Words by Marlon Bishop
On Tuesday night, NBC’s singing competition show The Voice upped the stakes for contestants with its first knock-out rounds. The next morning, the name on all the headlines was Tessanne Chin, who sent shivers down spines with a muscular rendition of Kelly Clarkson’ “Stronger,” knocking-out the talented Ashley DuBose.
Tessanne Chin, of Kingston, Jamaica, has been a favorite since the fifth season began in late September. Her acrobatic vocal chops, striking looks and charming personality led all four of the show’s celebrity coaches to fight over her to join their team from her first appearance on the show. (She decided to team up with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine in the end). As the series progresses, she’s quickly becoming one of the favorites to take the crown.
We’re not going to lie: Tessanne has totally charmed the pants off us. There’s just something about her. And so, we decided to call some of our Jamaican friends and learn a little more about the lady behind the mic. As it turns out, she’s not your average US reality show contestant at all. Here’s why:
1. Before she was on The Voice, Tessanne Chin was already an established singer in Jamaica.
Long before she floored The Voice coaches with her spine-tingling rendition of Pink’s “Try,” Tessanne was already a household name in back home. She started out as the lead singer of a hard rock-reggae fusion band called Mile High, spinning off to work as a solo artist in 2006. Her first single, “Hide Away” was the track that really put her on the map. It was a hit in Jamaica, combining roots reggae grooves with an arena-worthy pop chorus. Since then, she’s had a number of other singles, including Caribbean rock anthem “Black Books” and 2009’s “Never Let Go,” a duet with Shaggy.
Tessanne already knows a thing or two about how to impress the Voice coaches – in 2011, she actually served as a judge on an American-Idol style reality show in Jamaica called Digicel Rising Stars. In a backstage interview she gave to the show’s producers, she provided some advice for the contestants she would be judging: “Come out strong, believe it. Own the stage, command the stage, and don’t be afraid to be the best you can be.” Sounds like she might not need a coach after all.
2. She has the hopes of an entire country behind her
Jamaica has a powerful case of Tessanne fever. “There’s nothing but tremendous support from Jamaicans. She can’t go an inch here without people showing her love,” says Richard Johnson, an entertainment writer for The Jamaican Observer.
The local papers are chronicling Tessanne’s every move, and Jamaicans have been pouring out their affection for her on social media at high volumes. Jamaican television station RETV even bought the viewing rights for The Voice for the first time, just so Jamaicans can tune in to watch her represent the island on a major US network show. A few weeks ago, the telecom company Digicel threw her a big send-off party before her trip back to the US, even flying her mother in from the UK to surprise her.
Dancehall artist Ce’Cile likens the phenomenon to the mania that surrounds the island’s running stars every four years during the Olympics. “Watching Tessanne on The Voice is equivalent to watching Usain Bolt run the 100 meters. It’s all of Jamaicans unanimously wanting to see her at the finish line, and winning,” she says.
“It’s like watching Bolt except Bolt is 30 seconds, and Tessanne is on for a whole season,” says dancehall megastar Shaggy, who we interviewed for this article. “The Voice needs to do a segment where they come down and film people watching the show here because the energy is crazy. The sports bars are just packed with people flooding in a cheering when she’s on.”
The only problem, says journalist Richard Johnson, is that despite all the support, Jamaicans won’t be allowed to vote for her during the final rounds, assuming she gets that far. “But with so many Jamaicans living in the United States, everybody is getting their family and friends to vote. So she has adequate backup.”
3. She has a serious set of pipes
Tessanne’s astounding voice is the main reason we’re talking about her, and it speaks for itself. Homegirl can sing the crap out of just about anything.
4. Tessanne highlights Jamaica’s diversity
A majority of Jamaicans come from an Afro-Caribbean heritage, but the country is much more multicultural than many people realize: the descendants of British colonists, Portuguese Jews, Lebanese merchants and South and East Asian contract workers all make the island home as well. Tessanne’s father comes from Jamaica’s strong Chinese-Jamaican community – one of the largest Chinese populations in the Caribbean, numbering in the tens of thousands. Her mother has both African and European ancestors.
Like many Chinese communities in the Americas, Chinese-Jamaicans have been very successful as shopkeepers and business owners – their ranks include some of Jamaica’s richest men, such as billionaire Michael Lee-Chin. Less common is the community’s high level of assimilation, with many members historically marrying non-Asians. As a result, many Chinese-Jamaicans are mixed-race. They speak patois, eat jerk chicken and are accepted by society as true Jamaicans through and through.
With her multi-racial background and East Asian looks, Tessanne’s prominence in the music scene isn’t unusual at all. Chinese-Jamaicans have played a really important part in the country’s musical history, from sound system pioneer Tom “The Great Sebastian” Wong to Bob Marley’s early producer Leslie Kong. VP Records, one of the most important record labels in the history of reggae music, was founded by Vincent and Patricia Chin, a Chinese-Jamaican couple. In fact, Tessanne’s own father, who was filmed in an emotional moment by The Voice as he cheered on his little girl backstage, was a professional drummer.
