Konshens has stood firm as one of the most influential dancehall artists to catapult to international stardom ever since his "Pon Di Corner" debut in 2005. And like his peers Vybz Kartel, Mavado, Popcaan and Sean Paul, the Kingston, JA native is officially ready to reach even higher (and more mainstream) heights.
The dancehall star, who is currently enjoying the success of his "Bruk Off Yuh Back" tune, opened up to Fuse about the struggles he's endured throughout his musical journey, attacking the American market and the importance of one's mental health. Konshens recently signed to a record label for the first time (EMPIRE Records, to be exact) and is eyeing more longevity with "Bruk Off Yuh Back" thanks to a new version with Chris Brown that is now the official single.
"Naturally it was a big thing for me, because he’s like the Michael Jackson of our generation and I highly respect him as an artist," Konshens says in a sultry patois-laced accent about Brown hopping on the track (the original version was first released almost a year ago). "To Jamaican people and people who are hardcore dancehall fans, wi ago seh it ah di remix. But to the markets that we want to get into, we’re promoting it as a single." So what took him so long to finally link up with a label?
"Because I spent all this time waiting to meet Ms. Sharon Burke! She said to me, 'Why aren’t you signed to a label?' I was like, 'Listen, these labels want to pay you and then they own you.' They have your publishing, your tour money, your freedom of creativity…everything," Konshens says while pointing to his manager across the table. "She introduced me to EMPIRE and they were already interested. She molded the deal where I give up a likkle bit of freedom but we found a clause to fix that, and everybody’s happy in the end. Most labels weren’t willing to go that route and haven’t figured out how to make things work without taking all of that from the actual artists."
"Bruk Off Yuh Back" has become one of Konshens biggest hits stateside, taking over popular radio stations and endless parties. But while he releases songs of various themes, it seems like the American audience only knows of the ones with sexual themes. Is that ever frustrating though? "Hell yes! But that is not even just about international fans or American fans. Mi will write the best songs and they’ll get nowhere," the artist exclaims. "But if I write 'Gyal!' or do a freestyle about partying it becomes a hit. I think it show seh music is not just all about me or what I think is good. Is really about the people and dem mood and the vibe that they’re in. Ah, I’ll get over it I guess [laughs]."
But connecting with a huge name like Chris Brown of course helps Konshens' cause, as America is the largest market for music. "It’s not even about money. But from a branding perspective it’s good to be active in North America," he says when I ask if it's necessary to work with mainstream artists at this point in his career. "Artists can get rich from touring, so it’s not a money ting alone. But it’s good business and there’s a big audience that you want to reach. And it’s good to be in the mix of wah gwan; it’s fun."
As his success continues to flourish, he is prepping to push even more singles throughout the summer. The most recent is called "Best Nana," a collaboration with Belizean newcomer King Kosa and "one of the brightest stars in Jamaica" Shenseea. And while it's not confirmed, Konshens follow-up single to "Bruk Off Yuh Back" will be the TJ-produced “Turn Me On” featured on the World Fete riddim. It's clear that with all the new songs and upcoming performances at stage shows like Miami's Best of the Best next month, Konshens has zero plans of slowing down. Yet he feels his home country isn't doing enough to support that fact.
Two weeks ago, he shared an Instagram post with the caption: "How come nobody in JA talkin bout how good DANCEHALL is doing right now🤔. JA MEDIA WSUP??" "That was just me pressing the media. Mi just wan highlight the fact seh big tings ah gwan inna dancehall," he later tells me. "I have my new collaboration, Charly Black just got an [ASCAP Latin] award for 'Party Animal,' Popcaan just did a song with Gorillaz, Kranium has his remix with Ed Sheeran. There’s so many good things happening and each artist is putting out the news individually. But I don’t see a collective showing that dancehall is really up. But negativity is what sells in Jamaica. Good news doesn’t really go too far."
He explains, "Compared to two years ago or even last year, [dancehall] is definitely on the up. I can’t stress enough how we need five or six strong giants from Jamaica doing it internationally. Then we’ll be set. Wi basically ah thrive off of what Sean Paul and Shaggy did years ago. Those were the last giants. I think artists now need to get their things together so we can stand up as a force, so they can say dancehall is dead."
"Dancehall fans are just so hard on the actual artists but every genre is changing. We came from Biggie, smooth rap, gangsta rap and now wi reach trap. And I see hip-hop fans basically hate trap music, where the younger generation love it to death because that’s what they’re exposed to," Konshens continues. "Ah di same thing with dancehall. Mi see dem put up something on Instagram saying what do you prefer: the ‘90s or the 2000s? But we have to understand seh a young kid in school, the oldies for him is, what, 2005? Things are changing."
There's no denying that dancehall is still thriving after all these decades, but I question whether it's more of a hinderance than an appreciation to Jamaica when mainstream artists draw influence from the genre for their own watered-down songs. It was evident last year when Rihanna's "Work" was initially deemed gibberish and tropical house producers using dancehall melodies without accredation. The trend continues with Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You" and the island-tinged tracks from Drake's More Life album. As I explain to him that I think it's another form of whitewashing, the artist disagrees:
"It’s obvious that we have culture vultures and replicating our styles. But I for one am not upset about it because I think music is pure. So because since mi come from Jamaica to feel like you who come from Australia, if you sing dancehall then you’re stealing my culture and you should credit me? Mi nuh play ah victim role in life. I think if I was selling it to you, you would have to pay or you wouldn’t be able to use it. But then if I GIVE it to you, then why should you pay me? We as Jamaicans and Caribbean people should really do better business with what we have and protect it more. As opposed to embracing everybody who wants to see it and giving it to them for free. And when dem do it and it becomes the biggest thing, we shouldn’t be upset because we keep giving it up over and over again. So when di mon dem tough up now…some mon nuh wah pay wi money and some mon nuh wah write down wi name pon di paper or give di publishing, lowe wi and gwan den because wi nuh hungry. We might be a likkle peckish but wi nuh hungry. So stop gi’ weh di ting and cuss when it gone."
