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With her fifth album, Rebelution, Tanya Stephens is making a bid for the title that Bob Marley continues to hold 25 years after his death. Strong lyrics and musical versatility puts Stephens in the front running to become reggae ambassador to the world. Her style leans strongly toward the patois-heavy chanting of dancehall, but she still maintains the integrity and conviction of roots reggae. Unlike many of her peers who seem intent on committing career suicide by replacing Jamaican music's positive messages with undercurrents of malignant homophobia, Stephens wants to shake up the dick-swinging establishment and get rid of her genre's stigma. The boys might have to step aside. She makes her mission plain on the track "Who Is Tanya": "World domination [is] the plan ya."
When she first made waves on the dancehall scene in 1997, Stephens was a braggadocious artiste with a nasal voice, boasting about her insatiable libido like so many of her peers. Her second album, Too Hype, included explicit empowerment anthems like "Goggle," "Yuh Nuh Ready (Fe This Yet)," and "Big Ninja Bike." She was racking up hits in the Caribbean, but Stephens yearned to share her views on more than what she refers to as "the same old four topics" the dancehall staples of sex, religion, lyrical prowess, and material wealth.
"I grew past that, and I didn't feel the need to exert myself so much. I was like, You know what? I've done the sex thing, and it isn't so exciting. I need to talk about something else. I'm bored with that," Stephens says.
The slender and apparently ageless Stephens moved on and then some. She kicked down the door to global success with her critically acclaimed third album, Gangsta Blues. Her singles "Big Heavy Gyal," "Boom Wuk," and an a cappella version of "I Am Woman" became instant classics. The plaintive, bass-heavy lament "It's a Pity" proved to be Stephens's biggest hit to date. From day one, the streets were feeling her. Gangsta Blues demonstrated her evolution as an artist and won her glowing praise from unlikely sources, including Vibe magazine, the Village Voice, and the New York Times. Stephens credits her success to a combination of modesty and a strong support system. "I never got caught up in the video life. As real life goes on, I go on with it, because everything about me is real," she explains.
Everything? If that's the case, then Stephens has a hell of a love life, and a lot of 'splaining to do to her significant other. "Well, I'd probably say that some 80 percent of my lyrics are real, but I won't say which," she says with a laugh. "The only thing I wish to clarify is that 'Little White Lie' is not my story." For the record, Stephens isn't currently accepting any come-ons. She's happily settled with a gentleman who sounds like quite a catch. "I would say he's very confident in our relationship. We see it for what it is. We know that [my success in this industry] is an illusion. We know that all of what seems like glitter and glamour is only temporary. Even though I have lasted five albums and hope to drop another five, it's still temporary," she explains.
Stephens's skepticism and humility come from her experiences in the Jamaican music industry. Many artists who get caught up in the industry machine could learn from a veteran like her. "Stars are infinite, and they last forever. They shine from the day they're born until the day they die. I wouldn't compare myself to that. I don't attach any importance to the whole industry diva ting," she says vehemently. As a woman who fought to stretch her musical boundaries, she is tired of seeing one-hit or one-album wonders go through the same song and dance. "I wonder if people can see the inevitable progression. It's so obvious. You come out and you have all of the honesty about the sufferation that motivated you to be as passionate as you are, and then suddenly you become this larger-than-life person. You start dissing all of the people who you need to help you stay where you are. It happens every time," she says with a short, sharp laugh.
Even now, at the peak of her success, she remains aware of the vagaries of her particular genre. "In the unlikely event that sadly I should flop one day, I won't have to worry about having to grovel and crawl back to where I come from, because I never left. I'm not the type of person who will hang on to the industry and feel like I'll die if people don't like me anymore. I would just be grateful for what I've got. Even if people should say we want something different, variety is the spice of life, I would still be happy. Because I was here," Stephens says sincerely.
Who could ever tire of Tanya? The sonic landscape of Rebelution features influences that range from rock to blues to gospel to classic soul. She tackles topics that few dancehall artists are ready to touch. The album begins with the "Rebelution Intro," a militant manifesto to the changes she plans to initiate. "Spilt Milk" deals with a soured romance; "Dirty Thoughts" is classic, oversexed, slow-wine Tanya. "Warn Dem" examines the repercussions of violence in the slums, and the album's first single, "These Streets," calls out to a restless lover looking for hood glory. The album's most incendiary track is "Do You Still Care," a lilting ditty that compares homophobia to racism and places dancehall's bad boys squarely in the spotlight. Ask Stephens about the rampant hatred in Jamaica's musical culture, and she gets heated. In fact she goes into an eloquent diatribe.
