Words by FRIDA BANKS
Photography by CHE KOTHARI
Jamar Rolando McNaughton Jr is sitting on a solitary park bench, directly across from the entrance to G98 studios on an overcast morning in Scarborough, a large suburb east of Downtown Toronto. The current background seems rather dull in comparison to the subject who is widely known as Chronixx. Most probably the unimpressive tree behind him or the subdued sky highlighting the drab of the industrial parking lot. Awaiting the dampness of the air to turn into rain, Chronixx looks down at his hands and observes the lines in his palms. Anyone who knows about this young artist also must note he is anything but boring, even in his stillness. He moves with an ease, with the confidence of his predecessors: Tosh, Cliff, Isaacs, Levy. And like most good musicians, he says a lot in his music avoiding any overextension that may deter from just that.
Daddy Barnz, his poker-faced manager made me wait an hour for the go-ahead, studying my questions to get a sense of what I could contribute. What became obvious was the unstated sentiment that many American interviewers repeatedly asked mundane questions, conjuring island stereotypes I’m sure Rolling Stone already covered in 1976 with Bob Marley. I observed Chronixx politely deflect, explain why he prefers to steam instead of smoke maintaining his integrity amidst their weak approaches.
Chronixx is an old soul. However, a youthful exuberance shines through his, at times, ‘Nina Simonesque’ nature; this likeness to the late singer can be seen in his critical commentary of Jamaican politics, as he’s not one to smile for the cameras or the politicians. Chronixx is acutely aware of his truths. Truth that he is a Jamaican, truth that he is an African, representing peoples and places that hold no passport; he’s not liable to hold anything back.
When I sat with him last August, coming off the leg of his Dread & Terrible tour, I immediately wanted to ask him about home. The place where he was born, in which months later, Chronixx would then record “Spanish Town Rocking” released on his most recent mixtape, Roots & Chalice with DJ Max Glazer.
And mi naval string cut ova Spanish town hospital
To mi mumma name Nana a Spanish Town original
And mi puppa name Chronicle Spanish Town original
The corners of his mouth rise in fondness when I mention Spanish Town, the former colonial capital of Jamaica where indigenous Taino had been living in the area for approximately a millennium before. “When I was in church, I wasn’t the best singer, definitely. I wasn’t even close,” Chronixx explains.
“Even when I was in school I was in a band and I got one of the lowest grades out of my class. Music was very hard because I had to sight-read, sight-play, all of dem tings, write scores . . . To know that there were students way ahead of myself, it just goes to show you that where I come from everyone talented, everyone have a gift, the only difference between myself and everyone else is time and destiny.”
This is more truth than modesty as Jamaica’s impact on the world is incontestable. Similar to a hyena, it can cleverly strike predators twice its size and even with a debt of J$2 trillion, the island’s greatest asset by far seems to be its culture and our addiction to it. Jamaicans have produced everything from Marcus Garvey and the Rastafari movement to reggae and dancehall music, not to mention impossible dance moves, track stars, and of course marijuana cultivation.
Although the political situation of the country is staggering, tourism and its subsequent commercialization (you know the fake ‘Rasta’ wigs with horribly woven dreads attached to a red, gold and green beanie), haven’t yielded much results for the growing twenty percent of the population who is living under the poverty line. Jamaica, as most countries in the Global South is a paradox. What was once lush and self-sustainable becomes like a bastard child, brought forth from the perverse relationship between the World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund). Like a child in any loveless exchange, procuring handouts keeps the population lamenting in their past lacerations.
With the flood of the Reggae Revival, a term coined by Jamaican writer, Dutty Bookman, Revivalists for the past five years have been ushering in a movement built on the roots of Garveyism and the foundation of Rastafari. There is an ironic flair as reggae has never left, making the Revival a circling back to the musical resistance that was once popular amongst youth, more than forty years ago. It is the synergy of cultural and spiritual consciousness that is re-emerging in young Jamaicans; they are the new content creators of the genre. Artists like Chronixx, Protoje, Kabaka Pyramid, Jesse Royal, and Jah9 are among many artists changing the country’s sonic landscape through sophisticated promotional campaigns and social media accounts that boast quite the global allure.
