Etana, Female Reggae Artist Shines

Etana is a reggae soul artist whose music is infused with strength and positivity. She talks to host Michel Martin about the inspiration behind her new album Better Tomorrow.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. If you like to travel or if you just like music, then you know that for decades now Jamaican artists have established the island as a musical force with names like Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. But you might have also noticed that not many women have been mentioned in the top tier of those artists, so today we are going to meet a young woman whose soulful style and thoughtful lyrics have made her, at a pretty young age, one of the most respected women in reggae today.

Her name is Etana and her third album, "Better Tomorrow," has just been released. Here's some of the title track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER TOMORROW")

ETANA: (Singing) Now is the time to recognize today is borrowed, so live it right. There'll be a better tomorrow...

MARTIN: And Etana is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us. Congratulations on the new album.

ETANA: Thank you very much and thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I understand that it was noticed pretty early in your life, when you were pretty young, that you could sing. Did you always think you could sing?

ETANA: No. I just love music and I love singing with my aunt in the yard while she washed her clothes when I was a little girl.

MARTIN: So how did you come to the idea that maybe you could maybe do this for a career?

ETANA: I think I was in primary school in Jamaica, where we had to do "From a Distance" by Bette Midler and the chorus teacher asked me to sing, even though I wasn't in the choir, so by then I kind of knew that I had something, you know.

MARTIN: "From a Distance"? Do you remember it?

ETANA: Yeah, "From a Distance."

MARTIN: Can you do any of it? Give me a couple of bars. Come on. Do you remember?

ETANA: (Singing) From a distance, the world looks blue and green and the snow-capped mountains white.

MARTIN: I love it.

ETANA: I think.

MARTIN: I love it. I can understand why she asked you to sing. That makes sense to me. But I understand that, you know, your road to this point was not the easy one and I wanted to ask you to tell that story about how, you know, originally you were studying to be a nurse in Florida and you left college early to try to pursue your musical career, but you had kind of a moment when you said, you know what? This is not for me. This is not right. Do you mind telling that story?

ETANA: I was in a group, a four girl group, in Florida, and I remember doing the video for the group and I was in lingerie, stiletto heels, looking really good, I mean make-up, you know, perfect. And I remember the camera guy going really low when we were doing the choreography for the video. After we took a break, I went to the rest room and I looked at myself and I said - in the mirror, literally, I said, is this what you really want for yourself? And, honestly, in my heart, I had to say no, you know, and I decided that if I had to do music and if this is what I have to do to do music, then I don't want to do it at all.

So I decided I would go to Jamaica and open up an Internet cafe and, you know, do business instead.

MARTIN: That's kind of a wild change, to opening up an Internet cafe. Well, how did your bandmates and the other artists in your band feel about your decision? Did you speak with them about it? I'm interested in this because I am betting that a lot of people are wondering why more people don't make that decision. I'm just - because people talk about how they don't like this image all the time, but then they don't do anything about it. I'm just curious. When you said this to people, what did they say? Did they think you were crazy?

ETANA: Yeah. They thought I was crazy. They took it hard, actually. They were crying. They were cussing. They did everything. You know, they told me, I'm going to come to Jamaica and I'm going to find you and da, da, da, da, you know, you know, and even I was - I had bad moments too, where I was crying and feeling a little bit sad and feeling that, OK, maybe I should go back, but I just couldn't go back to not being able to choose my own shoes, you know, not being able to write my own lines or not being able to wear the clothes I want to wear, you know.

MARTIN: How did you go about finding your way back to finding your voice and finding a way to say what it is you do want to say and presenting yourself in the way you do want to present yourself?

ETANA: While I was in Jamaica, I met Richie Spice and he wanted me to just do one show - one show as a background vocalist in California - and I ended up - when I came back there was another show for me to go to in Jersey, with him. I guess they were so pleased with the chemistry.

In the meantime, I started to realize that, OK, while these people actually appreciate me wearing my skirts or wearing my afro the way I do or being me and nobody's complaining, this is kind of good. They appreciated me for me. And so I started to say what I wanted to say and do what I wanted to do and wear what I wanted to wear, and it just, you know, it's me now.

