The Reggae Star Speaks: "I see myself more as a cosmopolitan than a German. I think we need to stop thinking like that."
A German who makes hit reggae music doesn’t have a lot of stereotypes to fall back on. Lucky for us that Gentleman, the European chart-topping singjay, came to the MTV offices for an exclusive MTV Iggy photo shoot recently. So we got it from the horse’s mouth: the multi-platinum recording artist and festival headliner arrived in Kingston in 1998, with nothing to go on but the phone book.
Slowly winning over the respect of some Jamaican producers who became his friends, they together created the smooth roots reggae and positive dancehall vibe that’s become the Gentleman trademark. His last album, Diversity, entered the German charts at number one, and the 36-year old artist is currently on his debut North and South American tour supporting Diversity’s American release.
At our meeting, Gentleman’s clean-cut hair and herringbone dress coat was less Bob Marley and more Euro-hipster, but when he opened his mouth his patois gave him away: “Music don’t have no limits. To me, the power of reggae music is universal.”
If you like your pop stars sincere, respectful, and dashing, read on.
Artists either say that they were destined to be musicians, or that they just wanted to be a football player but it didn’t work out, and ended up an artist. How was it for you?
I never had a plan to be a reggae singer. I just realized that I enjoy making music and I love musicians. In the moment I’m making music I’m in tune with myself. It’s very meditative.
The thing really grew slow and steady, that’s why I couldn’t go fast. My first night show was ’93 . I went to Jamaica for the first time when I was 18; ‘92 or something.
The first time you went to the island you were a teenager. So how did you make that trip?
Well, I think that when you’re 18 you’re kind of naïve, which protects you in a way, because I did go to certain places that I wouldn’t go nowadays probably.
[What motivated me] was the combination of the interest for the music, which comes from Jamaica – Jamaica is the motherland of the reggae music, which I love so much and – plus, you know, just having the experience. Traveling in general just opens your mind.
In Jamaica I found the right people at the right time.
Who did you meet?
It was Richie Stephens. When I made my first record in ’98, with a sub-label from Sony Music, they sent me to Jamaica, because I said “I want to do music in Jamaica.” So I took the yellow pages book, with my friend Stefan, and we tried to get some links to some studios. But nobody really responded.
But Red Roze and Richie Stephens and Jack Rabbits and Daddy Rings – these four became really strong friends.
Do you remember the first time you ever performed reggae music?
It was the sound system sessions in Cologne. There was a record store – this guy imported 7-inches from Jamaica and we rented a PA and we just enjoyed the music. We drank Jamaican rum and played music. All of a sudden there’s more people coming and enjoying the vibes, because we all didn’t know Bob Marley, so it was fresh and a specialty in Europe.
[We were] just really staying in the moment and enjoying the lyrical content of the root message – I could really understand it even though I’m not a rasta man.
What are you trying to do in America?
I am not trying anything. I just make music and I feel like if people embrace it, you know, I am with you guys.
There’s a lot of requests right now for playing shows. I played the first show in America—in California I’ve played a lot already, at a reggae festival. East-side, to me is a whole new territory. I’ve been here, I’ve never performed here. New York, Boston, those places, I’ve never been there. So I’m very excited; I’m a newcomer there.
Your album Confidence topped the German charts in 2004. You crossed over in that moment. To be such a mainstream hit you must’ve turned on a lot of first-time reggae listeners. So for people like that who are new to reggae, how would you describe your music?
My own doings, my own music. It’s reggae music, but I’m open for all kinds of styles and if you listen to the new album, Diversity, you’ll find that there’s some downtown music, some hip-hop flavor, some singer-songwriter vibes.
The lyrical content remains the same, and I think its very important nowadays to remain believable, to not switch too much.
What do you think are the most important elements of reggae?
Well, we need to decide between roots reggae music and downtown reggae. Different things, but it’s all under the same umbrella of reggae music, Jamaican music.
Roots reggae music to me is the main thing. And you know, it’s this radical message. Like the punk music in the 80’s, like the Sex Pistols, there’s a lot of similarities between the message of roots reggae and the message of punk music. Being against the establishment, questioning things, you know? And not taking everything, you know? Just write the questions. Being uncomfortable sometimes; that’s what I like so much, and at the same time you hear the sweetness in there.
