Jamaica’s Raging Fyah Burns On with Destiny
While it seems like their infectious, uplifting sound would have catapulted them immediately to fame in their hometown of Kingston, Jamaica, the members of Raging Fyah initially followed the path that many other bands in Jamaica have taken: playing backup. But their immense talent and their strong connection to one another and to their community helped them to quickly realize that they wanted to offer their own music to the world rather than waiting for invitations to play gigs headed by other artists. “It’s been an uphill time,” says lead vocalist Kumar Bent. “People [in Jamaica] are still yet to understand the value of a unit of musicians creating their own music, but we are recognized now as a band and not a backing band. What we’re trying to say is important.”
The band, which formed in 2006 and is comprised of Bent, Anthony Watson (drums), Courtland White (guitar), Demar Gayle (keyboard), and Delroy Hamilton (bass), met as students at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston. Their rigorous training comes through in their music, which is grounded in a classic roots-rock-reggae sound but doesn’t shy away from experimentation. Their new album, Destiny (out June 17), is no exception, and in fact plays freely with rich and varied influences which color songs with sounds of the Greater Caribbean, the Far East, African drumming, jazz, classical, and gospel.
Raging Fyah’s musical innovation, like the message they’re trying to get across, doesn’t just stem from one source. “We’re about peace, love, and equal rights,” says Bent. “Our music uplifts a lot of people every day. We can lead people to themselves—we are one in the spirit, and one in love.” This is evident in every song, particularly in tracks like “Feel Jah Love,” which incorporates the musical traditions of the Greater Caribbean, including calypso and soca, into a sun-drenched, dance-inducing ode to life’s blessings.
Raging Fyah’s songs are heavily influenced by the Rastafari belief system. Practitioners revere Haile Selassie I (Ras Tafari was his pre-regnal name), Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930-74, and consider him a direct
descendant of the Biblical Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (a relationship supported by religious texts like the Kebra Negast, one of the central documents of Ethiopian Christianity). Haile Selassie is an appropriate symbol for the movement and certainly a person to reverence. For Rastas, his legendary diplomacy, humility, and courage make him worthy of worship.
The bits of Rasta that most often make it into U.S. popular culture are only a small sliver of a rich and varied worldview. This oversimplification results in a belief that Rastas are all friendly and stoned, and that their attitude can easily be adopted by your average 20-year-old burnout. The reality is that this belief system has its roots in slavery and its aftermath. Many African slaves believed that they would return to their homelands upon their deaths. In the early twentieth century, Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement insisted that that diasporic populations displaced by slavery should be able to return to the continent they were forcibly taken from. Believing that Ethiopia’s emperor holds the key to salvation fits into a long tradition of finding hope for a brighter future in ancestral lands and the afterlife.
But Rastas are anything but removed from the political and social realities of this world. Rather, musicians and bands like Raging Fyah engage intensely with the tough issues around them. The music is characterized by a positive but realistic outlook that is forward-thinking, uplifting, and refuses to be taken down by the corruption of “Babylon,” the critical term Rastas apply to the modern world. Songs are motivational, inspirational, and honest. In “Step Outta Babylon,” for example, Bent sings about the value of love over material wealth: “Silver and gold have I none,/ Love is all I give to thee/ Oh Jah children come along,/ and the blessing will receive.” The first single off the album, “Jah Glory,” makes a similar point, and the video, filmed in and around Kingston, is a testament to the group’s love for their community.
Despite its grounding in reggae and Rasta, Destiny isn’t limited by one specific belief system or set of influences. Instead, the band viewed its creation as a chance to create “a new tradition” that pulls inspiration from people and cultures across the world. “We experimented with a few more genres to create our sound [on the album],” says Bent. “We want to create music that speaks to a lot of people, from mothers cooking dinner to the fans who come to our shows.” They certainly achieve this goal. One of the stand-out songs on the album, “Brave,” is a slow, soulful piece which unites gorgeous, moving piano music with harmonizing vocals, creating a beautiful meditation on courage and love: “I ask Mama ‘What is faith? Is it just believing in a better day?’/ She said ‘Son don’t be stuck in your ways,/Just remember, don’t be a slave to your grave./ Just remember, you gots to be brave.'”
Raging Fyah’s own grassroots approach to marketing and production fits with the theme (which also appears in many of their songs) that being true to yourself and your passions will take you far. Four years ago, the group started “Wickie Wackie Live,” a concert series at Wickie Wackie Beach near Kingston that has since impacted and influenced countless other live shows in the revival reggae movement. They also created their own label, Raging Fyah Productions, and released their first record, Judgement Day, in 2011. I discovered them that Christmas, when the band was selling the album in the neighborhoods of Central Kingston. The reception was beyond positive. “We had nothing to lose,” says Bent. “We wanted to release an album, so we did. The reviews were so great we decided to do another one.” Their music was noticed farther afield as well. Last year, a video for their single “Irie Vibe,” the first of its kind to be shot with a GoPro HD HERO2 camera, became the company’s featured video, playing internationally in 100 stores.
The success of Judgement Day led to touring throughout Jamaica and Europe. An extensive (and still expanding) tour will accompany the release of Destiny. Later this month, Raging Fyah will play at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, scheduled from June 20-22 in Boonville, California. After that they head to Europe, where they will travel through Germany, Russia, Slovakia, the United Kingdom, and several other countries before returning to North America (Calgary and British Columbia) in August. They hope to schedule more shows in the States through September.
Destiny is available for pre-order on iTunes and Amazon. The band’s website includes other videos and photos and will be updated with tour dates. Raging Fyah is also on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@RagingFyah). You can hear more of their songs on Soundcloud.