MARTIN: You took on a new name. You were born Shauna McKenzie. But you've taken on the name Etana, which is how you are known professionally now. What does that mean?

ETANA: Etana means the strong one. And I remember looking through a list of names, and I figured that Etana rhymed with Shauna. But I wanted something that had to do with strength and power, because I feel like women have such power across the world. We can break or build a nation, you know, because everything starts at home for me. So I figured, OK, well, this is it. And, you know, even if it doesn't mean strong one in Swahili, it's going to be the strong one for me.

MARTIN: Well, you subsequently found out that it really doesn't mean that in Swahili, right? I guess that's what you're referring to.

ETANA: And you know what? I've heard different stories, like, you know, people saying, oh, well, it doesn't mean that. It means somewhat that. But, you know, and people going back and forth. And I'm, like, OK. Well, you know what? This is what it means for me.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Exactly. You're like Oprah. OK, it's Orpah in the Bible, but you know what? It's Oprah now. So that's what it is.

ETANA: Exactly.

MARTIN: So that's what it means now, right?

(LAUGHTER)

ETANA: Exactly.

MARTIN: Well, you know, and your breakout hit was sort of equally pointed, because you really said something that needed to be said. Let's hear a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WRONG ADDRESS")

ETANA: (Singing) Tried to get a job today, but when I sent the application, them say, if this is really where you really reside, please step outside. She asked them why, and they replied, yeah, yeah, we don't want no trouble. We don't want no trouble, no day. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. 'Cause lady, where you come from, people die there everyday. For our safety, that's where you should stay.

MARTIN: So what was the inspiration for this song? Do you remember it?

ETANA: My aunt, she said, you know, I didn't get the job I went to apply for today. And I said, why? And she said, well, when I was walking out, the girl at the front desk told me, next time, don't use the (unintelligible) address on the application. And I said what? Not because of, you know, your skills? She said no, nothing like that. Just my address. And I got so emotional, so I started to cry. And then the lyrics came.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WRONG ADDRESS")

ETANA: (Singing) Been through school, passed every test, graduated above the rest. And yet the society still looks down. They do this, why? They don't want us to try. And so they'll reply.

You know, because I know how bad she needed a job. And across the world, people, you know, I guess have their own prejudice and own hiccups about, you know, who should - who they should hire, and who not to.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with reggae-soul artist Etana. We're talking about her latest album "Better Tomorrow." But you still, you know, you're - I don't want people to get the impression that your music is all about pointing the finger and being angry at people. There's a lot of, you know, uplift and celebration...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...right, in the music. I wanted to play - I don't know. I kind of want to hear "Queen." Can we play a little bit of "Queen"?

ETANA: Sure.

MARTIN: Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "QUEEN")

ETANA: (Singing) I'm watching, even when you think I'm sleeping. It's going to be too late when you see me coming. Because when the time is right, all my enemies will be weeping. The world will know my name. The world will know my name. I am the queen of the concrete jungle.

MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration for this song?

ETANA: This song is celebrating woman, you know, all the struggles that we go through every day, and being able to come out on top - stepping hard and coming out on top, and this is what it's about, being queen of the concrete jungle.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I think this will be the anthem for not a few girl parties from now on. I think we'll be hearing this at not a few women's birthday parties.

ETANA: Many.

MARTIN: Many.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But, you know, you also found - there's another - speaking of that kind of celebrating women, many of the album's reviews have pointed to the fact that you found out that you were pregnant with your second child during production, and that that energy kind of lent itself to the whole process. I just want to play a bit of a song that particularly has gotten some attention. And this is "Till You Get Old." Here it goes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TILL YOU GET OLD")

ETANA: (Singing) Hush, little baby, I'll be your protector. Hush, little baby, mommy's gonna watch you sleep tonight. Hush...

MARTIN: You know, during the song, we actually hear the birthing process. And you said this is not your daughter, right, being born.

ETANA: No. It's not. No.

MARTIN: This is - that would have been kind of hard to manage, right, recording the song and giving birth to her?

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TILL YOU GET OLD")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Keep pushing.

(Soundbite of moaning)

MARTIN: But I understand that you were trying to make a point, here. OK, tell us a little bit more about that.

