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Written/interviewed by: Ashley ‘Splash’ Hyde & Tami Tsansai
Time to ‘Wombman’ Up
Kelissa Talks Life Lessons & Coming of Age
Safe to say Kelissa has been quietly and steadily clearing a distinctive path for herself in the global arts and music industries, especially over the last three years. Having gone through the initial stages of exploration with her artistry— music, dance, film and craft/design— she has now fully embraced all her gifts and is poised to unleash her full potential on the world, in due time, that is. Launching from the springboard of a close knit family, strong Rastafari principles and a unique level of Afrocentrism and awareness polished by her travels, she is definitely not your average Jamaican female singer.
Add to that a strong sense of self, a complete understanding of her womanhood and an acceptance
of the naturally multidimensional, magical nature that accompanies it, and the fundamentals of her music become that much clearer. Kelissa intricately weaves her observation and appreciation of natural, universal codes and eye for modern-day dynamism into her undeniable creative talents.
It has been interesting to watch her grow as a woman and simultaneously come into her own as an artist right before our eyes. A quick replay of her transporting catalogue points to a maturity belying her age and the fact that she has indeed been comfortably and rapidly evolving from the ‘kinda shy singer with a sweet voice’ into one of Jamaica’s most grounded, focused and purpose-driven women in music. We knew we had to sit down with Kelissa and play catch up, especially ahead of her new project, Spellbound, in collaboration with Anbessa Music & Natural High Music. Read on as she shares her views on a range of topics from exercise to travel, cooking to filming and gives us a peek into the possibilities that lie ahead.
IRIE. You moved to Africa at age 16, how did that first conversation go, how was it brought up to you by your parents?
Kelissa: Man, I would move back there now. (Laughs) I was about to tek my CXCs when that came about. I thought it was a joke. My mother worked for the UN, UNICEF in particular, and it was her first international posting. She was like, ‘oh we’re moving to Tanzania’ and I was like, ‘whatever, if we didn’t go to New York (she got a lot of other offers), I don’t see why we woulda go Tanzania’. But this was a chance for my family who born and grow up as Rastafari to really connect wid Africa and to explore repatriation, so… we went. That was the second time I ever left Jamaica. Before that, I went to Switzerland once to visit my uncle.
IRIE. So what was it like for you? When you landed, was it what you expected?
Kelissa: I didn’t fully know what to expect because growing up, I did kinda have a mixed perspective on Africa. My father would play records on a Sunday so we would hear different kinds of music and it was always very positive. It would teach us things that we wouldn’t necessarily learn in school. Then when you went to school, you’d hear things about slavery. When you watch it on TV, it’s a diseased, disaster place, poor and impoverished. I don’t think I knew enough to have a perspective, but maybe I’m just not remembering clearly. At first I never wah leave, who wah leave them likkle 16-year-old life? But I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I felt so deceived… it was like, wtf? I’d have been here five years ago if you guys told me this is what it would be like.
So I went to school in Tanzania and from there I went to Cali, but my passion was still very much in Africa and so I did a study abroad programme for a year in Ghana. That was the first time I was in Africa just on my own without being under my parent’s roof, living on campus, taking public transport over there, I had to be learning a little bit of the language; studying, but still find a little time to travel in West Africa as well. Before that I had only been to East Africa and is a completely different thing. Similar in many ways, but I found that I connect more with the West because I feel like that’s where most Jamaican people come from, Nigeria and Ghana. The culture is really similar in very distinct ways, like the arts, the way people talk, di way dem gwaan, when you go to Nigerian shows dem deal wid people the same way. Dem just stand up and watch you, just like a Jamaican crowd and if is not their music, dem doe really wah hear it. It just did feel like Jamaica to me and gave me an opportunity to explore beyond family vibes and mek connections, put on my little shows on the campus… a lot of my good friends now are from that time.
IRIE. We know you’ve gone back to Africa since then with Donisha (Prendergast – granddaughter of Bob Marley), what was that like? How did that trip and the film that came out of it, 50 days in Afrika come about?
Kelissa: Nuh Donisha and her mad self man (laughs). She was like ‘you want to go to Africa with me and Kush (filmmaker Mykal Cushnie)?’ and I said yeah, why not? Let’s go! It was during the 50th year of Jamaica’s independence and all three of us had gone to Africa prior and had the experience like it was our home, but were still being told on many levels that ‘you are Jamaican, you’re not African’. We all had experiences there sharing our art as well, so we kinda wanted to overstand what is happening in the film and music industries there. Why is it that we’re putting so much focus on Europe and America as people who come from Africa? Why aren’t we trying to make more connections there? Make music and make movies with them and tell the story? It’s as if you get to go to Europe on tour and you ting set, but why not Africa?
