Thursday, February 7, 2019

REGGAE MONTH // Honouring the Strength of Queen Ifrica

There were so many amazing reggae artists performing at the Rebel Salute roots reggae music festival this year that by 7 a.m., I was barely awake...but still engaged in the stage performances. Used to arena concerts events ending by 11 p.m. here in Toronto (or 3 a.m. for reggae performances in club venues), it was an exercise in stamina to be actively observant of everyone who touched the stage at Grizzly's Plantation Cove in Priory, Saint Ann. With my digital SLR camera in hand, and cell phone serving as a secondary recording device, I didn't want to miss a thing. Looking back at my footage upon returning to Canada, it was evident to me that I had just experienced a once-in-a-lifetime cultural moment in Jamaica, and I felt blessed to have witnessed the performances and exchanges up close and personal.

I have so many memories from that weekend. The feeling of pride, enjoying music amongst the Jamaican patrons, and lingering backstage with the likes of Capleton and Yendi: Jamaica's elite. I was excited by the energy of the stage activity, and intrigued by the hustle and bustle of the journalists capturing images and positioning to collect interview footage. I have yet to experience a similar vibe in Toronto, it was wonderful.

Via Jamaica Observer
The musical testimonies of Ugandan Bobi Wine and Nigerian Patorankin made me smile, and the energy of Bounty Killer and Agent Sasco rejuvenated my jet-lagged body as soon as the bass shook the grassy hill inside the Media Pit. One performance in particular, however, has lingered with me from Saint Ann, through Sangster International Airport, back to Toronto, and has led me to really meditate in a way that only music could provoke. This performance was the one put on by the First Lady of Rebel Salute: Queen Ifrica.

The Rastafarian native of Montego Bay, the Fyah Muma Queen Ifrica (aka Ventrice Morgan) is well known for being a woman of truth and fearlessness. Throughout the span of her career, her lyrics, her public appearances, and statements have been nothing but poignant and straightforward. Since the 2009 release of her first album "Montego Bay" (VP Records), she has been a source of cultural commentary and musical soul through songs like "Times Like These," "Keep it To Yourself," and "Far Away." Her latest release "One Hold" is circulating heavy this week, and encouraging women to love and hold their man. The video for "Black Woman" is making statements as well.

When I heard one particular song that night at Rebel Salute--"A Nuh We Dis"--I had to really pause, and think about my perspectives of Jamaica, as a Canadian of Jamaican descent, and really listen to the dialogue taking place on stage. It was the most powerful moment of the show, in my opinion, when Queen Ifrica sat down at the edge of the stage and addressed Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness directly, asking him to listen carefully to the lyrics of the song. As a representative of the people, she wanted to communicate the concerns of the citizens who were often unheard: her messages were of hope and based on a want for structural changes and more opportunities for progress on the island.

Visiting Jamaica annually, or even a few times each year as a Canadian/foreigner, it is easy to take for granted the everyday realities of Jamaican living. For a week here and there, I am blessed with the opportunity to leave the cold/responsibilities/routine of Toronto life and indulge in all of the greatness Jamaica has to offer. Family, the foods, the music, the hills and greenery, the beautiful beaches, the hustle of the towns, the hospitality, and most importantly the irreplaceable spirit of the Jamaican people. With each trip to the island, the love only intensifies. Especially now that I've lived 40 solid years in Canada and realize just how rare and precious some of life's intangibles are.

This particular visit, with Queen Ifrica's anthems as the soundtrack, I really processed the power of the music of Jamaica and the true impact it has had internationally. Many of us are privileged enough to have direct connections to Jamaica through parents or birth, but there are millions worldwide who are also drawn to the island just out of genuine passion, curiosity, and understanding. I believe the main draw of all is the lyrical content and the musical rhythms that speak to people's hearts from Canada to Japan, New Zealand, to Germany.

In that moment, I watched Queen Ifrica address the crowd from just a few feet away in the Media Pit, capturing a few photos and some video footage for myself, and as I listened to her pleas and declarations...I absorbed the distinct chorus of horns coming from the audience. A persistent tone indicating that the people were in agreement with her words. The people were hearing her...really hearing her.

This was late Saturday night when the Prime Minister, opposition leader, Ministers of Culture and Labour, as well as a few other dignitaries were seated in the Media Pit to take in one of the country's biggest and most significant events. I realized that to be there was an honour, and to be amongst the country's leaders and top influencers was a privilege. In that moment, as Queen Ifrica sang, my spirit led me to leave the stage area and instead walk back out to the gathering of patrons in the general audience zone to feel their energy. I heard the lyrics up close, and I wanted to experience them from a distance.

