Reggae singer incorporates Christianity
Religion News Service, May 10, 2003
CECILE S. HOLMES, Religion News Service
Like so many Jamaicans, Christian recording artist Papa San grew up a Rastafarian, steeped in the tenets of that unusual faith. Yet it was religion’s music — reggae — which proved the primary influence of his childhood.
Reared by his grandmother, he grew up in poverty in Spanish Town, just outside Jamaica’s capital city of Kingston. Among those living there were Rastafarians, part of a messianic movement originating in Jamaica in 1930 and springing up in response to the coronation of Crown Prince Ras Tafari, as Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.
To many Jamaicans, the coronation fulfilled leader Marcus Garvey’s prophecy that followers should look to Africa where a black king would be crowned.
In Kinston during Papa San’s childhood, nearly anyone with a little charisma and a strong sound system might turn into the ringleader of impromptu parties laced with music, dancing and singing — and lasting into the night.
Come weekends, Papa San’s dad manned a P.A. system known as “Black Universe,” playing music that seeped into the soul of his gifted son. Papa San’s musical education included the works of reggae greats such as Bob Marley, Dennis Brown and John Holt, well-known disco singers such as Donna Summer and even the soulful Nat “King” Cole.
By age 12, Papa San began to perform with artists twice his age. Later, he proved a dominating influence on the reggae sub-genre “dancehall” music scene.
He had his first hit as a teenager, topping dance charts with songs like “The Programme” and “Maddy Maddy Cry.” He had several MTV videos, winning stardom with his very own blend of reggae and rapid rhythms. Quickly he became popular among American hip-hop and rap music lovers. He also soon had many fans in the Caribbean Islands, Japan, Europe and Africa.
The emphasis shifts
But there is a shift in lyrical emphasis apparent in his newest CD, “God and i” — a shift that has its origins in the 1990s when he became a Christian. With this recording, it is clear this artist is having a wide impact in Christian music circles yet retaining his personal style.
“God and i” is laced with classic Papa San. All songs were written or co-written by the artist. He views several as winners. The cut “Stay Far” relies on percussion, bass guitar and an unusual melody. Its Jamaican chorus tells how the artist follows his faith:
“Papa San Walk through di valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; An, wen mi a walk mi nuh worry and, fret of bad minded people.”
In the cut “You Don’t Know,” Papa San’s singing weaves a classic Christian story of moving from darkness into light.
“There are a lot of people in this world who feel hopeless,” he says. “I’ve known that feeling, too, before I was successful in music and after. There were many times in my life I could have been shot by gangs, or killed in shootouts with police.”
Reflecting on his lifestyle and music in the 1980s, Papa San says he “can’t help but believe God spared me for a purpose, and I must live up to that call. That song really shows you where I used to be, and all God took me out of.”
On this CD as in performances, Papa San is a dancehall king.
In “Can’t Flee From Your Presence,” Papa San sings of trying to draw away from God, to escape the divine call, in a driving and commanding piece of music.
“Dancehall is really just a branch off the reggae tree,” he says. “It was first called toasting in the early ’70s when artists, who became referred to as DJs, began to put lyrics more to rhythms than to melodies. It was built less off the keyboard and more from a hardcore beat.”
Fans drawn to his faith
Papa San worried some when he first transformed his music to reflect his new faith. He didn’t know how fans would respond. But most reacted positively.
“I’ve gotten so much great response, and it’s only increased over time,” he says. “We’ve seen thousands of people come to Christ at our concerts. Some came to the shows just to see what it would be like to hear a gospel message put to dancehall music. Many of them have been shocked — in a good way — at what they heard, and gotten saved in the process.”
Cecile S. Holmes teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina.