by Chris Jarvis
February 12th saw the release of St Lucian born musician Taj Weekes’ fifth full length album Love Herb and Reggae – a collection of fourteen bouncing, mellow reggae tunes with his band Adowa. In 51 minutes, Taj’s lyrics cover the full assortment of reggae’s lyrical history, touching on politics, human rights, marijuana and love. And yet from the opening hook, to its final, fading gasps, it never slips into cliché or stereotype, proving itself to be original and unique and without doubt their strongest record to date.
The record itself is explicitly political. Opening track Let Your Voice Be as Loud as Your Silence is a rallying cry to stand up for human rights, before closing with the wishing of the “distant drums of revolution.” Likewise, Rebels to the Street, The Laws and Bullet for a Gun follow a similar vein – the latter in poetic and poignant beauty, through the lyrics “A million birthdays will be missed, For a bullet from a gun, A million smiles and cherished kisses, From a daughter or a son, There’s dark and ugly in beautiful, So often now a raven veils the sky.”
But Taj’s politics don’t end as the final chords of a closing album track dissipate, they seep into other aspects of his life too. He is a UNICEF Champion for Children, runs a charity – They Often Cry Outreach and is an active human and animal rights activist. When I speak to him about his political activism, he claims involvement in “the occupy movements”. The name of his backing band – Adowa – has deeply political roots – named after the 1896 Battle of Adowa, a turning point in the Italo-Ethiopian War which secured Ethiopian sovereignty and independence, therefore marking the beginning of the move towards African independence from European colonialism. Adowa is a symbol of black and African liberation and referencing this part of their history articulates and symbolises the political and conscious nature of their music.
In spite of the fact that much of the music that Taj Weekes has produced, has been seemingly unapologetically political, with its conscious lyrics and its focus on injustices in the world, the reality is that his politics is not necessarily a natural and comfortable territory for him. In many ways he feels a reluctant and begrudging obligation to be politically active, rather than doing it through a specific desire or calling.
I asked Taj how he would describe his political outlook and the political activism he has been involved with in light of the nature of his music and his activity outside of it. “I would love to think of myself as apolitical” he told me, before going on to state: “The personal has become political [and] some of us have become reluctant politicians. We have written and sang on their albums, but we’ve been supportive of any movement that stands for human and animal rights.
“I believe in equal rights and justice. If that is radically political, then yes, I believe in that force to make and achieve change. One man once said, ‘love your brother as yourself’ and that was considered radical. If love and peace is radical then I’m all for it.”
In describing the relationship between politics and his music, there is again a reluctance to emphasise too heavily the role that underpinning political motives and ideology may have in the musical writing process: “Since my personal had become political, I guess politics plays an indirect role in the music I produce, but there is no set political agenda when I step in the studio or write a song.”
But perhaps it is this that makes Taj Weekes’ music so powerful. There is no aggressive ideology underpinning and running throughout the lyrics. In spite of their political nature, at no point do they ever come across as preachy or condescending, the continuing problem of so many political musicians. Instead, the manner in which Taj deals with an issue in his music is subtle, it is wrapped up in metaphor, in poetry, in the complexities of language. And even if, from time to time, he does slip into overt, in your face politics, as he does on Rebel, the penultimate track on Love, Herb and Reggae, this is the aberration, rather than the norm. At its best, that subtlety can be found in anti-homophobia anthem Here I Stand, not in the declarations of the need to understand and accept other people’s love or its Beatles-esque crescendo, but instead in this strong imagery: “You’ve got a fragile picture frame, sitting on a broken easel, up comes the winds of change, down goes the easel.”
This article is part of our series Music That Matters. You can find the rest of the series here.