Tanya Stephens is a revolutionary. Not in your typical Che Guevara, Malcolm X —fight-tooth-and-nail-until-something-changes way, but in a strong, directed, unobtrusive, laugh-as-you-go way. Almost like that necessary rudder in the back of the boat that steers and directs the vessel forward, in the right direction.
Stephens grew up in a poor, large family in the Jamaican countryside and after high school, she took some time off ‘in typical bum fashion’ as she puts it, and started on the mic with a local sound system. From there, her career slowly progressed, where in the summer of 2003 she hit it big with her track, “It’s A Pity” on the German-produced Doctor’s Darling rhythm. The song was a tale of forbidden love—an updated Romeo and Juliet story, “It’s a pity you already have a wife and me done have a man inna mi life. Rudebwoy , it’s a pity.”
With her latest release on VP Records, “Gangsta Blues,” she now has the people’s attention. And what does she do with that attention? She tells tales of empowered women. She intelligently crafts lyrics to fit her idea of the world—the world through Tanya Stephens’ eyes. She burns down inequality. She laughs at the judgments that people ascribe to others. In her strong, yet vulnerable and humerous way, she captures her audience’s attention.
With her years of experience in the music industry, Stephens still fights for creativity and originality. She and her partner, Andrew Henton, have started up Tarantula Records, the “small but deadly” label. They hope to bring new artists to the forefront to stop the recycling old musical ideas, “We just want to make something new, different, and make a difference,” Stephens says.
On May 31, 2004 Lion Entertainment and Club Dread brought Tanya Stephens to perform at StudioZ in San Francisco. Despite less than star treatment by Lion Entertainment and Stephens’ and Henton’s vow never to work with this promoter again, her performance was a treat to the nearly packed house. She performed “It’s A Pity,” “Can’t Breathe,” “Boom Wuk,” “ Tek Him Back,” and other songs from her newly released album.
The following day, what was scheduled to be a 30-minute interview at their hotel unfolded into several hours of conversation until we took them to the airport to catch their flight home. We covered a wide range of topics including music, the industry, sexism, poverty, motherhood, education, and making a difference. At very minimum, interviewers hope for an artist’s cooperation in answering our questions. But the two of us were warmly greeted with Tanya’s and her partner’s openness, candor, and graciousness coupled with the most delightful sun kissed, turquoise skied weather the typically foggy city can offer. What transpired was a relaxed, candid, laughter-filled, and inspiring chat with the dynamic dancehall and reggae duo of Tarantula Records.
Here’s just a likkle taste of our delicious day with Tanya Stephens and Andrew Henton.
Tanya’s foray into the music industry
I think I was sixteen plus. I was just out of high school. Really, I was supposed to be headed to college. I kind of wanted a break because in Jamaica we go off to school so young. I don’t know about here but I’d been going to school since I was two years old. And for us, it’s not like kindergarten or preschool or nursery school where they play games. We go straight into learning our ABC’s. It’s all academics so I just felt tired. I wanted a break and I really wanted to experiment with life and experience things. So I took some time off and hung out with a couple of guys on the side of the road and stuff, you know, just typical bum fashion. And it was fun. Most of them were deejays so I started grabbing the mic too.
My first show with my name on a poster performing by myself was very nerve racking. I think my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and I couldn’t get it off. When I finally did, it came off with like a plucking sound like [makes plucking noise with her tongue then laughs]. Afterwards, I laughed, though. I mean laughter is the best remedy for anything.
Laughter in lyrics and lyrics in life
I think that most practices that humans have are laughable. You know, we do so many stupid things without realizing they’re stupid, especially to each other. You know, women have this notion that if her man leaves her for another women then she’s mad at the other woman. She’s never mad at her man. I’m like, ‘If he means that much to you, then you can have him back. He’s no longer a novelty, you know.’
The experiences [in my music] are not all mine but all of my lyrics are me because it’s either my experience or my take on somebody else’s experiences. So, it’s all stuff I can back up. It’s stuff that I would stand by and be able to defend even if everybody disagreed with it, because it’s what I actually think.
