And whoever want to play it, we support them and endorse them. And that’s why you see on this album ‘Strictly Roots’ we have combinations with people like Bobby Lee of SOJA, Eric of Rebelution, Jo Mersa, J-Boog, Chronixx. I and I mentality is universal when it comes to reggae music.
We’re not gonna say we only do combinations with straight Jamaican reggae artists. No, because it’s not just Jamaican reggae artists who are doing reggae music alone. So we have to let the world know, we Morgan Heritage identify what’s going on in the world and we endorse anyone that is doing positive reggae music, because that’s what we are about.
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Words By Reshma B