"I find it to be I know this will not be received with any warm embrace but I find it to be a little bit double standard and hypocritical, especially when I hear Rastafarians professing or helping to spread unacceptance of any group of people. I am very disappointed. I remember as a young child, Bob Marley songs couldn't be played in my house, because he was a dutty Rasta. Rastafarians used to be shunned for their beliefs. It is very upsetting to me to see that these same people have gained acceptance and are among the most popular, and they are now rejecting somebody else. It is just so amusing. I have a very sick sense of humor, and it carries me through stuff like this, and I laugh at all of it. It's ridiculous the things we do to each other," she thunders.
Stephens is confident that the views expressed by her dancehall peers will eventually date their genre. "Change is inevitable. Whether you want to go along with it or not, if you want to contribute positively to it, or just sit down and let change roll over you, there's nothing that can stop it," she warns. She deigns to name names, but she speaks her views loud and clear for the Kingston music-industry fat cats and the listening public to hear. "It's unfair that a few people with really big mouths went out and represented dancehall. Well, I should say they misrepresented dancehall, because they don't speak for everybody. There are many people in dancehall who have never, ever said anything in opposition to anybody's beliefs, not only the gay issue! It is unfair that they should have to wear the same stigma as somebody who says something ridiculous. It's past shocking. I think it's embarrassing to all of us. We who don't care about these stupid issues have to make a bigger noise," she argues.
In the evolution of Tanya Stephens's career, she has learned how to use her voice effectively. Her distinctive chant and powerful messages are now tempered by surprisingly melodic singing. Most recently the dancehall diva came to realize the scope of her influence when recently incarcerated rapper Lil' Kim straight-up jacked her 1997 hit "Mi and My God," only to remake it as yet another crass ass-shaker, "Dirty." This interview took place before the legal accusations began flitting about in the media, but Stephens's most apt response already came included in Rebelution's intro: "Came to pass in the days of glorifying everything wrong/That the standard for girls became a bra and a thong/And wholesome values like curling up with a good book and a bong/Went out the window along with making a good song." If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, let's hope Lil' Kim adopts more than Tanya Stephens's distinctive delivery, and eschews the disposable noise so many musicians of her ilk are recording these days. "You know, some artists spend the least amount of time making the product and then spend the majority of their time and effort on forcing people to like it," Stephens chortles. "For me this is not just music. It's a way to start discussion. It can make my life better, and by extension the lives of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Just to fix the world that we live in. I'm not even pretending that I am anything great and special to humanity, but I am a human. So this is my responsibility also to try and make a change," she adds in a fervent tone.
Her humble, down-to-earth nature stands her in good stead. Stephens has yet to win a Grammy, and she couldn't be less concerned. Her rewards come from the fans, and she revels in feedback from unlikely sources. "When I run into a lady who says, 'I don't listen to dancehall at all, but I have your album because I love what you're saying,' that to me is bigger than any award, because I reached somebody who was previously not reached by my peers. We're making people know that there is a difference out there, there's a variety of people in the dancehall," she explains.
Rebelution sweetens its potent messages and clever storytelling via irresistible beats. Stephens describes it as a movement of truth that shuns rejection and regret. "Many of my views aren't very popular, especially among my genre. But if you want to hear something different, if you're interested in discussion and you want to discuss issues for change and for better, then you'll want to pick up Rebelution. Not to chase anybody away who wants to party I haven't become this preachy-teachy kind of person, because I hate those people!" Stephens says with a laugh.
With this fifth album, Stephens has created a rare thing, a dancehall album that defies the overwhelming doctrine of the genre and still offers a great listen. That was its creator's intention. "Especially in these times when economies are getting so much worse, people work too hard for their money for you to just pick up any old garbage and take for granted that their fans will buy it. I have to sell you something that's worth the price. I'm not going to hype up an album and sell you something because Tanya Stephens needs a new car. I really am selling you something that I intend for you to keep forever. It's a keepsake I'm making."
Then, as she always does, Stephens cuts the gravity with humor. "I think it's a well-rounded record. If I wasn't gonna get a free copy, I would buy one. Or I would bootleg it anyway," she cackles. If she won't say it, we will: Rebelution is worth more than a bootleg purchase. It's a well-crafted album worth celebrating for what it is and what it stands for. Fundamentalist chanters should watch their backs: Tanya Stephens is about to blow them away with her musical uprising. The reggae industry should get ready to crown a queen.