Growing up a country gal in Saint Mary’s Parish, Jamaica
I’m the sixth of seven children. I have three brothers and three sisters so I’m from a pretty large family. I was basically the typical Jamaican growing up in the country. I didn’t have anything special or different about me than anybody else.
It’s poverty, but you don’t know it’s poverty until you grow up. When you’re exposed to adults when you get a little older, adults can be cruel. They’ll let you know that you’re poor, but prior to that I had no idea and I had no problems with it.
I think poverty had a lot more, um, ‘success’ socially than being comfortable by social standards–my youth was very rich with experience because by not having everything put on a plate in front of me, it forced me to become a more aggressive person. I learned to appreciate everything I have now and I think I wouldn’t have it any other way because I don’t just take things for granted. I have a daughter now and it gives me a better perspective on how to deal with her. I can’t afford to take anything for granted.
Kids these days got it easy… unless you live in Jamaica
It’s great being in a big family because then you become a fighter. You have to fight for everything. There’s never enough of everything, especially when you’re poor. I think that’s good.
I wished my daughter got the opportunity to grow up lacking a lot of stuff, too. I try to provide the things she needs the best I can, but I still hold back the things she wants from her, you know, just for her to be able to appreciate something rather than it just comes easy. She still has to work for it and if she doesn’t do well in school, she has everything taken. It seems cruel when she starts to cry but when her grades come back up, you realize it’s worth it.
It’s crazy. I see parents begging their kids to behave and it’s like, man, you need to move to Jamaica. That would never happen at home: begging your kids to behave! When I was growing up my mother only needed to give me a look. I’d be sitting so quiet because I knew what was coming next. You know, it worked.
I think in a lot of other countries it’s considered abuse. I don’t think it’s abusive because I don’t feel like an abused person. I think everything should be taken in proper perspective. In order for kids to grow up in some semblance of order, they need to have something imposed on them in terms of discipline. I don’t have a problem with that at all. My daughter knows that we’re not American so she can’t call no social security [social services]. In Jamaica, you call them, you move in with them!
Raising her daughter Kelly or vice versa
She’s nine. She’ll be ten in September. She thinks she’s so grown. She gives me fashion advice. She teaches me to behave in public and stuff. She’s good.
When she was younger, we went to a football [soccer] match together and it was Jamaica playing Mexico in the National Stadium. Jamaica scored a goal and I jumped and I was screaming, ‘Yeah!’ She was just pinching me on my side and was muttering through her teeth saying, “Mummy, please just sit down and shut up. Sit down and shut up. Oh God, you’re embarrassing me!” And that was so amusing to me. Look at this little pipsqueak, you know? But she’s cool.
She acts like an old lady. Trust me. She acts like her grandmother. She spends a lot of time with my mother, which I think has a lot to do with it. Her mannerisms are older.
I don’t really have any preset notions on what she should be. Anything she decides to become, I’m gonna love her just the same. I don’t really think it’s my life to live. I’m trying to equip her with everything she needs to get through life in whatever level she wants to get through it but she knows she doesn’t have to be anything particular to earn my approval. I love her just the same. I’m blessed to have her so I don’t try to dictate stuff.
Not your typical girl
When I was growing up, I was (like) a boy. I liked the boys. I used to think they had too much privileges. They could do everything and I couldn’t see any reason why shouldn’t be able to do it, too. So, I was running with them. I used to hate them. They didn’t have to worry about their hair. They didn’t have to look any particular way. I think my hatred for their privileges made me like hanging with them more. I wanted to experience what they did.
Yes, I want [male] privileges. I enjoy being a girl but I want to be equal to a man.
Everybody’s good at their own sex life
Many of the sexual topics that we explore in dancehall are really non-issues. We really don’t need to be putting them on wax. Whatever two consenting adults do in their own privacy is nobody’s business. There really doesn’t need to be a song about it. I really think so [laughs].
I just think it’s ridiculous. I don’t need to validate my existence in a club by putting my hand in the air and making a forward about who don’t like battyman or who don’t nyam pum pum. I don’t think it’s anyone’s business. I think whatever a guy or a girl wants to do is their own damn business. I don’t think any of us are perfect enough or even close to it to hand down these judgments and say who should do what.
