In Conversation: Protoje

Words with one of reggae’s highest risers…

“Who knows who knows who knows / I just go where the trade wind blows…”

Protoje is one of the founding members of a new wave of rising roots reggae singers coming out of Jamaica at the moment. His song ‘Who Knows’, featuring Chronixx (another breakout star who recently appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in the US), has already become one of the biggest reggae songs of the year. It’s the first single to come off Protoje’s forthcoming album, ‘Ancient Future’.

After a storming guest spot during Chronixx’s set at Reggae Sumfest in Jamaica this July, Protoje set off for his summer European tour. Having performed to crowds in Germany, France, Belgium, Spain and half a million people at Poland’s Woodstock festival, he headed to London for another guest appearance at a sold-out Chronixx show in Brixton. It’s in the English capital that we grabbed some time with him, just before he proudly represented Jamaican roots reggae with Yardcore Sound at the Red Bull stage at the Notting Hill Carnival

With two albums under his belt already – ‘The Seven Year Itch’ and ‘The Eight Year Affair’ – Protoje’s been in the game for a good stretch. Reggae artists usually say nothing happens before the “right time” – and now, with the movement he helped kick off in full swing, Protoje seems perfectly positioned for big things.

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‘Who Knows’

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How’s it going Protoje? When I saw you in Brixton the energy level was up, up, up!

Every time I’m onstage I feel alive. And I get to go onstage a lot now.

When we last spoke at Jamaica Jazz Festival, you sung an exclusive preview, which we now know was ‘Who Knows’. From then to now so much has happened, and that particular song has become massive.

Yeah man, that’s the only song I’ve put out for the whole year and it’s doing really good right now. We’re trying to put more strength behind it and not rush more music out. It just got A-listed on 1Xtra here.

Did you realise it was going to be this big?

I give thanks for where it reached, but I still think it has more to do. When I heard this instrumental two years ago, even before my second album came out, I told [the producer] Winta [James] that this is the first single from my third album. I just knew it would have this epic feel to it, and doing it with Chronixx, with the energy we have together and the way we vibe on music, I knew it was going to be special.

When you and Chronixx performed it in Brixton, the crowd went crazy.

Yeah, I was shocked. I didn’t know. I was very surprised.

Surprised at what? The response to you?

The response to me when I came on stage, and just the response that the song was getting out here. I mean, Chronixx has been here one or two times, so I wasn’t really surprised that they were into him. I know that the temperature for him is really hot here right now. But to still see the place rammed to capacity, lines outside – it was eye-opening to where the music is headed in the UK.

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‘Rasta Love’

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Speaking of Chronixx, how did that whole link-up happen?

When I had ‘Rasta Love’ out, he hit me up online as a young producer. Him and his boy Teflon from Zinc Fence wanted to produce something for me. They were trying to get into the business and I was like, “Alright,” ‘cause I always like working with people who have confidence. They sent me about four instrumentals and I liked them but ‘The Seven Year Itch’ was just out, so I didn’t really want to be recording. But I didn’t want to waste them…

I was working on Kabaka Pyramid’s EP ‘Rebel Music’ and I was like, “There’s an artist that I’m working with that I think would make good use of these beats. Let me introduce you to him.” It was Kabaka’s birthday and I kept a little thing for him at my house. I invited Chronixx and he met Kabaka and then started to sing his own songs. Maybe he was just selling the beats so that he could get a chance to come and sing some songs (Laughs)

Well it worked, right?

When I heard him I was blown away. I was like, “Oh my Lord this youth is going to be crazy.” And from that first night he’s been like, “Yo, we should do some music together.” And now here we are.

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Some things you think are important can fail you. All that material success is not necessarily as important as we think…

(Photo: Che Kothari)

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So how did you know it would be ‘Who Knows’?

Winta came to me and asked, “What do you think of Chronixx doing the hook for this?” I had in mind another song for me and him to do, but that song wasn’t strong enough. ‘Who Knows’ was the right vibe. His energy was just a fit. You just know when you know. I was at the airport about to take a flight, and called him to say, “There’s this song that I need you for. Winta’s gonna call you. Please get this done for me.” He was like, “Yeah man, it’s done.” And then I left and I heard it was done.

And when you heard it?

I was like, “We ready. It’s on. It’s on and poppin’.”

It has been on and poppin’ ever since. Even the video for the song tells a big story.

It’s just a metaphor for life. Some things you think are important can fail you. So what you gonna do? You gonna give up or keep moving? All that material success is not necessarily as important as we think. The lyrics of the song say that, and display that, and we just wanted the video to do the same. “Life is a dream if you have gratitude.”

Tell me about your new album. You mentioned it was going to be a different sound.

Even though the album is called ‘Ancient Future’, it’s not about making it sound like 1980. Sly Dunbar did an interview and he said he loves what we’re doing, but one thing he wants to see is where we’re gonna take it next. When I read that it was really inspiring to me. I feel what he’s saying. We have to build on what they did and not just recreate it. So that’s what we’re doing.

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Words: Reshma B

Protoje’s ‘Ancient Future’ is forthcoming, with a release date TBC, but expect it this side of Christmas. Find the artist online here

Related: Clash’s Reggae & Dancehall columns

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