“…the duality of Etana’s upbringing is reflected in her soul-and-gospel-meets-conscious-reggae music.” – BBC
“Etana’s beautiful voice is not only heard, but felt as she covers everything from the love of The Most High, to the love of self, to the everyday struggle.” – ReggaeVibe Magazine
Etana’s name means “The Strong One” in Swahili, and it’s a title she more than lives up to with her music and presence. Since debuting in 2006 with the thought provoking single “Wrong Address,” the Jamaican-born singer has established herself as one of the most powerful and distinctive voices in reggae, blazing a new trail in a genre that has long been male-dominated.
Etana’s story begins in August Town, a treacherous but culturally rich garrison community in eastern Kingston that has produced such musical talents as Sizzla and Israel Vibration. Growing up, Etana’s home was filled with music, but it was country and western that she recalls leaving the biggest impression. “Every Sunday was country music day,” says Etana. “A lot of people in Jamaica play gospel music on a Sunday, or old rub-a-dub. In my house it was country, like Dolly Parton. Tammy Wynette was my favorite of all the artists my mom used to play.”
Etana’s family relocated to South Florida when she was nine and it was there she began her music career, almost by accident, while studying nursing at a local community college. “I had no interest in being an artist,” Etana declares. “I was just bored and a friend of mine told me that there was a request for a black female to join a girl group in Miami. He brought me to the audition, and that was it.”
It wasn’t long before the proud and independent-minded singer realized that being in a prefabricated group wasn’t for her. Objecting to the group’s presentation during a music video shoot involving skimpy clothes and invasive camera angles, she quit on the spot. It was at this time that she decided to return home to Jamaica with plans of opening an Internet cafe. However, music would find her there as well, when she was recommended by a friend to fill in as a backup singer for reggae star Richie Spice.
“Being on the road with Richie Spice, I was very comfortable being myself, wearing what I wanted to wear,” Etana recalls of her time touring with the “Earth A Run Red” singer. “Nobody had a problem with my afro.” The gig turned into an unexpected opportunity when Etana as asked to warm up the crowd at a show where Spice was running late. “It was nothing rehearsed, just covers,” states Etana. “But people started to ask: ‘Who was the girl?’ Management for Richie Spice kept asking me to do a song, and ‘Wrong Address’ was the first song that I wrote.”
Inspired by a true story experienced by her own aunt, “Wrong Address” detailed job discrimination as faced by residents of poor communities such as August Town. The song resonated deeply in Jamaica, establishing Etana as a powerful new voice with a distinct point of view rooted in the realities of working-class life.
From the beginning, Etana found she had an uphill battle to fight as a woman in reggae. She and her management consciously set about creating a change. “It seemed like females were never dealt with fairly,” Etana reflects. “They were still paid less than men, disregarded as not being important on the flyer. The mission was to teach [people in reggae] how to treat a female artist.”
The world’s largest distributer of reggae music, VP Records, recognized Etana’s talents. In 2008, the label released her debut LP, The Strong One. The album, which combined Etana’s reggae sound with aspects of R&B and world music, was embraced by fans as well as the music industry, landing the singer a nomination in the “best reggae” category at the MOBO Awards in England.
After several years touring around the world, Etana returned in 2011 with her second album Free Expressions. The album consisted of production from Kemar “Flava” McGregor, Clifton “Specialist” Dillon, Steven Stanley and the late Joel Chin. The set included the hit “People Talk,” which detailed Etana’s own experiences facing skepticism as a woman in the music industry, as well as favorites like “Free,” “August Town” and “Heart Broken.” The latter song topped Natty B ‘ s chart in the UK for three consecutive weeks. 2011 also saw Etana return to her country roots with a cover of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” on the VP Records compilation Reggae Gone Country. Her rendition of Cline’s country classic was praised as one of the standout tracks on an LP that featured such reggae luminaries as Beres Hammond and Luciano.
In 2013, Etana partnered with Jukeboxx Recordings producer Shane Brown (Busy Signal, Tarrus Riley) for her third LP, A Better Tomorrow, recorded at Kingston’s legendary Tuff Gong Studios. The album brought Etana back to reggae’s foundation via vintage sounds and one-drop rhythms, earning praise from the Associated Press for its “mature and confident sound,” “top-notch lyrical content” and “unique vocals.” “Shane Brown automatically would go to my vision as if he was in my mind,” Etana remembers of the process behind A Better Tomorrow. “He would finish the stories for me. It was as if he heard every word out of mouth as far as I wanted the sound to be.” The same year, Etana held her own at the IRAWMA (International Reggae and World Music Awards) in Coral Springs, Florida. She hosted the annual ceremony and took home the award for Best Female Vocalist. Marcia Griffiths, Queen Ifrica, Allison Hinds, Patrice Roberts and Nkulee Dube were also nominated in this category.
Etana continues her forward movement with I Rise, produced primarily by Jamaican luminary Clive Hunt (Peter Tosh, Rolling Stones, The Wailers, Chaka Khan, Grace Jones, Jimmy Cliff). The album reflects the singer’s ongoing maturity while maintaining the R&B-inflected take on reggae that she’s come to be known for, showcasing the diversity of a true musical Renaissance woman. “Trigger,” which tells the story of an educated but underemployed young man driven to desperate measures in order to take care of his cancer-stricken mother, is the album’s lead single and a follow up of sorts to “Wrong Address.” On the complete opposite spectrum is the album’s second single “Richest Girl,” a reggae love ballad with sweeping strings and jazzy horns over a classic one-drop riddim. “Emancipation” is a spiritual anthem with an uptempo dance beat and dub effects that sounds like it could have been recorded during one of Sly and Robbie’s classic sessions at Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point Studios in the 1980s. Speaking of Sly and Robbie, reggae’s legendary Riddim Twins supply the backbeat and their unmistakeable vibes on “Ward 21 (Stenna’s Song),” a dub-inflected track detailing a man’s descent into madness. What does each track on the diverse set have in common with the next? They all have a message.
“I Rise says a lot,” Etana says. “Over the years I’ve learned a lot and in the learning process came a lot of pain and struggle. And to see the growth and see hard work pay off, felt really really good. Each time I go through a hard day or any kind of struggle and obstacle, I get up that next day and I rise out of any kind of bad mood or energy, and move on in a positive direction. My hope is this album will be inspirational and be like medicine for those in the struggle.”
Inspiring others is nothing new for Etana. From the outset of her career with “Wrong Address”—a track which led many to re-evaluate how they look at others from different socio-economic backgrounds—she has been instigating change. Four albums into her career, Etana has become a role model in Jamaica with her message and action.
In 2015, I Rise is known as a Reggae Billboard Number one album. Classified as Etana’s best album to date by many and listed as the number one album of 2014 and also in the top five of thirty albums that were released in said year. Etana plans to continue to tour “I RISE” for 2015. She is very grateful for all the love and support, very steady, and ready to ignite your town soon with authentic reggae music and style.