I know that for being taken seriously as an artist, if this is all you talk about, you’ll have an uphill climb trying to be taken seriously. Yeah, because there’s only so much you can say about that and no more. If that’s your biggest selling point, then you have nothing to sell because nobody needs your instructions on how to conduct their sex life. Everybody’s really good at their own sex life. No rules about that.
I wouldn’t be following the trends by people who I think are substandard anyway.
Oh God, I don’t even try to keep up with it. For everything, there’s a dance move [laughter]! I’m gonna do the “Let’s Sit on the Chair.”
I don’t really think it helps aerobically, because he [Elephant Man] really doesn’t look like… No…
Societal impact of pum pum songs
Yeah. Oh God. I mean I know my part in this culture but sometimes when I listen to these songs I have mixed emotions. I don’t want to knock my peers and sound like this voice of reason. I like the beats and sometimes I have to block the words to vibe to the music. It’s hard. It gets harder everyday because they say so many derogatory things about women. Now, I’m having problems relating to girls in my country, especially the young ones. They have such a materialistic out view but maybe that’s a worldwide thing. But I’m more exposed to Jamaican girls.
Honestly, I’m at a loss. I don’t what I could possibly say to [young girls] because it would be hard. What these guys offer is so glamorous. It’s like, ‘I’m gonna put you down but I’m gonna let you hang out in this nice car for the night and you get to be a star for a night.’ And that’s what they want, so how can I tell them, ‘Don’t want to be a star, don’t accept being a star.’ How can I offer them anything else? I’m just saying, “Get your dignity back. Get your pride back.” I think nobody really wants [to hear] that. They don’t understand until they hit maturity. When [these women] get older, there’s nothing to show for all of it. They have no pride left. Nobody wants to be with them. That’s when it sets in and it’s too late.
And they have nothing to show. Usually, they don’t spend enough time investing in their careers. They don’t get a tangible career. Their career is hanging in the dance and learning all the new moves. Nobody really gets paid for that. It’s sad. It’s now become our culture. The nakedness and sex, the exploitation of females–they welcome it. What can I do? I can’t go out and fight for somebody who doesn’t want to be fought for. It’s just sad.
Fighting misogyny & materialism
I try but it’s hard. I hope I can make a difference. I hope so but sometimes when I talk to females one-on-one, I just hang out with them in their circles and ask them. I really want to understand it for myself. How can you live the way you do? Some of them have kids and they’ll spend thousands of dollars on hairstyles, clothes, and their children can’t go to school tomorrow because they have no lunch money, no books.
I have a sister who is a teacher at a high school in Jamaica. High school is when you’re really supposed to take your education seriously. She’ll have children coming to school with nice gold chains and diamonds and they have the latest sneakers, which cost hundreds of dollars but they don’t have their textbooks. Something like this, I really can’t understand. They’re twisted priorities. When you tell them they really don’t have to have jewelry in school, they think you’re just envious of them being able to wear jewelry. It’s a really twisted way of thinking. It just blows me away. I can’t think of any way to bridge that gap–how to relate to people like this.
I think it’s bred from an inferiority complex or some kind of twisting and all of the role models we have now. When they look at all the role models now, they want to follow. It’s hard to tell a child, ‘Go to school, pay attention, live this boring life,’ because it seems boring when you’re a child going to school and paying attention to the teachers and stuff.
Look at the guy who grew up next to their mother and he didn’t go to school. Yet, their mother is really brilliant, she has a degree, but she doesn’t have much money. The guy next door didn’t go to school, he got up, started to hustle, he drives the latest car, wears all the nicest clothes. It’s hard to tell this child now, ‘Your neighbor’s lifestyle is the wrong way to go about living.’ How can you tell him that?
This is the ultimate objective: you want the nice car, the clothes. You know, so, it’s kind of hard to keep trying to find ways to reach children. And I think the easiest way is to stop thinking of them as kids you have to lecture.
