The cinematic drum-thumping that opens Roots Girl, the debut LP of Halifax’s preeminent reggae artist Jah’Mila, feels like the opening black screen before an epic movie’s beginning. It’s a signal of something you can’t help but sit up straighter for, spine aligned with anticipation. It’s a heralding, matched by slowly chanted lyrics that feel equal parts mantra, mission statement and introduction. But that last one feels barely needed, since Jah’Mila’s already secured known-quantity status since her buzzy debut on the Halifax music scene. You’d be better off thinking of the record, then, as less of launch and more of a landing: The delivering of eight tracks that are the sonic receipts for all she’s shown herself to be so far, like a sought-after sonic collaborator and a voice powerful enough to tackle the songs of Nina Simone (which she did last year with Symphony Nova Scotia) or share the stage with the National Arts Centre orchestra.
Before becoming the face of a genre here in Halifax, Jah’Mila (who performs under a mononym) was making industry inroads in her home country of Jamaica, where her stacked resume saw her singing professionally since age 17—even performing backing vocals for The Wailers (yes, that’s Bob Marley’s former band). “But the singing opportunities in Jamaica did not give me the opportunity to sing lead. I had tried several times, and my attempts were futile,” she begins. She’s unsure “whether it's lack of resources or just general lack of support,” but, “I did not see, when I was there, a way to step towards the middle of the stage: To the lead spot,” she says. “And when I came here, I started to collaborate with a very popular band called Dub Kartel. And they pushed me to the front of the stage every opportunity they got.”
Dub Kartel dissolved, but many of its members regrouped in a constellation around Jah’Mila.
And while Halifax was the place that found her taking the main mic, when it came time to create Roots Girl, there was only one place Jah’Mila could envision the perfect, live-from-the-floor recording that would make the album: “Reggae is from Jamaica, originally. And so I believe that I wanted to have that influence there: It's not like I wanted approval, but I wanted people there to be involved as well,” she says of the decision to take her Nova Scotian bandmates back to Jamaica to record the album. “I just believe that it adds that much more authenticity to the sound of the album."
She continues: "The second note is that people always question why there's a whole band of white people supporting me to sing reggae, and that is not a deliberate thing. This is the team of people that surrounded me and lifted me up so that I could feel confident enough to share my story. So, around the appropriation thing, it's like: I felt like it was important for them to be able to go and immerse themselves, because these are people, my musical family, who love this genre. There's no gimmickry. There is no disrespect, from what I‘ve perceived. And they are all open to going there to broaden their knowledge and understanding, not only of the genre, but also the people who manifested the genre. A lot of those people are still alive in Jamaica.”
The result is an album that showcases the range of what reggae can be—and what Jah’Mila can do: There’s her Black Lives Matter anthem “Chant Their Names” (“reggae, since the dawn of time, has always kind of represented the voice of the little man, in the absence of any other sort of repreve: Those persons who were economically disadvantaged or oppressed, or marginalized in Jamaica would always use their creativity as a form of outcry. And reggae has been one of those tools for as long as I can remember,” she says). On album-closing “Irie Meditation,” she and local MC Tachichi paint with the palette of golden-era hip hop. Meanwhile, on “Sugar & Spice,” the track Jah’Mila says fans are always asking her about, things skew decidedly alt-R&B.
“I've always felt a pressure to fit my art into the mold of popular music—and especially popular music coming out of Jamaica, you know: Trying to align with the branding and the imagery, but Roots Girl is not listening to all that noise—and tapping into my own authenticity, and really growing roots in a new home here. And also being more comfortable with presenting myself outside of that mold,” Jah’Mila says. “So it's also about community and how the community came together to support me to bring it to life. I've been living here in Halifax for a little over five years. And the stories, these songs, are all the songs that we made together as a band over these five years: We started out singing covers as a band, and now we have the original songs. So it's kind of the story of how I grew roots in this space.”