Music News

The Strong One

There is a point early on in every artist's career when their morals are put to the test. The music industry and personal ideals often clash, and the pathway to success typically has a distinct fork in the road.

For 24-year-old reggae singer Etana, the imagery of when she first approached the crossroads in her own career is still vivid. Most people know her as the honey-voiced young chanteuse who's taking over the reggae world with her punky, rebellious spirit and conscious lyrics. In just a year and a half, she's made a major impact with reggae fans, and her songs "Roots" and "Wrong Address" have gotten significant radio play throughout the Caribbean. At first glance, it seems she's achieved the stardom young singers dream about: almost instantly.

But there's also a time in Etana's musical career that she's not so proud of. During a recent telephone interview from her home in Kingston, Etana quickly addresses her decision to walk away from the girl group Gift, which she was briefly a part of several years ago. At the time, she was living in Fort Lauderdale, where she spent most of her growing-up years. While taking some time off from studying nursing at Broward Community College, Etana, born Shauna McKenzie, was asked to join a singing trio.

"I was told initially when I walked in there that it wouldn't be a Beyoncé- or a Destiny's Child-type of thing," Etana says in a soft patois. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be the case, and at just 18 years old, Etana was thrust into a situation where conforming to the music industry's standard of beauty was practically a demand.

"I had to weave my hair; I couldn't eat what I wanted to eat or wear what I wanted to wear... and it was hard on me personally," Etana says. "It was all about selling sex. It wasn't about the music; it was straight sex. It wasn't uplifting or educational. There was nothing positive about it at all."

While Gift never took off, Etana was on the cusp of her own liberation.

"Everything really boiled over when, for the last video shoot that we did, we were in lingerie and stiletto heels," she says. "I can remember the cameraman zooming in on me, and I didn't know what he could see. It was uncomfortable. I couldn't be a part of it anymore, so I left."

With that, the Etana whom reggae fans know today was born.

She's been courageous for most of her life, and there's a strong reason her music consistently speaks truth to power. She's had experiences in which she was forced to bite her tongue, and she never wants to go down that path again.

Listening to the 16 tracks on her stellar debut album, The Strong One, slated for release early next month, it sounds as if her war with conformity is a battle she has already won. Her tunes pluck at your heartstrings, and it's obvious she has tapped into a superior inner voice where her songwriting prowess is on full display. What's also clear is that Etana is making music her own way. She's no longer settling for outsider advice on what's "hot" at the moment. For inspiration, Etana says, she just needs to wake up early, listen, and be still.

"Sometimes the lyrics just come... and it's really things that my grandmother used to say to me," she says. "I can hear her, and she comes to visit in the mornings. I could get further into it, but you'd probably just think I'm weird."

With that, Etana breaks into a laugh as she reveals her vulnerable side. Nothing wrong with that. It's her bare-bones transparency that helps other people relate to her music.

"I have some people that run up to me after shows and say, 'Mi love you, mi love you, mi love you' and pick me up off the ground because they love the music so much," she says. "I meet women who say my music makes them feel good about their kinky hair and just being a black woman in general. It's a really good feeling."

As a single mom, Etana takes a lot of pride in uplifting other women. She's come along way since being kicked out of Plantation High School as a teenager for fighting with a friend. She became pregnant around the same time but was determined to get an education. She got her GED at Whiddon-Rogers Education Center and enrolled in Broward County Community College several months later. Although life was throwing lots of obstacles her way, Etana always stayed positive and searched for the right opportunity. When her brief stint with the music group Gift failed and she'd given up on studying nursing, Etana simply kept moving.

"I left and went back to Jamaica to open up an internet café — to do business, not music," says Etana, explaining her relocation to Kingston. "I was a little fed up with music at the time. But then I was asked to sing backup for Richie Spice, and they offered me the job on the spot. I didn't want to be a solo singer, but we did a year of touring, and people were always asking, 'Who's the backup singer?' "

She has since landed a deal with VP Records and is now playing shows to support her debut release.

"I just never expected Jamaica to take to my music," Etana says. "In Jamaica, there were one or two females that weren't selling sex or showing their ass to get somewhere."

Right now, she's the Jamaican equivalent of an India.Arie. Her lyrics are a refreshing push against the mainstream, and the musicianship behind them is strong and original enough that her songs can't be denied.

The song "Jah Chariot," which was worked and reworked by famed Jamaican band leader Dean Fraser, could be the best tune on the album. But there are several other cuts like "I Am Not Afraid" and "Warrior Love" that are conscious yet radio-friendly.

"Sometimes it's still surprising, and I can't believe that people gravitate to the music and accept the changes that I've made," she says. "It's overwhelming, but I appreciate all the love and support that people are showing me."

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Jonathan Cunningham