Do as I say, not as I do
I remember when I was a child I hated being told what to do. Whatever you tried to force on me, I rejected, even if it was good. So, we have to stop acting like these perfect people telling them not to do this, what not to do, but we hardly ever them what to do. I try to communicate with children across to them instead of down to them. I just show them.
It’s hard for us. We come to children, we come down on them so hard, and we say, “Be perfect. Do this and that.” They can see we’re messing up everyday. ‘Who are you to tell me this?”
We do everything wrong. “Why are you telling me I shouldn’t have a boyfriend? Are you still with my father? Why didn’t you make that work?” Then, “You don’t know anything about relationships. You can’t talk to me.” You really can’t lecture them. You just have to reason with them, show them what you did wrong, and show them how much you care, that you really don’t want them to go through what you’ve been through. It’s a whole different outlook, you know, than just laying down rules. Nobody wants to live by no damn rules.
It takes a strong man to partner with a strong woman
I don’t think it was something that any of us tried to do. It just happened. [Andrew and I] make mistakes, and we’ve had problems, and we work them out, but that’s what makes us – brings us – closer together. That’s what makes us have more respect for each other. I think this is the best we can get. We respect each other’s space.
We know that we’re not perfect. We’re gonna make mistakes. Maybe I make a little more mistakes than the other person. The more you realize somebody means to you the more you respect them and you figure how to deal with a relationship.
There’s no manual. You just have learn as you go along. I get advice from my kid, too.
It can be hard. Sometimes, as females, when we try to be strong or have very strong views, we tend to absorb everything around us or we overshadow people around us. We tend to try, well, I think we do more than we need to just to establish our presence. It’s really hard for any man to be with that, to cope with that. You just have to try to learn each other’s tendencies. You make allowances for them.
I think I have a really strong person who could stand me. Sometimes when I look at myself, I don’t think I can stand me! I have many personality traits that I can’t stand about other people. But when I notice them, I try to make allowances for them and try to apologize. I try to cut down on the stuff I don’t like. I’m a work in progress.
The business of music
We’re planning tours right now. We are getting offers from people all over. This is great because I haven’t really toured before. I just don’t like single shows everywhere.
I think right now I’ve grown up in every aspect of my life, especially, musically. Right now I’m doing whatever the hell I want to do and not what a producer thinks is commercial. I’m not thinking of people as something I should market something to. Instead, I try to think of people as myself. What would I buy? I try to do that.
Right now, we’re riding this kind of small wave that’s building and swelling. I just feel very happy that I could do something. When I started this album, many people thought it was too radical. On a few things that we did, Andrew and I , we got advice from people who’ve been in the business for a long period who are much less adventurous than we are. They tried to impose their hang-ups on us, “Maybe you shouldn’t do this. Maybe you shouldn’t say that. That’s a little too political.”
But who cares? This is what we feel. This is what we want to put across, you know. You either like it or you don’t. We’re not doing what we think you’re gonna like. We’re telling you what we feel. And if you agree with it, that’s great. So, right now we’re going along with what’s happening. After that, the sky’s the limit. We have a lot more stuff that we want to do. We have other acts that we’d like to work with.
It’s so boring [the current state of dancehall and reggae]. There’s no formula to music. It’s so hard for me when I walk into a record store, I keep buying all the old stuff. You listen to Aretha Franklin and hear her just belting out whatever it is she felt like. She didn’t program that note. It just came when she got to that point in the song, she felt like screaming and she screamed. Hell, I wanted to scream, too. I couldn’t scream as good as her so I let her scream for me. I keep going back to the old stuff.
Now, I just feel like if it bothers me so much that we’re recycling stuff then I shouldn’t do the same thing. And if it bothers me that we’re not taking chances and trying to make something new because music is art, it’s creativity. We haven’t created much over the past few decades in international music. You listen to one R&B song, you’ve heard all of it.
And you like them and you want to love their music. They have really nice voices but they just don’t use them for anything particular. It’s so formula, you know. I wanted to break away from that.