Via Loop Jamaica
I walked through the paths and fields of the spacious Grizzly's Plantation Cove, and watched on the large screen when Prime Minister Holness stood from his seat, and approached Queen Ifrica for an embrace. I thought about how wonderful it was that the exchange was taking place so directly, and that there were so many music lovers present to witness it. I thought about how her words were ringing across the Plantation and neighbouring sea and how many people were watching the Rebel Salute online, and how many voices she was echoing with her confessions.

Ifrica explained the plight of the everyday Jamaican citizen, and how every soul deserved to live in comfort and peace. She was concerned about Jamaica's place on a global scale, and how the rest of the world perceived her people versus the reality. She wanted Jamaica to be an example of greatness and to reflect the core of the people. She spoke up for the youth, and for women, and for blackness, and her lyrics and her words reminded me of a cry for help: she was communicating these needs through Jamaica's most powerful tool and agent of change, reggae music.

Those who have followed Queen Ifrica's career could not be surprised by this, because her community work and the content of her songs are always performed with direction and intent. She has always been an artist of action, and never one to censor herself.

Queen Ifrica expressed concern with the black woman in particular, and how a true queen should conduct herself, projecting messages of self-love, and a Jamaica rooted in family and traditional messaging. Rebel Salute was just one of many stages where she has used her platform to inform and educate her listening base. At a previous Ghetto Splash concert, she spoke about restoring pride in raising children and taking care of home. Ifrica has performed at events from the Child Development Agency, and has served as a youth counsellor and champion for child rights where abuse and incest are concerned. Songs like "Daddy" and "Keep it To Yourself" have clarified her positions in these areas: she is fighting for the decency and strength of Jamaica's women, youth, and overall spiritual character.

As she sang "Times Like This" and spoke about how she misses the heroes of Jamaica, I had to reflect on the culture in which my parents grew up in Jamaica in the 1960s and 1970s before moving to Toronto, and how the reggae artists of their time were wholeheartedly committed to using their musical platform to internationally convey purposeful messages.

This year Queen Ifrica is making a distinct mark in Canada through a collaboration with Toronto-based reggae artist Kafinal: they have been nominated for a Juno Award in the category of Reggae Recording of the Year. "Talk or No Talk" is an entertaining dialogue between the two artists about whether or not to get involved in people's business, where infidelity is concerned. It's great to see Ifrica being recognized by Canada's musical industry, because I believe she is a voice of purpose that will lead change in the way reggae music is performed and perceived...by female artists in particular.

With Queen Ifrica's dedication to strengthening black women, representing black women as intelligent and nurturing beings, as well as staying on top of important social issues and otherwise "taboo" social subjects, she is demonstrating that it is OK to not only be yourself, but also that it's OK to be yourself when it is difficult to do so.

It's too distracting to point out the controversy, or to make mention of those who may view Ifrica's declarations as aggressive and politically incorrect. What I received from her live performance, and from looking into her lyrics, her interviews, and her objectives as an artist is that Queen Ifrica is committed to enlightening Jamaican people, and her listening audience-at-large. She wants to support the Jamaican family and see improvements made to the political and economic systems of the island. She believes in love; she is a woman of faith and stands firm in this. She is proud of her complexion, her views, and she will not be silenced as long as she has a voice to communicate.

This is her mission: encouraging love, encouraging family stability, and celebrating principles of unity and support, tradition, and legacy. It is unfortunate that this overall premise has been met with  protest over the years due to a few specific statements and personal beliefs.

Female artists in reggae music are few and far between, so it is important that we uplift those with positive messaging, and that we endorse those who are confident enough to use their platform in the way reggae music was intended to be used: as an agent of political and social change and encouragement. I believe that Queen Ifrica is one of few active female recording artists that has made me stop, think, and wonder about how I am using my particular voice and what type of platform I am creating for myself, and intend to stand on. Not just in entertainment or media...but in life. Queen Ifrica has made me really consider how far I would be willing to go in speaking my truth and communicating it, regardless of the consequences.

Her strength on that stage, standing firm in her truth while looking Jamaican citizens and leadership boldly in the eyes at Rebel Salute, has given me strength. Reading about her history and listening to her experiences has reiterated the importance of developing your character and believing in something. I am grateful that my first trip to Rebel Salute resulted in this important lesson in the power of reggae music, and the natural force that it possesses in sound and in purpose.

Queen Ifrica, your presence is appreciated.




Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

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