It Takes A Strong Personality As Well As A Stong Voice To Make It In Jamaica's Music Industry Boy's Club. Fortunately, Etana Has What It Takes.
Etana’s bio reads like a reggae fairytale. After moving to Florida from Jamaica, she went through middle school, high school and college listening to soul, R&B and just about everything else and went on to join an R&B girl group. She loved performing and shopping for costumes with her band mates, but soon found herself deeply uncomfortable with the expectations the music industry places on female artists.
“The hardest part for me was dealing with wearing almost nothing to do a video: lingerie, stiletto heels, cameras way too low, going in places, you know, where you feel violated. And I figured if that’s what I had to do to do music then I’d rather not do it at all,” the 29 year-old tells MTV Iggy over the phone.
Choosing integrity over ambition, the plucky singer moved back to Jamaica with the plan to start a cell phone business, but ended up reconnecting with her reggae roots. A chance meeting with Richie Spice and his crew at Fifth Element Records quickly led to singing back-up with him and putting out hit singles as a solo artist — all without having to compromise. “The more that I performed with Richie Spice the more comfortable I got, realizing that everybody accepted me for me. I didn’t have to braid my hair. I could wear my Afro. I didn’t have to wear a tight anything. I didn’t have to leave my boobs hanging. I could just wear what I wanted,” she says.
Today, she’s living proof that you don’t have to sell your soul to be star, with two full-length albums out and regular tour dates all over the world. Currently based in Miami, the artist recently welcomed her second child and dropped a three-song EP, titled Reggae. She also just announced that her third full-length Better Tomorrow, is due out in February. She promises that it will be her most mature album to date, with a new take on her signature mix of earthy reggae and neo-soul romance.
Things are going really well, but Etana, who is also known as The Strong One, won’t sugar coat things. It may have been chance that led to her career, but luck has nothing to do with her success. This fairytale is the product of her golden voice coupled with her will of steel. The music industry in Jamaica is a man’s game. A woman hoping to make her way in that world has no choice but to be strong.
“When I got back from being in Florida the whole time, I noticed that women were kind of treated like second, or even last, in everything. Women would be on the bill, they would show up for the show and they would be given a time like, say, ten or eleven and then it would be four or five in the morning and the stage gets bum rushed by everybody else, all the male artists. And the female never gets to perform and it’s like nothing. Everybody just runs over the fact that the artist is even there.
In my own experience, if you walk in a rehearsal room everybody is laughing, nobody is really serious. They’re barely going through the song. So, with females it’s a ‘yeah, you’re there, but so what?’ kind of thing. And I realized that I had to teach them how I wanted to be treated,” Etana explains.
Luckily, the kind of self-possession required for that seems to come naturally to this lady who chalks it up to her experiences in life: “I guess, it comes from me growing up in my own house where my mom was the head of household by herself, and coming to America and realizing that in America women — you know how women do. They’re very independent, they’re very strong, all of these things. And I figured, if I took it back to Jamaica and told them: ‘Look, this is me. This is what I want. This is when I want it. This is how I want it.’ And if I explain these things, then I’ll be sure to get it.”
In addition to self-confidence and assertiveness, Etana used strategy and a little help from her friends to carve out a space where she could be heard. “I started to, when I showed up at the venues, Fifth Element [Records] would be there, so it wouldn’t be me alone. It would be twenty men walking into a venue going, ‘We’re going to start at this time.’ And it worked,” she reveals.
She feels that sexism rears its head in the Jamaican music scene, just as it does in the US. “Even now, women in Jamaica in the music industry have to be strong. I don’t know where it came from, but they just believe that women are supposed to be at home with the kids and women do what the men say. And if you come into the music industry, you kind of have to sex your way through. And when you’re done sexing your way through, they don’t respect you anymore. They don’t see you as an artist or they don’t want to listen to your music or they laugh at you when they hear it. I knew that that wouldn’t be me,” is her avowal.
Of course, there are almost always consequences when you go against the grain, but they don’t bother Etana who reports that they aren’t holding her back. “I must admit that some people think that I have an attitude, that I’m rude, I’m a diva. I’ve heard all of that. But, at the end of the day, when I show up at a venue to perform I’m respected and that is what matters. So, they can say whatever they want. As long as I’m respected, I’m good,” the singer concludes.
If this Strong One has earned a reputation for standing up for herself, she is just as well known for standing up for what she believes in, with socially conscious lyrics that resonate with every day people in Jamaica. On the new EP Etana stands up for reggae music itself. The title track, “Reggae,” is a soulful love song to the genre.
Used to performing for thousands of fans from Kenya to Japan, who show up to her concerts ready to sing every word, she’s sometimes dismayed to come home and hear disparaging comments about the music she loves. She wrote “Reggae” in response to that.
“How I feel about reggae music just to begin with, the drums, the bass, how the keyboard is played —because obviously it’s not like R&B where you go deep into all kinds of chords — it’s very simple, it’s very clean, it speaks directly to the heart. It make you just want to move. And a lot of people in the world are saying reggae from Jamaica — not reggae internationally but reggae from Jamaica — is almost dead. Just a lot of negative things,” she laments.
She understands that it’s human nature to take certain things for granted, but she hopes to remind people that reggae culture is a national treasure. “It’s like not appreciating what you have at home. When you have special things inside of your home you probably don’t even notice it or recognize it. And then somebody else could walk inside your home and say, ‘oh, this is lovely.’ To me, it’s just Jamaicans not appreciating a pearl, a piece of diamond that’s unseen, untouched, while the rest of the world is hugging it up and loving it,” the vocalist reflects. Take it from a woman who recognizing her own worth. Etana knows a valuable thing when she hears it.