Take a jigger of reggae. Pour in a shot of Rastafari. Shake well. Stand back and wait for the explosion.
Rastas and reggae have been a volatile cocktail since the 1970s when Bob Marley, who didn't invent either, popularized both. Last year, up-and-coming reggae Rastaman Tarrus Riley added a new element to the mix -- cranberry juice. Riley was chosen by cranberry juice giant Ocean Spray in June to be the face of their campaign in Jamaica -- on the bottle, in print and on TV -- for the next two years.
"It's a health drink, it's positive and it represent what my music represents: the healthy lifestyle, refreshing, a good thing," Riley says by phone from New York City.
But this is not just about an artist endorsing a product. Beyond what it does for his own musical profile, the implications are huge, signifying the beginning of a new era for both Rastafarains and reggae.
"Once upon a time Rasta man in Jamaica ... had to go through great tribulation," Riley says. "Once upon a time Rasta couldn't be on TV, have to hide in the hills."
Riley is referring to the bloody battles that erupted in the early '60s when some Rastafarians, often persecuted for their pro-marijuana stance and their demands for an end to social and political injustice, forsook their nonviolent vows, engaging in shoot-outs with British troops in the slums of Kingston.
Even after Marley popularized the religion through his music, the sect was still often negatively portrayed as a bunch of anti-social, long-haired, dope-smoking dissidents. "So to see a Rasta man on the teeve advertise Ocean Spray, this big, bushy face is a big thing," says Riley, who sports long dreadlocks and a full beard.
Though Riley is relative newcomer the reggae charts, he's been in the business since he was 14, doing what he describes as "DJ-ing on the reggae rhythms." He was encouraged by his father Jimmy, who had hits as a member of the Sensations and the Uniques in the '60s and solo hits in the '70s and '80s with covers of Curtis Mayfield's "My Woman's Love," Hall and Oates' "Everytime You go Away," as well as his own composition, "Love & Devotion."
Tarrus' debut, Challenges, was well-received, but his sophomore effort, 2006's Parables, made him a star with his original song, "She's Royal," which spent three weeks topping Jamaica's charts, winning Best Reggae song at Jamaica's 2007 Reggae Music Academy Awards.
Sounding like a young Jimmy Cliff ("I never sing like trying to imitate anyone, but Jimmy Cliff is definitely a big influence," he says), Riley extols the virtues of his Nubian queen: "What a natural beauty/ No need no makeup to be a cutie/ She's a queen, So supreme/ She's royal/ And, I want her in my life." Riley says he wrote the song because he feels some women lack self esteem from conditioning during slavery. "It's music for everyone, and it's music to make people feel good driving in their car or when you're with your special someone," the singer says.
He also had a hit covering John Legend's "Stay with You." "Could almost never get me to sing another's song cause me write so much music, but I try it and it work," Riley says. "We made that song popular in a lot of places."
Reggae seems to be making a comeback, edging out dancehall as Jamaica's favorite export once again. "In America right now, one of the biggest songs is a reggae song," Riley affirms. "There's an artist called Jazmine Sullivan ["Need U Bad"] and she work with Missy Elliot on reggae song, so reggae's definitely a hot topic again."
Riley's already at work on a third album he'll start recording after his current tour. But before he delivers his next recorded product, he has a message he wants to get out to his fans.
"Let them know I'm really thankful of the support I get because there are so many singers in the world and so many people doing music, but it's a mission for me and I don't take it for granted, understand me? I'm very appreciative of the love," the singer says. "We're just making music for people, mon, it's all good."
Tarrus Riley plays the Neighborhood Theatre on Sept. 10 with Duane Stephenson and Dean Fraser backed by The Blak Soil Band. Bums Lie opens. Tickets are $18 in advance and $25 for VIP.
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