That same headstrong mentality was first introduced in "Winner," Konshen's 2008 single that turned me into a longtime fan. Back then he was determined to make it in this business so that he could provide for his just-born daughter. I ask him how his mindset has changed since the song's release, because he is surely a winner now. "I think one of the ways I’ve grown the most is the love weh mi have for people. Back then, mi never even like the camera," he relays. "Mi still kind of shy but mi more welcoming and I understand that people really love my music, and it’s my responsibility to show love back. After a while it stopped feeling like such a responsibility and just became normal. Around the last four or five years, mi just develop a different type of love for fans because I saw what did it for my life."
His little girl Sajhi is also doing well, and she has become quite the personality! "My daughter is a celebrity in every school she has been to. When I go pick her up, it’s an event," Konshens says of his 10-year-old. As for Sajhi possibly entering the music world like her dad? "I would never say no, but I would neatly and subtly try to discourage her! But when a child decided ah this dem wah do, what are you going to do?"
Aside from music, Konshens' ability to always remain humble despite the obstacles the industry throws at him is the main reason why I admire him. Yet he wishes others would see it that way. "People would disagree and say, 'Him? Him ah di hypest man.' When people are not part of your story, they tend to shape the story," he states. "They see your face look ah way and they put a story behind it. When you’re not quick to explain yourself, they put their own explanation of what it happening. But it’s kind of fun sometimes too, when people get to know me and see the total opposite of what they thought."
A tragic example of this occurred when Konshens' older brother Delus took his own life last June. The typically private artist was suddenly faced with the pressures of the media who created their own perspective of what happened: "You haffi learn how fi cope and one of the hardest things is to hear what people have to say about shit weh dem nuh know. Mi do music fi ah living, and that is the thing that joined him and I together. So to relive the moment every day…mi learn how fi man up and do weh mi haffi do in the presence of negativity."
I begin to tell him that he seems to cope with things well and that people can't expect him to be immediately forthright about the sad and personal incident, and he says he's heard that he can come off as cold. The conversation then takes a refreshing turn as we candidly discuss depression, which his brother suffered from. Konshens explains,
"And that’s the key word. People expect so much and don’t realize we are people. This whole topic of depression is something weh mi actually ah read up pon, research and count the cases in Jamaica, the Caribbean and America and realize this is a big thing. Depression is real and it’s a serious thing. Our culture doesn’t embrace it at all, and I think we should really look into it. If you see somebody depressed, where in Jamaica is the place that you go to say 'I need help.' We have Bellevue [Hospital] but it has this stigma attached that it’s a mad house. You’re not crazy. Sometimes people just need fi talk and feel like you’re not alone.
I’ve been through a whole leap of depression because I transitioned from being such an introvert. People from my high school would tell you that nobody knew weh mi ah think. I wasn’t a loud person or an upfront person, even when I was put at the front. And now I have to deal with cameras and everybody have something fi say, fans ah scream and relationship ah mash up…for the first five years mi go through some serious depression. Now mi ah realize the label to put on what I was going through. People are going to create their own ideas of what is happening but we need to realize we have to identify these things and make people feel comfortable just talking."
Our chat quickly takes on a lighter tone when I began to prod him about what songs he would make love to ("All About You"), have his first kiss ("No Hesitation") and the track to his walk his daughter will walk down the aisle to. He hilariously shuts down that notion before picking "Independent Girl." Those various facets of Konshens' music can soon be heard on the follow-up to his 2012 debut album Mental Maintenance, which is being eyed for a late summer release. "This one just haffi feel good to me and to the fans. Because you realize seh wi ah come from a time when reggae was big, from Bob Marley days," he explains. "It was all about rebel music where you have troubles in your life and the singer is singing about troubles, and we’re all just mourning troubles! It’s like a big mourning session. [laughs]"
"But nowadays people want to forget their troubles when they go out, that’s why EDM is so big. Nobody wants to hear about the rent or the bills or the struggle. I know what you’re going through but let’s just party right now and forget about that. So ah really dem music ah get pushed to the forefront. Happy-sounding dancehall, dancehall weh ah celebrate women and sexuality. The rebel factor is kind of gone and is pushed all the way into reggae now. That’s why you have a Chronixx, who is similar to Bob Marley’s vibe, and his audience is more old-school who miss that type of music. But the young kids? Dem ah deal with happiness and joy and excitement."
In the midst of prepping his first album released on EMPIRE Records, Konshens is also keeping tabs on the rising class of dancehall artists like Alkaline, Jahmiel and Masicka. "I love it, I think it’s so healthy right now. They new crop of artists really ah do good and dem ah gather dem fan base quickly. And they’re making good use of social media," he comments. "What mi nuh like ah di fact seh this is the first time we have artists coming in, and the artists who are a generation ahead of them are actually picking fights. You’re coming up and the artists before you hate you that much where they want to become adversaries. Normally it’s artists within the same class, because they want to compete as peers. But I think the artists weh ahead should just focus on reaping the fruits of the work they’ve put in over the years and just relax. Let the younger generation have their entertainment."
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