It was almost four years ago when I first watched Chronixx perform at Skyline Levels up in Jacks Hill, on the northern outskirts of Kingston, Jamaica. Already high from just the elation of scenery as the appropriately titled, Skyline was my version of “The Starry Night” and Van Gogh, straight up had to hold this loss. Driving up from around Half Way Tree, the busiest and most central hub in the capital, its hustle becoming further away. The whole of Kingston lit in the most romantic way, which only the night and distance could bring. This was a part of Jamaica I had yet to see. Coming from the more simple living of Mama’s house just a little east in the hills of Portland Parish, I now felt like I was rolling in a Beamer about to kick it with Biggs and Wayne, maybe even Teddy Bruk Shot.
In actuality the Beamer was a tough-looking rustic green Honda CR-V that my girl Sabriya drove, a well-known photographer and yogi in the movement. Standard of course, somehow managing all the tight corners and turns without stalling even once. And, instead of the decadence and insatiable drama that comes with films like Shottas and BELLY, Skyline Levels was the Rasta version of success. An intimate performance space constructed literally in the back of the McDonald family’s home in St. Andrew, a landmark passed from the lead members of Chakula, an international reggae band from the nineties, to their children Kelissa and Keznamdi who are also musicians in the Revival, as well as their sister, TV personality and beauty queen Kamila. Walking past the large steel gates into a compound selling books, bottled water and veggie treats. Draping red, gold and green fabrics gracing the stage and heightened railings, Jah Cure casually chilling in the back, a yard full of people devoting not just their attention, but their dreams. The momentum was heavy. Watching the houses get more elaborate as we drove upwards into Stoney Hill, it became easy to see this as the proverbial dream, the same one Chronixx boasts on his track with Walshy Fire of Major Lazer entitled “Where I Come From”.
Me and Teflon fi have house to kill
Upon di hill
Grandma want the house fi build
When we say hill
Me a talk about close to Jill, whoa
The “Get Free” riddim is persuasive and mixed with his melodic attack, made the original featuring Amber of the Dirty Projectors, go from good to unforgettable, not to mention made my nights in Portland more palatable. As mosquitoes ate my face into a frenzy, hearing the song on the radio gave me a sense of relief that change was coming. Jamaican radio was finally catching on to tracks like, “Behind Curtain” already popular overseas especially in Kenya, where Chronixx visited and performed as a Peace Ambassador during the 2013 general elections.
Lusting for the typical dancehall sound had reached a new place. While an incarcerated Vybez Kartel still remains the reigning ‘World Boss,’ young people across the island were feeling too complacent in what Jamaicans describe as slackness. The definition is exactly what the word sounds like, a more vulgar-brash-don’t-give-no-F’s attitude, also attributed to the dancehall music and lifestyle that has become like a voice for ghetto defiance and government neglect. Many young people distrust even the electoral process making the dancehall aesthetic that much more hypnotizing in the past three decades. Manufacturing much needed spaces for youth to forget their problems, as well as attract them.
Chronixx, of course is not a stranger to dancehall music especially having grown up in his father Chronicle’s musical footsteps. He cares little about what genre his music is labeled as his tastes span anywhere from the Bee Gees to Jah Cure, jazz, as well as the blues. “Mi is a hip hop person, mi is a dancehall person. I can’t see myself without that type of music,” Chronixx declares with his hands gesturing towards his heart, his eyelids starting to focus in ensuring that connection is clear. “Then regular Burning Spear, mi is a walking Burning Spear.” Truncating his personality to the fit the typical “conscious” reggae mould is something Chronixx evades. Social media and carefully groomed branding is a part of the territory, making fans even more fickle than before appraising each and every move made by their favourite artist; Chronixx appears not to be concerned at this point in his career.
The certainty from which he speaks leaves little room to doubt his future. Witnessing the Skyline stage that night, Chronixx only a couple months into his twentieth year aligned with the Zincfence Redemption Band, it was simple, the stage became his. His stride alone made a slender frame seem twice its size, his dreadlocks just past his ears like antennas connecting him to the sky. Even then, he was in full control, a few fans shouting out certain song titles and Chronixx refusing, instead playing new content challenging the audience.