That’s where my first tour was (Africa) and it wasn’t a traditional tour… we went there and were doing some film work. Real serious groundwork, putting on our own shows, making things happen on the ground, but could you go and do that everywhere? Can you do that in Jamaica? Right now I probably can’t do that this week and draw out people. So, what’s happening over there why their arts industries are so potent as opposed to Jamaica and why are we not looking to Africa as a place of opportunity instead of always Europe and America? How can we make it a little more feasible? At the same time, we did experience a lot of challenges. For instance, we were coming from Nigeria and we wanted to go to Ghana and they told us that we had to go back to Jamaica to our home embassy and apply for a Ghanaian visa, collect it from here and then return to the continent. There’s just those little things that make you wonder, why is that so?
As a Jamaican I can travel to Kenya and I don’t need a visa, I can go to South Africa and I don’t need a visa, but there are certain places where they don’t allow you. You have to get it from your place of origin. It was a journey, to explore… like, is there space for us here? We all had passions for Africa in our own way and wanted to explore a different way outside of our Jamaican ways of doing things. As an artist, you feel like there’s always a cap on what you can do and how far you can go.
IRIE. Interesting. So what do you think was your main take-away from that experience then, having encountered and in trying to navigate all these mixed factors?
Kelissa: The answers will definitely come in the film, 50 days in Afrika, but for me, personally, as a Jamaican that’s your first ticket. People love you and see you as family, like ‘welcome home, my sister!’ I don’t think I met one person who was opposed to us being there. We didn’t really go to the government and ask them about immigration laws, I’m sure that’s a different perspective. I’m sure if we started flooding over there and taking people’s jobs that might be a different story too, you know? But, definitely there is room, there is space, there is potential so why not? We are them. They are we. There’s so many beautiful things that can come out of collaborating with them, not just on an artistic level, but on a business level. Right now Jamaica is way behind the game. We have SO much to learn from them… you want to see their film studios! Walking through Nigeria seeing huge buildings and the whole thing is a film studio, every floor. They’re just on a completely different level where those things are concerned. It’s just like, yow… Jah know, we could do this!
So that said, my big take-away is the limitlessness of Africa on every level. Just like we, dem have drive… to be the best, to be on top, just to be. It kinda did tek me out of the ‘big fish, small pond’ mentality as well where you feel like just true you’re Jamaican, you can’t do certain things when there are people out there who are really doing it, honing on their craft. It opened up my mind even further on a more industrious, business level, it’s a very modern setting. Everywhere you go has struggles, ghettos, killing, so it was just beautiful for us to get to explore that side and give people a lens into what that side of Africa is like outside of the picture we’re normally given or the story we’re normally told. We got that chance. Literally road tripped there, drove from country to country, fly from one city to the next and we only scratched the surface, Africa is huge. We don’t know everything about it, but I think it opened up many questions and answers.
IRIE. When is the film going to be launched?
Kelissa: In February, but we will be having screenings leading up to that time to open up dialogue, get people’s feedback, find out what works and what doesn’t because the way that the film is presented, it’s not a traditional documentary and it’s not like a movie where we’re acting. It’s kind of using what we got from other people in terms of interviews and the interactions that we had, as well as our experiences as artists, as filmmakers and musicians over there to kinda create an overstanding and a new picture of repatriation for Rastafari, instead of this romanticized version. It really is possible. You can go over there and get a work and bathe if you do di ting good and know di ting right.
IRIE. Do you have plans to go back there with the film any time soon?
Kelissa: Definitely! We don’t have a distinct date but, we’re thinking about December right now. I think it’s giving us time to kinda really make a plan, because when we did the actual film, we didn’t go with much of a plan. It allowed us to explore a lot more that way. It was spontaneous in many ways. In showing the film though, I think we need to go there with a plan and the good thing is that we’ve now set up foundations in each of those places where we have a network, know the spaces available for us to screen and do shows. It’s just a matter of time.
Right now is a very potent and important time for the film, especially as Westerners where we feel a little bit estranged, we’re not really sure where we fit, to know that there are places where, even if we’re not going to live over there physically, we know that the end of this world is not the end of the world. The film is kind of like a rallying point, you know? For discussions to start happening, like why we don’t have a straight flight from the Caribbean to Africa? Why is it so difficult for Africans to travel in and around Africa? All of these boundaries were set up by colonial powers so we need to start having these discussions and getting people engaged. There are all these little ridiculous rope borders that you have to stop at every time and get clearance and it’s just like seriously bredren… just have one border. It just shows that you can’t really control Africa… the landscape.
IRIE. That’s awesome. Let’s veer off topic a little bit to your main space in the creative industry right now as an artiste/entertainer. You have spoken up about some differences between the way music is for male and female artistes and attributed it to intimidation. We’d love to explore that some more. Do you have any thoughts on how female artistes like yourself, not just in the reggae space, can navigate that feeling of being cornered into certain roles and expectations?