ETANA: Usually, even back in the days, with reggae, as soon as the artist has a child or gets married, you'll hear, oh, you know, it's just because of (unintelligible), or just because she had a kid. She's not going to breed?

(LAUGHTER)

ETANA: And it would just irk me so much, because it sounds like it's something wrong, you know, or it's something really bad. And women would probably shy away from having kids, or if they do have kids, they'll have one. And even after having just one, they will fade away just like that, and you would hear nothing else about them, you know. And I'm just saying that it's all right to have a child and be a woman. That's what we do. We give birth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TILL YOU GET OLD")

ETANA: (Singing) Don't you cry, baby. Hush, little baby.

There still is a lot of pressure for females getting pregnant. And Beyonce made it look easy, but I can guarantee you, it was not as easy as it looks. You know, because with every label, as soon as you have a kid, oh, you know, your fan base is very young. And according to them, it doesn't keep you in the same space or world as the younger folks, because they don't have kids yet, and they're not looking to have kids. So they're not - you know what I mean? So it kind of puts you in another category that they probably would have to resell, or whatever the case may be. I find that not to be true anymore. So I think time is changing.

MARTIN: But you also, again, are not shy about sharing what's on your mind. In fact, the introduction to this album has a lengthy - I don't know how to call it, spoken, introduction spoken piece. It's called "Spoken Soul."

ETANA: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you have some really strong words. Like, you talk about the selfish sexual and demonic days...

(LAUGHTER)

ETANA: I sure did.

MARTIN: You sure did.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTRODUCTION, "SPOKEN SOUL")

ETANA: Selfish, sexual and demonic days, young minds find it hard to concentrate, cannot meditate, confused.

MARTIN: What would you like people to draw from that? I mean, I think you're pretty clear with what you like people to draw from that.

ETANA: Yeah. I mean...

MARTIN: But tell me about why you chose to start the album in that way.

ETANA: Well, you know what? It was initially supposed to be in the booklet of the album, and the A&R, Neil Diamond, decided, OK, you know, I think you should put this in the album. I want to - you know, I think people should hear you say it. And he said, I want you to just tell people where you are right now mentally, what do you feel about the world and what's going on.

And so I automatically went to the days when I used to be able to go out and play without gunshots being fired every minute. Of course, I didn't say that, but back to the peaceful days when, you know, the older folks used to share and care a lot more than we do. And everything is about demons and blood and blood and blood and blood everywhere, on every movie. And, you know, and I think that, you know, yes, we all have to transform. People call it death, but I call the transformation. We all have to transform, but I just don't feel like you have to sit and listen to somebody in a song, break it down how I'm going to do the murder and, you know, how blood is going to be everywhere. I just think it's so demonic. I think it's evil, and I think that that's part of our problem today.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting, because I think a lot of people agree with you. They wonder why it is that the artists seem to be very concerned about kind of pushing more and more boundaries of overt sexuality or of nudity. And yet when people talk about that, they are kind of seen as fogey-ish, as in old fogey, not really with it, you know, not really understanding what things are. Forgive me for asking this. Are you at all concerned that people will see you that way? Not as kind of the hip, young artist, fresh that you are. You're still actually quite young, if you don't mind my pointing that out.

ETANA: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Were you worried about that at all, that people would see you as not quite hip?

ETANA: You know what? I'm not concerned about what category or what box they put me in. I've thought about that, honestly. And, yeah, the conclusion is I just, you know, I don't care. When they look at my face, they'll realize that they're not talking to an old woman - maybe an old soul.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Congratulations on everything. What's next? What are you working on now?

ETANA: I'm touring. I'll be on the road. We start in April through the U.K., the EU. - holy bus stop! Loads of stops. And I just need to probably just take some time to get ready.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Etana is a star of reggae soul. Her latest album is "Better Tomorrow," and it is out now. And she was kind enough to join us just before she heads out on this lengthy tour from WLRN in Miami, Florida.

Etana, thank you so much for speaking with us. Our very best to you.

ETANA: Thank you very much or having me.

MARTIN: And I'd like to end with a song that I think you wrote when you were homesick for Jamaica. And it is called "All I Need."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I NEED")

ETANA: (Singing) Oh, I'm in control. I'm where I want to be. I'll close my eyes, and there is where I'll be, living my fantasy.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today.

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