And it’s not that reggae — I always had to fight a lot of clichés like “Oh, it’s so nice, sweet sunshine music, and it’s all airy, and people just smoke out their head and walk around barefoot,” and it’s not like that. It’s some very sharp-minded, radical people. If you listen to Dennis Brown, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, you find some very profound universal truths within the music.
And what about dancehall?
I love the energy of it.
You know, music is very powerful and people are listening to your music so it’s very important to be aware of what you’re singing. And there’s a lot of foolishness within the dancehall lyrics: a lot of gun lyrics, violence lyrics, a lot of sexist lyrics where I think it’s just oppressing women.
You know, roots reggae music is very, very strong, music with a message, music with meaning. [But] I’ll say it again, I don’t judge dancehall music.
I love the energy of it. Nothing wrong with a little of that, it’s just not my part. I wanna make music that I can play for my children in some years and I don’t have to be like, “oh, sh-t, what did I sing?”
But your album, Diversity, has some dancehall flavors in it.
Musically, definitely yes. I love the music. You have artists like I-Octane and Conscience who do dancehall music, and hiphop beats, and radical dancehall music, but the lyrical content is still conscious.
Speaking of political music. Reggae music, while it is globally popular, is Jamaican. So how important is it for you to keep a sense of authenticity? And, of course, how do you do that as a German artist?
It’s like, following my inner voice. It’s a surprise where it leads you to. You don’t have to be in Jamaica to make good music, but for me this is the motherland, with a high concentration of the music.
The lyrics you hear are my personal thoughts and this is what I would call authentic.
I see myself more as a cosmopolitan than a German. I think we need to stop thinking like that. My son is 11 now and if I look in his class there are 32 kids and 17 nationalities.
We should think more globally and universally and see that we’re all small in God’s world, our mind is too small too. There will always be questions that we cannot answer, but we don’t need to.
I never did it on purpose, but I sing in English. And if I sang in my native language of German, I wouldn’t probably be sitting here right now and talking to you, I’d be playing only in Germany, and maybe Switzerland and Austria. I’d be kind of limited. So, I want to reach as many people as possible.
It’s interesting you speak to a very spiritual attitude, and I know that your father is a pastor. Do you think that you and he share the same outlook about this?
It’s different because I believe in God but not in a church. But there are similarities too, and it’s nice to discuss with him. Very interesting (laughs). It’s very radical but sweet. I think that the thought is the same, and the destination is supposed to be the same, being closer to God or energy, or Jah, or whatever you wanna call it.
But for me I never found God in a church, I found it in music. I found God in traveling, I found God in nature, I found God in the diversity of things.
You’ve lived in Jamaica?
I’ve never lived there but I spend a lot of time there. Ten hours on the plane and you’re there. And I can’t take the cold in Germany, the winter’s too long.
So I go to Jamaica and I stay at my friend’s house, at Richie Stephens’ place. Very inspiring there, a lot of artists, musicians, singers, songwriters, a lot of media people in one city.
So Kingston, it’s a bubbling place but at the same time… you have the two sides. It’s a very paradox place, life is a paradox, and you find that in Kingston.
So you mean that there’s violence?
There’s a lot of violence. You look at other places in the Caribbean and you don’t find that, even though the history’s the same, the geography’s the same. But I must say that its changing. Normally at election time a lot of people die; it’s like war. The last election was really smooth, nobody did get shot, so they say.
I feel like in the music there’s a change too now, a lot of new artists like I-Octane and Cowboy and Conscience. And there’s music without dogma, and I feel like it’s coming back now. Universal message with universal power, combined with the strong power of the music.
Do you have a favorite song on your album?
I don’t really listen to my own music, I really don’t. I play it. I perform the album, and we tour a lot, so it’s changing.
So what are you listening to lately then?
Right now it’s a lot of Octane. I find it fresh right now.
“Lonely Day” off Diversity makes me think about how you’re a husband and a father as well as a touring musician. Is that what the song is about?
Exactly, exactly. You got it. “Lonely Days,” I go over the same issue. Time is a very precious thing, and this is what I love, my passion is making music and touring, and at the same time my son is growing and growing, and I wanna be a good father and spend time with him, and you know, “Lonely Days” was actually dedicated to my wife, when I was away from her for a long time.
Photo Credit: MTV Iggy/Michele Crowe