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Protoje on Why Art Is Power

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Art Is Power: A bi-weekly column where Che Kothari, renowned photographer & executive director of Manifesto, asks artists to succinctly define the power of art.

There are times you meet an artist whose very presence breathes the power of creation, who you just know is bound to have a huge influence. The first time I met Protoje, one of the leading voices emerging from a movement being dubbed the "Reggae Revival," I had that feeling. First being introduced to him by my collaborators at Manifesto Jamaica in 2008 at Jamnesia, I felt truly blessed knowing I was watching the evolution of a superstar who was getting ready to launch.

The relationship between art and community can be naturally synergistic -- the community nurtures the artist, who then reflects back a vision of the community, helping to define its essence. At certain points in history you can see a concentrated yet organic rush of like-minded individuals powerfully framing their community -- think of the Russian writers of the 19th century, Mexican muralism in the 1920s, American peace poets of the '60s... that's what's going on in Jamaica right now, again. A wave of artists are embodying both the roots of the music their parents listened to, as well as mixing it up with dub, rock, jazz, hip hop, creating all kinds of crazy sick sound which defies definition.

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Protoje exemplifies this new-found energy with lyrical prowess. The country is literally overflowing with fresh talent like Jah9, Kabaka Pyramid, Five Steez, Chronixx, No-Maddz, Raging Fyah, Roots Underground, to name just a few, and even the Jamaican government is paying attention, holding their own reggae-fest at Arts in the Gardens.

What's exciting about the revival is that it's not just about music; it's about a mission. It's a current of energy that's bringing Jamaicans together with messages synonymous with reggae roots: love, unity, protest.

In the early days of my friendship with Protoje, I had the opportunity to spend time with him at his home in Kingston and recorded an acoustic version of his now classic song "JA" from his debut album The 7 Year Itch. It was the first time we'd actually collaborated, and I hoped to capture his transparent, thoughtful voice.

Protoje Exclusive Performance from themanifesto.ca on Vimeo.

He told me about how he became interested in the arts:

"I became involved in the arts through my love of music and have always found the arts intriguing. I have a deep appreciation for dance, visual arts and just creative energy in general. Once I started to write lyrics, all I could think about was performing on stage. I got involved with the live music scene, which made my involvement with the other art forms more accessible. Art has changed my life profoundly because art has given me a way to communicate my thoughts and my feelings. Your ability to express is not something to be taking lightly. When I am inspired to say something, I always try to listen back and see the messages in there for me."

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Photo by Sabriya Simon

The message Protoje and his fellow revivalists are speaking is circular. For example, his new video for "I&I" is live footage of a protest walk. The walk was created in order to make the video, but became a genuine act of civil disobedience - he purposely designed his art into an act that would involve the community at large. During rush hour traffic a group of young 'revivalists' and their supporters marched peacefully through the streets of Kingston, handing out flyers and making their way to some of the most important sites in the city. Artists, filmmakers, photographers, musicians, all came out to make this happen. That kind of collaboration and revolutionary spirit are the trademarks of what's going on in the revival -- the act of protest itself made into art, and the art being fed by the act of unity. This is the power of art in action. Protoje says:

"Art has the ability to inspire thought, it speaks to a different part of our consciousness and allows our imagination to expand. The fact that someone is able to create something that pierces through your very soul and allows you to look within yourself and make changes to the life you are leading lets me know that ART IS POWER."

But don't take my word for it. You have to see (and become a part of :) the revival for yourself. Protoje is performing regularly in Jamaica right now, and this summer will be in Europe, the US and Canada. We are currently working on a date for him and his band in Toronto. We were lucky to be the first to present him and Jah9, as well as Kabaka Pyramid and Five Steez to Toronto at the Manifesto Festival in 2010 and 2011, but with all the new energy of the movement, it's time for an updated introduction.

In the meantime, this video of "I&I" from his new album should wake up the revolutionary in you and make you want to take to the streets in peaceful rebellion.

Note: A book documenting the movement is currently in the works by author Dutty Bookman, a co-founder of Manifesto Jamaica, and the one being credited as coining the term 'Reggae Revival'. The book is set to release in 2014. You can support this book and Dutty's journey of discovery and documentation by supporting his indiegogo campaign to follow Protoje and his band to Europe.

Follow Protoje on Twitter @Protoje

Check out previous Art Is Power Series Articles:
Danilo M. Mccallum on Why Art Is Power
AFRaKaReN on Why Art Is Power
Shad on Why Art Is Power
Kardinal Offishall On Why Art Is Power