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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

A talk with Tanya Stephens ahead of Dubai XL Beach club show

The reggae star possesses a soulful Jamaican voice and has rallied against dancehall norms with socially conscious lyrics.
The Jamaican singer Tanya Stephens. Courtesy Reggae Beachfest
The Jamaican singer Tanya Stephens. Courtesy Reggae Beachfest

Best known for hits including It’s a Pity, These Streets and Yuh Nuh Ready Fi Dis Yet, Tanya Stephens is the real deal – a soulful Jamaican voice who has rallied against dancehall norms with socially conscious lyrics that have helped move the genre into the 21st century. Catch her live Dubai debut at the latest Reggae Beachfest concert on Saturday.

So come on – why has it taken you so long to visit these parts?

Good things take time, which is my best excuse.

What do you know about the UAE?

Just about nothing – I could point it out in a map of the globe. I have a neighbour who works there sometimes with an oil company. Otherwise, I’ve seen pictures and it looks really beautiful.

No expectations? OK, in that case, what can we expect from you?

I don’t take myself too seriously. I have a good platform and opportunity to share my ideas with people, but my job title is really entertainer – I’m there to make people laugh, smile and have a good time.

Sounds like you’re being a bit humble here – you’re well known for challenging prejudices in your lyrics.

It turns out sometimes your opinions serve some purpose. I was born and raised in Jamaica, so I know the importance of having voices we can use to represent us, because we need a lot of help here.

It’s now 20 years since your debut Big Things a Gwaan – what lessons have you learnt in that time?

I started out just learning to survive. I grew up in a small town and just being exposed to Kingston and a fast-paced music industry forced me to grow up really quickly. After that, I started to expand laterally, find my own voice, not be afraid, stand up when I need to stand up – and sit down when I’m supposed to.

And how has reggae changed in those 20 years?

I don’t think reggae has changed very much; our society has changed. There’s a lot more information, more travel and exposure to other directions for the music, but I don’t think reggae itself has changed much. The business side has changed in terms of artists being able to get paid.

Sean Paul helped changed that?

I think he did – he made it a possibility in people’s minds that it could be done, that was his biggest contribution. He received some negativity from his community in Jamaica because people were saying he is only popular because of his complexion, which is such a bald-faced lie, because he really is a talented fellow and he’s very deserving of every success that he’s had.

Another Sean we’ve also had performing in the UAE – Sean Kingston

He’s not really part of Jamaica. Even though he’s of Jamaican descent, his success didn’t come through Jamaica. Sean Paul did it entirely from home, but Sean Kingston is a part of the American machinery. I don’t think Jamaica has the right to take credit for that guy.

In that case, who can take credit for Snoop Lion?

[Laughs, a lot]. Er, nobody. I don’t think Snoop Lion ever really found anything – if he wants to be a Rastafarian that’s fine. If he wants to make reggae music, that’s fine.

But you might say he looks a bit silly.

There are always people who look silly. I call him Snoop Dogg. I couldn’t relate to Snoop Lion, but if that’s what the fellow wants to do, he can do it. He’s a big man.

So the big question: will you be at it for another 20 years?

I never make long-time plans. I’m a free spirt, when I wake up in the morning and I think about doing something, I just do it right then so I don’t change my mind. In 20 years I could be anywhere – the things I haven’t done are just things I have no perspective on, so I don’t know what will happen tomorrow when I get new information. The universe is a beautiful place and I believe anywhere I end up, I will love it.

• Tanya Stephens performs at XL Beach Club, Habtoor Grand Beach Resort & Spa, Dubai, on Saturday. Doors open at 2pm. Tickets cost Dh125, ladies free before 5pm

rgarratt@thenational.ae