The darling of “Doctor’s Darling”
I don’t have any particular way to choose rhythms and producers. It’s whatever I feel. If I listen to something and I’m inspired…
…this record [Gangsta Blues] only has two established producers on it. There are a couple of new names, especially Andrew. This is his first effort. We have a young label. It’s Tarantula Records and this is the very first thing that came off of it. We don’t think music is about what someone’s name is. We think it’s about sound. If it sounds good and it can appease the people, then that’s what I want to make. So, I can work with anybody.
That song (“It’s A Pity” on the German-produced “Doctor’s Darling” riddim) in itself was a small revolution because it was the first time we saw such a big hit from a non-Jamaican reggae produced sound outside of the pop reggae circle from a real reggae roots riddim. That was the first time it ever happened. I guess we’re playing our part in dispelling the myth that Jamaica is the only place that can turn out reggae. I think that’s a stupid mentality, anyway, because if somebody from anyplace in the world at all can make a good song, why shouldn’t it be accepted by Jamaicans?
Most Jamaicans tend to think, ‘Yeah, ‘im good but he’s not Jamaican.’ I think that’s just stupid. It’s so limited that you deprive yourself of something good just because it didn’t come from your backyard. That’s ridiculous.
Building a community of artists around Tarantula Records
I think we much prefer new artists because older artists are so set in their ways and it’s not all good ways. The star attitude is something that inhibits artists. They don’t work to their fullest capacity because they have so much attitude hindering them. It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m above all this. I’m too big to go in the studio and work properly. And this producer is too small to possibly produce me.’ Yet, that might be the best person to bring out their sound.
I think new artists are still hungry, still have that drive, still want to do everything, and have no hang-ups where music is concerned. It’s like working with clay. You get a chance to mold it rather than just taking the pot and being stuck with whatever shape that pot is in. We don’t particularly like many of the pots [laughs]!
I really see that there’s room for producers with our kind of attitude. I don’t feel like we have that many challenges. Our biggest challenge is just getting into the studio and doing some work. We’re not trying to compete with anything that’s there. We don’t want to do that. We just want to make something new, different, and make a difference.
About the equipment
We have our own pre-production setup that we work on. We have even done some of our finished product there, too.
Stephen Stanley mixed stuff [at Stanley’s studio] that sounds good. He’s got a lot of jokes. He’s cool to work with and really nice. He gets a beautiful sound out of every song he mixes. I think he’s the best down there.
We have a lot of good studios. We just don’t have many people who want to utilize them to their fullest. We keep getting new equipment–into 2004 and into the new age–but it seems they keep making worse and worse music. Yeah, better equipment, worse material. I don’t understand.
Maybe, it’s like, ‘Let’s feel like we’re stars. I’m making money. You can’t talk to me because you’re broke.’
Sean Paul—giving props where they’re due
Who are up and coming? It’s hard. I think Kiprich is cool. There’s a new girl named Martina. I don’t know if you’ve heard of her. She’s doing some wicked things. I can’t identify [many new artists]. I’ve heard some new voices definitely.
It’s hard. Every time you find somebody, you say, ‘Okay, here’s some promising person.’ Then they get stuck in a mold and they go through some recycling in a circle. Then you just have to say, ‘They were promising but not anymore.’ I don’t know. I don’t want to give up hope. Of course, all of the old favorites still have the possibility of coming with wicked songs every now and again, you know, when they’re forced to, I think.
Nobody’s really that hungry. I think it’s become too easy. Of course I think Sean Paul is good. He’s not up and coming at all. But everybody is trying to act like, ‘Oooh, dancehall is having a good day.’ I don’t think it’s dancehall. I think Sean Paul really, individually, did what he did. I don’t think anybody said, ‘Okay, let’s like a dancehall act.’ I think they actually liked him.
You know how Jamaica is, they act like, now, if Tanya Stephens comes, she does a good song and it becomes a hit, then, ‘Oh, the women are having a great year.’ It’s ridiculous. We don’t like to give props where it’s due.
Sean Paul is good. He really is. Everything that was done for him was done for Elephant Man and he hasn’t done the same thing that Sean Paul did.
Andrew states, “They say it’s because he’s light-skinned.”
