Jamaica's Jesse Royal is an increasingly prominent figure in the recent roots-reggae revival, a movement that also includes Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid and Protoje, among many others. Seen as a rejection of the superficial sounds and themes of dancehall, the revival harks back to origins of reggae as protest and struggle music in the 1960s and 1970s. That's evident in Royal's vintage-inspired and spiritually charged take on island grooves.
Royal, 26, comes by his inclination toward the strains of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer honestly. Though not precisely reggae royalty himself, he was surrounded by the first family of reggae as a child. He grew up with Daniel Bambaata Marley, Ziggy Marley's son, and credits nearly the entire Marley family with helping to mold him as a musician and a man.
Backed by the Kingsuns, Royal performs at Club Metronome in Burlington on Thursday, April 21. Seven Days spoke with him by phone to talk about roots reggae, politics and growing up (almost) Marley.
SEVEN DAYS: You're identified as a key part of the recent roots-reggae revival. Why is that music resonating so deeply with audiences again?
JESSE ROYAL: There is a reaction to every action. You can only go so far left before you realize you have to turn and start going right. We are all born as part of creation, and we are all a part of life. So we need to be reminded of pain and suffering and put them out who cause it. So I feel like this is a natural course. The problems we had way back when are still problems we have today, and the music reflects that. It's nothing new. There are times when you have a full plate of food. And then there comes time when you have nothing, and you have to search. And so here we are, a part of this time and able to add our voice to the struggle.
SD: Do you follow United States politics?
JR: I wouldn't say I follow along. But I keep myself in the know. World affairs are world affairs, and I am part of the world. If you asked me who I think is the best candidate, I have no idea. It's really all about what the people want, what the people say. And it's not my place to make them decisions. The people have to decide.
SD: Are you familiar with Sen. Bernie Sanders?
JR: I agree with Bernie's politics and ideas about certain things. But there are also some things where I don't see eye to eye. But they are all politicians. They will all just tell the people what they want to hear. I'm not interested in politicians. I'm interested in human beings. As an outsider, I really like Barack Obama, and I'm interested in him. But he's also just a man.
SD: The Marley family has been important in your life and music. What are some of the ways they've helped you?
JR: When I came to Kingston, me and Daniel became close friends, like we were brothers. The vibrations of the universe led us to this foundation. And Ziggy became like a second father. We became close before the music, like family, you know? Those vibrations became a wavelength that even I couldn't recognize until I became a man and understand some of my moral grounding and how it comes through music.
There were also people like Earl Chinna Smith, Sly [and] Robbie, brilliant gurus like Fatis Burrell. These people moved my moral compass when I came to this music. Uncle Steve [Marley], uncle Damian [Marley], all of them were integral in my life, part of my musical DNA. The more they helped me grow, the more they changed the way I think about certain things. Steven was very influential, just like Fatis. So it was important to have gurus like that who understand the value of nurturing youth.
SD: Where did the nickname "the Small Axe" come from?
JR: It came from people, you know? People who know me since I was young know that I've always been fiery. When I dig into stuff, I dig in with the heart. So, from youth there were some battles. Sometimes there's no need to fight, but you're young and you don't know that. It's part of being a youth. It takes time to develop one's self and understand things. So "the Small Axe" was a term of affection from people in Jamaica.
SD: You were born on the same day as your mother. That's a cool coincidence.
JR: There is no coincidence about it. My name in Hebrew means "God's gift." So it was not a coincidence.
SD: Your music is rooted in tradition, but there are modern aspects, too. How much thought do you put into honoring the traditions of the music, but also ensuring that it resonates with modern audiences?
JR: We are Jamaican. Beyond that we are African. So everything we know is everything we've been knowing. The message in the music comes from what we know, what we see happening around the world. And we have to honor the elders who came before, because the struggle is not over. It's all about making sure we are in good graces with our creator and make sure that our labor is what defines us. These are the same things people have been singing about for years, and they still matter.
The original print version of this article was headlined "The King and I and I"