He did the same last year in Toronto as Zincfence began to play an impromptu dub session for fifteen minutes teasing the crowd. “All dem songs we just play was fi you,” Chronixx remarks. “Now this likkle time is for us” he slyly laughs. There was nothing to forgive as an audience member. My friend Shelley from London Town, who has somehow managed never to catch a reggae show was mesmerized, just by his ability to dance. Unaware of most his catalogue, watching Chronixx in a self-possessed trance was electrifying enough. His almost two-hour set was a lesson in endurance watching him leap across stage, whine down, and close with the song “Iyah Walk” ultimately jumping like a Masai, kicking his legs up so high, his finger tips could meet his sneakers.
You have expectations and then you have reality,
and as much as people’s expectations determine your reality,
it is left to how much you allow it to.
Militance is unwaveringly important to Chronixx whose career has soared in the last five years. The Dread & Terrible EP has topped the Billboard reggae charts, Mick Jagger flew out just to catch his set in Central Park, he later performed at Glastonbury in 2015 and alongside Protoje at Coachella 2016. “If you don’t learn how to manipulate the energies and convert it into creativity, it’s hard to get out of a situation,” Chronixx explains.
“Why did you name your most recent tour Reparations? I ask, “I think immediately to all those reggae artists, black artists, who didn’t get their fair share, didn’t receive what they were worth.”
“The way I see it music is my reparations. Yeah. I don’t need no handout from no queen, no king or nobody in the world to tell you the truth. No president, no prime minister, dem don’t owe me nothing. The only thing dem owe humanity is the truth.”
When asked the right question, Chronixx pursues the answer like an ambitious scholar. “At the end of the day for the black population, the African diaspora, if Europe is supposed to pay [us] billions . . . How would we utilize it? What is the first thing we would do? Reparations in my opinion, basically, is overstanding wealth. We have a great portion of our wealth in our music and our culture. You know what I mean, so that was what the whole tour was about, establishing wealth worldwide.”
Chronixx has a flair for indulging in the anti-narrative, playing with conventions, using irony to question the logic and structure of what exists. A self-declared trend setter in “Odd Ras,” he crafts catchy dancehall backdrops and nursery-rhyme hooks for some of his most didactic work. Breaking down verbatim how to live holistically. In “Spirulina” a tribute to the blue-green algae, the song is more so taught like an intimate lesson.
To yute… If you nuh get it you wi lose
Mek you food be yuh medicine, yuh medicine yuh food
Blend up i carrot wid i lettuce inna juice
Nuh fraid fi mix i vegetable with i fruits.
One of his most recent singles, “Sell My Gun” produced by longtime collaborator, Teflon, follows a similar formula as Chronixx assures people he knows a “whole heap of badman”. Outwardly protesting their methods to escape poverty, “If I were you, uh, me woulda sell my gun / And buy a old Corolla / Taxi me run and buy mi daughter strolla.” Strict polarization in the music draws attention to the message making it highly intelligible and aggressive at the same time. Chronixx is not suggesting, he’s calling his countrymen out and I’m sure not everyone is thrilled, the same way you roll your eyes when your big brother criticizes your desperate attempts. To ’bun out’ what is deemed as negative or taboo has become common practice in reggae music, as it must simultaneously contend with the loudness of mainstream messaging.
The song boldly denounces the further victimization of poor people at the hands of other poor people, directing communities to vent their frustration not at each other, but to the source: “Tell the rich man a foreign and the politician / Ghetto yutes don’t need no more gunz.” Explicitly stating to local politicians what is needed in a country oozing cultural richness: ‘computers and homework centres, MacBooks, hard drives and projectors, dumper trucks, lawn mower and tractor.” Chronixx isn’t drunk off the saviour complex, he knows he is making music in a state of urgency. While some musicians grown into their politics, he is self-assured and wastes no time. Aware that people spend less hours not plugged into something, Chronixx uncomplicates his music and visuals with messages that ultimately talk to us in a way that is well, accessible, especially for the ‘yutes’ of Jamaica.
“We have to overstand our wealth,” returning back to Chronixx the academic, “we can’t anticipate wealth to come from an external place. We is our own wealth, our music. Reparations in my opinion is how we go about repairing ourselves, repairing our hearts and our spirits, after a very gloomy history, and it’s a recent history too. It’s just how you repair, it’s just how you rise from the ashes that counts. Music is my rising from the ashes, my reparations. I take that very seriously.” In the wake of shootings, natural disasters and persistent civil wars, at twenty-three years old, his words ring truth. After the interview is done, he smiles, shakes my hand hurriedly and runs off. Chronixx has much more work to do.