5. Some of her biggest fans include Shaggy and Sean Paul.
We asked some of Jamaica’s most prominent pop stars about what they thought about Tessanne, and there was no shortage of praise.
“She has really blossomed into a beautiful, wonderful person with a really sweet personality,” says Shaggy, who has been a sort of mentor to Tessanne over the years. She is currently signed to his label, and he’s the one who suggested she do The Voice and helped get her a tryout for the show.
Shaggy sees big things ahead for his protege. “Since this competition I’ve seen her confidence change. If you thought she was a baddass already, she’s a real baddass now. Her facial expressions, how she moves, you can see – she’s living this,” he says.
Sean Paul, who recently dropped “Want Dem All,” the first single off his next album, has some nice words about her as well. “I’m very proud of Tessanne, every time she sings I get goosebumps. She’s always had an excellent and unique voice, so when I heard she was gonna be on The Voice I knew she’d crush it,” he says.
6.“Bread and Butta”
Tessanne is getting that breezy Jamaican lilt all over primetime. When explaining her musical background for her try-out, she told the coaches singing was her “bread and butter back home.”
Something about her accent saying that particular phrase tickled the coaches fancy, and they all squealed at once. “Can you just talk to us?” asked Cristina Aguilera.
Delighted Jamaicans back home instantly started generating bread-and-butter memes for Facebook, not to mention an Auto-tuned parody video.
7. Music runs in Tessanne’s blood.
It seems that talent courses through the entire Chin family. Her mother and father were part of a Jamaican band called The Carnations (her mom sang and played the trumpet), and her father built a recording studio in their Kingston home.
Meanwhile, Tessanne’s older sister Tammar has a recording career of her own. Under the name Tami Chynn, she danced and sang backup for a number of dancehall stars before earning a four-record deal with Universal. In the end, she released a lone album in 2006 along with a few singles of dancehall-flavored pop, including “Frozen” (featuring Akon). But despite support from some big players, she hasn’t found much success breaking into the pop marketplace in a big way. Tami is also married the dancehall deejay Wayne Marshall.
Despite being total diva material, Tessanne has proven to be a humble and gracious contestant on The Voice. She has taken every opportunity to praise her rivals – even shedding tears in an interview alongside Donna Allen, who she beat out in her first battle round. “I’m happy, but I’m sad, because I love this lady,” she told the interviewer. “This lady has made me a better singer because she made me have to come up higher than what I thought my best was.” In an interview with the Jamaican Observer newspaper, she invited Ms. Allen to come to Jamaica to visit her some day. “Who knows, maybe, we’ll do a song together,” she said.
9. She has a song with Trinidad’s KES The Band
In 2010, Tessanne recorded a reggae duet with Trinidadian star Kees Dieffenthaller, leader of his island’s mega-popular soca group Kes The Band. It’s called “Loving You.” Tessanne’s already taken, but they do look good together in the video, in which they spend a lot of time looking in each other’s eyes and harmonizing.
10. Tessanne and her husband are an adorable Jamaican power-couple.
Speaking of Tessanne being taken… she’s married to Michael Cuffe Jr, a former television sportscaster and the son of a famous Jamaican radio personality. The couple was wed in 2011 and a little internet stalking shows that they are ridiculously freaking cute together. As for Cuffe, he’s being quite the supportive spouse online.
Words can’t express the pride I feel right now for @Tessanne not only an amazing talent, but an amazing human being
— #IamTeamTessanne (@CuffeStuff) October 15, 2013
11. She just might be the Caribbean’s next big pop star.
With all the attention Tessanne is getting on The Voice, the show could serve as a spring board to greater international success. Shaggy thinks The Voice’s producers know it too – it’s not a coincidence they put her “try-out” performance last.
“The Voice hasn’t made stars like American Idol has, and they’re eager to produce one,” says Shaggy. “They can see that Tessanne is somebody that has the chops, has the personality, has the work ethic and a look that people can really buy into. She’s ready for it.”
Despite its heavyweight music history, Jamaica hasn’t produced a new major international star since 2005 when Sean Paul started topping the charts, and it’s been far longer since a female pop artist from the island has really made it. Shaggy thinks she’s the kind of singer who is prepared to really take advantage of a major label deal if one comes her way.
If that happens, it will have implications beyond Tessanne’s own career. “When Tessanne made the decision to go on The Voice, I think she did it on behalf of all Jamaican recording artists,” says reggae producer Ryan Dillon. “Think about the culture/genre as a whole. The Voice premiere raked in 14.6 million viewers. This is a great way for exposure. Go Team Tessanne.”