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PopcaanPhotography Ivar Wigan

Popcaan is still dancehall’s unruly but wise trailblazer

The Jamaican icon opens up about ‘Forever’, fame, Rihanna, and how dancehall could save the country’s gun crisis

On a hot summer night, at a car park in Kingston, Jamaica, hundreds of locals showed their appreciation for Popcaan by spraying fire into the air. The dancehall artist was previewing his summer sophomore album, Forever, released July 20. Dressed in a silk blue floral jacket and clutching a bottle of champagne, he swaggered and staggered on a stage resembling an altar, traversing through new songs like “Wine for Me” as well as tracks from his impressive back catalogue, which has seen him amass around 305 million total on-demand streams since spring 2012 and be namechecked as an influence on the likes of Drake. Each track was bookended by sporadic ad libs and unique catchphrases as he shouted into his microphone in high-pitched patois: “Dem dead!” As the crowd repeated his words back to him, one man a few yards away activated his aerosol flamethrower. Everyone lurched backwards, but one man had the misfortune of being caught by the blaze momentarily. His reaction was to laugh and continue dancing. The cult of Popcaan was stronger than ever.

A few nights after the album party, Popcaan headlined the main stage at Sumfest, a Red Stripe-sponsored festival in Montego Bay, where he performed past 4am to a still-hyped crowd and stole the show. When we catch up the following week, he’s in a much more subdued and reflective mood. “I’m not one of those artists that just want everything for myself,” he says. “Going international just made me realise we (Jamaicans) have to take things seriously. I just want all artists to put out quality. I don't want people saying that the era of dancehall isn't strong enough.”

Unpacking themes from some of the most popular tracks on the album, like the bruisingly honest “Firm and Strong”, a Jamaican cousin of Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” that features The Blessed Choir (the same choir from tracks like Drake’s “Lord Knows” and Kanye’s “On Sight”), nobody could accuse Forever as lacking in strength. Popcaan is frank and funny as he reflects on his difficulties dealing with fame and opens up about the potential healing power of his music and influence, Rihanna, and how dancehall is still battling Jamaica’s government.

Forever is incredible. Did you feel a lot of pressure given that your last album, Where We Come From, was an international success?

Popcaan: I wanted to make something that people could relate to worldwide. I’m always going up, as you can see.

What is your creative method?

Popcaan: Well, I don’t write none of those songs. I just go into the studio and I sing them. I was already going through some tings, so I already know what the song will be about. For the past couple years, no, I don’t write lyrics.

Have you faced a lot of challenges since becoming famous?

Popcaan: People change, you know. People are very good at pretending. Sometimes it’s very hard to tell who is who. But eventually, their real self has to come up at some point. I don’t really put too much energy into it – I try to turn everything negative into a positive. I won’t even use certain words because it’s all in the power of the mind, at the end of the day.

Certain words like what?

Popcaan: If I don’t use, then you won’t hear it.

Fair enough. Considering Jamaica recently declared a state of emergency in Montego Bay due to gun crime, the song ‘Lef My Gun’ is particularly poignant. Is it important that dancehall pushes an anti-violence message?

Popcaan: Yes, we can own this and say ‘we need dancehall to spread this message’. We can make it happen. I play my part – my part is being a leader. And, I have to protect myself – that’s why I sing that song too, yisimmi? (There’s) no use waiting for change from the police. I have to use sound to save me. You are a human being, you have to protect yourself.

There are some people who feel the government misunderstands dancehall, and therefore does not support the genre enough.

Popcaan: Our government’s support is for carnival and reggae. They don’t want to give dancehall that support. It’s because they just think it’s not worth it. But it is. It’s definitely worth it. I think our people don’t like to support our artists in Jamaica. It just looks crazy sometimes, because if dancehall music was getting more support, then our people would have the power in Jamaica (over the genre). It would reach way further.

Dancehall-inspired songs are constantly in international charts, but are people profiting off the sound and leaving Jamaican artists behind?

Popcaan: That always happens, you know. It’s not like that they can’t get to us. They can get to us, anybody can get to us in Jamaica. If someone is serious and their business is legit, they can get to artists. People just try to create some stupid image sometimes about dancehall artists, like ‘They don’t do business, they’re unprofessional’. I think every artist on the planet gets that sometimes. Because we’re all human beings, right? I am a super one. (laughs)

“We’re all human beings, right? I am a super one” – Popcaan

Rihanna is also making a dancehall album at the moment, she said she’s going to reach out to people on the dancehall scene. There’s been rumours you’re working together – has she given you a call yet?

Popcaan: Rihanna don’t have my number (laughs). Tell her fi get me number, then we’ll link up.

‘Firm and Strong’ uses a choir that has appeared on a number of rap albums recently. Has fame made you reflect on your faith?

Popcaan: I had gospel choirs on my mind before making the song, because I grew up in church. I was once in the choir, so those things are a part of my music too. From a child’s age, I go to church with the grandmother and she put me on the choir to sing. And I love singing because that was what I enjoyed doing, while I was going to school and all. I was just waiting for the right song to use it.

This album has a lot of experimentation, including an afrobeats track with Davido. Are you into afrobeats?

Popcaan: Yes, I am. Davido is my very good friend, my brother. I’ve been listening to artists from Ghana and other places in Africa, so it’s very good that we can connect with afrobeats artists and do work like that. It’s similar to dancehall anyway. People love it out here. Afrobeats is doing very well.

On ‘Wine for Me’ you show appreciation for a ‘pretty black-skinned girl’ and a ‘light-skin girl’. Is colourism something you’re keen to combat?

Popcaan: (laughs) I go through that every day. I don’t like racism. I like when everyone is together and united. It gets things going. I say that because I mean it. Pretty little black-skinned girl, pretty little light-skinned girl. You’re all beautiful in my sight.

“I need to get dancehall as far as it can go, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not one of those artists that just want everything for myself” – Popcaan

At the album party there were so many sound clashes with up-and-coming artists off the island including Bugle, Dre Island, Jah Vinci, Jafrass, Quada, Triga Finga, and a little boy named Zion. When you’re creating music now, are you thinking about how to pull the next generation up with you?

Popcaan: When I do music, I don’t just do it for riches and those things. I need to get dancehall as far as it can go, that’s what I’m trying to do. I wish all these artists were international like I am, taking that international appeal. It’s better for my music, too – the more artists we have, the more dancehall. I’m not one of those artists that just want everything for myself, I respond to the new generation. I don’t believe in any segregation. I want to unite the people as much as we can.

Did you mean to create the perfect summer album?

Popcaan: That album is timeless. I think, after summer, people will listen to it more. It is just a vibe (laughs).