Kelissa: Honestly Tami, I feel like they don’t even know what to do with us. There’s too much talent. We are just too multifaceted, it’s like, ‘wow, she can sing and dance and deejay, what else can she do? Oh lawd, it’s stressing!’ There’s just so much that we do! As women we are automatically multidimensional and have many passions. We’re not so logical that we just choose one thing to focus on and do that for the rest of our lives. I make jewelry, I cook. Sometimes I cut up my clothes and go sing in them on stage. I feel like people dunno what fi do wid me so it’s like, whatever, I just… do it. Wherever it tek me. Us female artistes… we never have a formula, we just doing it right now. Some things work and some don’t, so we learn along the way. You just have to remain confident, remain true to your art. If you genuinely believe that things are going to happen regardless… you have to be patient too. It’s never an overnight thing. Work on your craft. There will be a day that it does happen for you and you nah go have the time fi work on your craft. I’m in that space right now where I kinda know I’m good, but I don’t want to get comfortable in that space either. I want to be creating, I want to be writing. If you feel like nothing not happening for you, then create. That’s why you started the journey in the first place.
IRIE. We definitely agree with that. So on a different note, since you mentioned cooking, what is one of our favourite meals to make?
Kelissa: Well, the other day I think I found my new favourite thing that I made, a lentil lasagna with ackee cheese, but other than that I really like Ethiopian food. If I ever had the money, I’d open an Ethiopian restaurant in Kingston right now.
IRIE. That’s a great idea. We could do well with one… Jamaicans aren’t very familiar with African cuisine and I that’s something that we should know more about. It’s a great way to learn more about the culture, especially for people who can’t necessarily afford to travel right now. Speaking of travel, Kelissa, a lot of people think Kingston is a scary place and they don’t realise they can come here and have a real experience off the beach. For people who wanna come to Jamaica, what would you tell them? Where would you recommend?
Kelissa: Skyline Levels, my place! (Laughs) I also rate people like Paint Jamaica who are helping us all to understand the concept of downtown a little bit differently. People who live in the inner city and have a stigma attached to them automatically, like Etana says in Wrong Address. They’re people, they love art too, they just need engagement. I also think if people are gonna come here they should come with a cause. There’s a lot to do outside of the beach so think, how can you be a part of it? How can you help the change in the local market when you travel?
IRIE. Well you know as Touch The Road family we are all about that, but tell us, where would you like to go right now? What’s on your travel radar?
Kelissa: Oh God, the list is long. Hmmm… Cuba! I want to go there before it changes too much. Brazil, definitely… Senegal, India, my main goal in life is to travel the world and not just within music.
IRIE. As you mentioned Senegal, let’s backtrack to the film a little. Did you have any film experience prior to making the trod for that purpose? Or was it all about going with the flow and Donisha’s invitation?
Kelissa: I did! (Laughs) I did a little film in school. Donisha has no limitations though, she was just like… come shoot a film with us in Africa. You can be the producer and the musician! But, yes, there’s actually a movie on YouTube called ‘Stereotypically Human’ that me and my two roommates in Cali did, it was just a little funny thing about stereotypes done by one Ethiopian, one Baltimore white girl and me, the brown-skin Jamaican… so, a little bit. I’m excited to see where this one will lead.
IRIE. So are we, it sounds great and very serendipitous… those are always the best. Thank you so much for inviting us into your space for the reasoning. We’re sure our readers will be happy to get to know you a little bit more.
Kelissa: Yes sis, definitely. Always happy to reason with the IRIE.
10 must-have life lessons from Kelissa
Beautiful, multitalented and super-inspiring, not only is Kelissa quite a conversationalist, but she’s also armed with tonnes of practical wisdom on many of life’s challenges, especially as a woman in a man’s world. We learned a lot about her world views and found her tips on what keeps her a Winna to be worthy of note. Check them out after the jump.
- Mental health is key – in her own words, ‘I try to always keep my head up and keep the vibes upful so my mental health is okay. Take time to unwind. Try go likkle river, likkle beach sometimes, you know?’
- Learn to take life and yourself less seriously – as she says, ‘every day is a new opportunity’.
- Take the time to fully explore your creativity – ‘A lot of us are versatile, multidimensional beings, so why limit ourselves?’
- Get to know who you are and what you are about – we couldn’t agree more.
- Once you do that, get comfortable with who you are, accept and embrace all sides of yourself. That is where true confidence comes from.
- ‘Wombmen’ are magic, we have the power, the keys to the universe’. Right again, Kelissa.
- Be patient and go with the flow – everything will naturally fall into place exactly as it should be in a matter of time.
- Try something new – challenge fosters creativity.
- Be sure to ‘live good with people’ – in other words, treat others as you wish to be treated.
The world is already full of hate, be the change and radiate love.
- Make time for your ‘self’ – it is important to hold some space on your own to listen to your thoughts and examine your emotions away from the world. This is a crucial step in getting to know and understand yourself and your capabilities.