But he’s a hard worker. And he’s nice. He’s a good person. We’ve been talking about him for years. He’s one of the few artists we can look at and say he’s actually a nice person, he’s talented, he has a lot of melody in his sound, but he’s also a nice person. Even after success, he still is a nice person. So, we weren’t wrong at all.
You know what? He’s been more Jamaican than the other Jamaicans who came [to America]. Elephant Man came here and he’s been talking with an accent – an American accent. Beenie Man did the same thing. Sean Paul is the only one in the international forum who’s been Jamaican. He talks understandable patois, he talks English, he talks in his Jamaican accent, you understand what he’s saying, and he doesn’t need to put on any airs. Everybody else when they talk, you don’t even understand what the hell they’re saying through all of that Yankee accent.
I don’t hear you trying to talk like Jamaicans. It’s ridiculous. It’s like when you come to Jamaica and they’re trying to sell you something on the beach. [She exaggerates an American accent] ‘Heeey, maaan…’
You should get one of those t-shirts that says, “No, I don’t need a beer. No, I don’t need a tour guide. No, I don’t any need weed.” Then, hope they can read.
Making a difference back home: equality in the quality of education
I think we have to start with education. Knowledge is power. If we understand, if we are aware what is happening to our society then even inner-city kids getting exposed to education will know exactly what’s happening to them, then they can break the mold. They can change it.
It has to start from early education. Right now, we start going to school at two. Some of the people who teach kindergarten kids… If you’re poor, you don’t get exposed to the best education. Then you end up with people teaching who need to go back to school themselves. If we start to attach more importance to the kids and we’re going to send them to school, [we need to] have someone who can lay a proper foundation and what’s going to be built on it. Then we can make a difference. Honestly.
Yes, I went to school totally in Jamaica. But every year it gets worse. At one point the last time I checked a few years ago, we had the sixth lowest literacy rate in the world. Now, that’s powerful. We have to raise that. I didn’t check again because it was too sad.
The stigma of being poor & the pressure to flex like you’re not
School fees are hard and we have stupid stigmas. We have some practices, which I don’t understand how we come up with them. I remember when I was going to school and I had to get hand-me-down shoes. Now, whatever color shoes were handed down were the shoes I had to wear. I was sent home a few times because I had the wrong color shoes. It’s ridiculous. It’s stupid. If I was an A student, why would you want to disrupt my educational process for a stupid pair of shoes? Stuff like this happens all the time.
One time my Vice-Principal dyed my cream colored shoes brown because the school shoe color was brown. It was ridiculous. I had my classmates laughing at me. I didn’t want to go to school anyway because that was a stigma. It’s just stupid rules like ‘no French-cut panties’ and stuff like that. And that was the whole concept of wearing uniforms in the first place to get rid of stuff (materialism and external validation) like that. It’s disgusting.
Oh God, and the men do it [material display despite poverty] too. They drive some really nice cars, which cost a pretty penny, and they’re coming out of this little zinc house. No, it’s not a joke, but at first, I laughed. I laughed because it looked funny but then after a while, I was like, ‘It’s sad. This is sad.’
Twisted mentalities & it’s practical to be almost naked
It’s like they have such twisted mentalities. I remember one time I went into the registrar’s office. I wanted to get a copy of my birth certificate and I had on a pair of shorts and a midriff blouse. The security turned me back. I couldn’t go in because I was inappropriately dressed to get a copy of my birth certificate. We attach importance to such stupid things. It’s a tropical climate. It’s hot as hell and you want me to come dressed fully clad to get a copy of my birth certificate? Things like these we attach importance to and not really important stuff. That’s why we’re in the state we’re in.
It’s practical to be almost naked. It’s really stupid but well, it’s the world. Welcome to it.
There’s a really nice quote that you can spread to people. I got it from Neale Donald Walsch. He wrote the book Conversations with God. He said, “Live simply so others can simply live.” I think that’s a beautiful saying and it’s worth repeating. It makes sense.
~ * ~
With those words, the two of us went on with our lives trying our damnedest to live simply.
Monica Espiritu and Laura Gardner are “dancehall feminists.” They spend time in the clubs making fun of all the latest dance moves, all the while enjoying themselves to the max.