Reggae’s aural landscape has undergone a dramatic transformation since 2005 when cultural themes controlled the dancehall as deejays chanted praises to Jah Rastafari and wrote songs to uplift and inspire listeners. Many artists who attained notoriety espousing these fortifying concepts promptly abandoned them when the prevailing lyrical tide took a sharp detour towards graphic violence, gangster posing and the explicit, x-rated rhymes that now dominate the (dancehall) charts.
Despite the disturbing trend evidenced in several current dancehall hits, singjay/songwriter Junior Kelly remains true to making empowering reggae music, a mission he embarked on nearly 25 years ago. Five years after the release of Kelly’s critically acclaimed “Tough Life”, he returns with his much-anticipated fourth album for VP Records (his 8th album overall) “Red Pond”, which will be released on April 6th. The title “Red Pond”, like all of Kelly’s lyrics, was inspired by real life situations, particularly the conditions in his community of Frasers Content, Spanish Town.
“Red Pond is the nickname of the area where I was raised and still reside and there is a sinister meaning to that name,” explains Kelly who was born Keith Morgan on September 23, 1969 in Kingston. “We have seen a lot of violence and blood in that community, I see people dead in front of me yet I stick to my roots reggae and don’t fall for the peer pressure in the music business. Dropping this album when roots music is kind of on the back burner and naming it “Red Pond” is a testimony to my will to hold on to more tangible music, despite what I see all around me, because what kind of music can instill hope in your life other than roots music?”
It was Kelly’s roots reggae single “Love So Nice” that established him as a star throughout Jamaica in 2000. Kelly’s breakthrough song utilized the indelible bassline played by Aston “Familyman” Barrett on the rhythm to Bob Marley’s classic “Stir It Up”, as he pondered a question most people ask at least once: “If love so nice, tell me why it hurt so bad?” Kelly’s commanding juxtaposition of precisely timed, deejayed rhymes and melodic singing, coupled with his vivid storytelling abilities, took the song to the top of the Jamaican charts, a position it held for 15 weeks, making it the island’s longest charting number one tune for 2000.
Kelly’s stunning introductory album for VP Records “Love So Nice”, released on January 25, 2001 presented a diversity of songs, from the sufferers’ anthem “Hungry Days” to the hymn to herb “Boom Draw” to the melancholy brought about by a lost love on “Sunshine”, in addition to the hit title track, which created a demand for Kelly’s music throughout The Caribbean, North America and Europe.
However, it was not an overnight success story for the devout Rastafarian artist who released his first single “Over Her Body” in 1985 and struggled for nearly 15 years before making an impact in the reggae business. Kelly grew up surrounded by music: his grandfather and father both played the banjo, his mother sang in the church and his older brother Sylvester, a.k.a. Jim Kelly was a resident deejay with Kilimanjaro, one of Jamaica’s premier sound systems of the 80s and 90s; Jim regularly practiced his lyrical toasts in the family living room, which had a profound influence on his younger brother. The close-knit family was devastated in 1983 when Jim was murdered in a dispute over money, a tragedy witnessed by his younger brother. “I never expected my brother would die so early,” Kelly solemnly offers, “but I grow with music all around me so if I became anything else it would have been a surprise. Music took me on a journey that I’m realizing started from in the home, way back when.”
In November 2001, Kelly was in a serious car accident in Kingston, which left him with a punctured lung, five broken ribs and a fractured pelvis. Hospitalized for several days, he endured an intensive rehabilitation program and made a full recovery. As the decade went on, he released a succession of hit singles and two more albums for VP, “Smile” (2003) and “Tough Life”, furthering his renown as a skillful mediator between traditional roots music’s spirituality and social conscience and dancehall’s gritty everyday realism. However Kelly’s output is not as prolific as many of his contemporaries because he does not comply with every producer’s request to “voice” (record) him on their “riddims”, which is the cornerstone practice of the reggae/dancehall industry.
Instead, Kelly remains selective preferring to feel a connection towards a rhythm track before voicing on it. “Producers approach me on a monetary level asking how much would I charge to voice a song and I tell them what I can do is listen to your music and if it moves me, then we can work something out,” explains Kelly. “The joy you get from creating, money can’t buy that.” Kelly describes his collaboration with “Red Pond’s” primary producer Melbourne “George Dusty” Miller of the Fire House Crew as “the true essence of the creative process; we took an organic approach to music making, just recording songs without the confines of creating an album.” Created over a four-year period, “Red Pond” boasts an all star cast of Jamaica’s finest musicians whose synergistic efforts fashioned rich, multi textured one-drop rhythms which propel Kelly’s thoughtful lyrics into 15 triumphant selections that stir the soul as readily as they move the feet.
“Red Pond” commences with the jubilant “Celebrate Life” which advocates daily appreciation for the blessings that surround us. Love’s many facets are explored, from the enigmatic search for “Real Love” to the love for one’s father on “Papa’s Song” (featuring Ras Shiloh) and the all important love of self on the stirring, semi-acoustic “Believe In Yourself”, which Kelly has been singing in concert for a few years but hadn’t previously recorded. The poignant “African Child” was partially inspired by Kelly’s unforgettable 2003 visit to Haiti, the world’s first liberated black republic and the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere. “I had never seen so much degradation, carnage and disenfranchised people, but despite what they don’t have, I never seen people that find a way to be happy,” Kelly recalled. “I saw women of all ages going up and down the hills to fetch buckets of water and I remember a 7 year old girl carrying water in a ceramic pail on her head. It was so rough there that I wished I could just adopt her and take her to Jamaica so her life could be a little better.”
With the assistance of singer Lukie D (of the great Jamaican vocal quartet L.U.S.T.) Kelly switches moods, lamenting the loss of his lady on the R&B flavored “She’s Gone”, while Queen Ifrica, speaking on behalf of neglected women everywhere, breaks down her reasons for ending an unfulfilling relationship as she joins Kelly on the true to life, lilting lovers rock tune “Too Late”. Kelly’s fiery, emotive vocal grit characterizes “Treacherous Waters” which warns of omnipresent danger and “Murderer” is a ferocious admonishment aimed at individuals who callously take lives, a tragic, all too frequent occurrence in the ghetto. The provocative words on “Nuthin’ Wrong With The World” inspired by the cruelty people display towards one another are further punctuated by an unrelenting bass and bold keyboard stabs. Kelly sings of the sufferers’ desire for a better life, devoid of violence on “Waan Lef’ De Ghetto” while his astonishing rapid fire rhymes forcefully detail the plight of the poor black population on the militant “Stumbling Blocks”: “When mi check out the source and what them enforce/send police officers to take what’s yours.” His dynamic scat-like singing urges action among his people while asking, “How Better Ah Go Come” “if racism, terrorism, and prejud-ism still anchor we down.”
Kelly offers a timely commentary on the tattered societal moral fiber as reflected in the current state of dancehall reggae on “Slackness”. The song’s substantial lyrics are offset by an engaging melody and rollicking ska beat that also honors Jamaica’s pioneering musicians. “I love the ska era, love the players,” says Kelly, “and this is my way of showing respect for all the works that them do to make things possible for younger artists.” The album concludes with the ultimately optimistic, biblically laced strugglers’ lament “One Bright Day”, which Kelly acknowledges can have various meanings depending on an individual’s hopes and aspirations.
For lovers of sophisticated, passionately crafted roots reggae, a bright day arrives with “Red Pond” as the depth and detail of Junior Kelly’s lyrics, coupled with his heartfelt, nuanced delivery, augurs well for the music’s future while solidifying his prominence among a new generation of Jamaican cultural standard bearers.