Nothing’s taboo for Tanya Stephens

One of Garry Steckles’ favourite singers, Tanya Stephens tells it like it is

Tanya Stephens

Every few years, someone comes along on the music scene whom I can’t get enough of. The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Aretha; Bob Marley, Culture; Sparrow, Kitch, Calypso Rose, and David Rudder; Miles Davis, Fela Kuti, Van Morrison and Stevie Wonder, to name just a few. With all of them – and by no means only with them – I’ve gone through spells where their songs were buzzing around in my head from the moment I woke up to whenever I drifted off to sleep, and the first thing I would do whenever I got home was rush to the nearest source of music, be it an old-school record player way back when, or an iMac and iTunes these days, and soak up their genius.

Which brings us quite neatly to the latest chapter in my saga of musical addiction. It’s one that has taken me back to Jamaica, the island that has probably been the source of or the inspiration behind more of my favourite artists than anywhere else.

And the singer-songwriter who’s got me – and countless others – hooked as our crazy world lurches into yet another decade belongs right up there in the exalted company above: Tanya Stephens. Like all of them, she makes music that matters.

Tanya’s been around for quite a while. She first appeared on the dancehall/reggae scene in the Nineties, and the first time I can recollect hearing her was listening to the track “Yuh Nuh Ready Fi Dis Yet” on the dancehall compilation CD Reggae Gold 1997. It was a good track, a notch above routine dancehall, but that was little indication, at least to my ears, that this was an emerging artist of true substance.

As Stephens herself puts it, “Early in my career I did what I was told to do or what I was told I needed to do in order to merely survive…as I get older and more experienced I embrace the fact that it’s my thought process that I’m sharing, not somebody else’s, so if people don’t like what I’m saying I’m not trying to trick them into accepting me by assuming another persona.”

That thought process, and the heady range of topics Tanya Stephens embraces through her music, are just part of what makes her so special. The other crucial component of her appeal is that, like all the artists I mentioned at the beginning of this column, she has created a sound that’s absolutely unique, in her case by harnessing her voice, a slightly husky, slightly raspy and deep-down sweet alto that commands attention and respect, with a rhythmic and melodic pattern that seems to announce “This is Tanya” whether the song in question is XXX-rated dancehall or a straight-from-the-heart “conscious” composition in the great tradition of reggae’s roots era.

And nothing is off limits. Homophobia (rampant in Jamaica); organised religion (ditto); booze, infidelity, marijuana, relationships, racism, love, promiscuity, sex…In fact, the more sensitive the subject the shorter the odds against it cropping up in a Tanya Stephens song.

As she puts it, “No topic is taboo. As a matter of fact the more ‘taboo’ it supposedly is, the more compelled I feel to speak about it. I’m not afraid, neither do I pigeonhole myself…I do nothing for external validation. This is who I am and this is how my music is made. Freedom, equality, evolution, that’s my sound. Truth, respect, empathy, that’s my sound.”

Some of Tanya’s music, I should perhaps mention if it hasn’t become obvious by now, is not for the prudish. Her raunchy numbers are not exactly couched in the subtle double entendres that were an integral component of the Sparrow and Kitchener calypso tunes she listened to growing up in rural Jamaica as one of seven children. But she picks her spots when it comes to raw language. The F-word and the N-word crop up in a few of her songs, but never gratuitously and never offensively – and I write this as someone who’s got no time whatsoever for musicians who use profanity simply to shock and seduce the gullible into buying their music.

Interestingly, for an artist so much in the public eye and admired by so many, Tanya Stephens likes to keep a decidedly low profile.

“While I do treasure my privacy and personal space,” she says, “I do not depend on others to preserve them for me. I understand fully the nature of this business I fought so hard to get into, so now I am in I can’t complain about its components. On that note, there are no ‘intrusive’ questions, as I will always only divulge as much as I deem relevant to the public. I’m not a secretive person, just private!”

Which got me to thinking, yet again, about Tanya and the great musicians in the first paragraph of this column. There’s something else, intriguingly, that they have in common (Madonna, Britney, Kanye, please take note): there’s not a publicity hound among them.

I’d like to write more, but space is running out, on top of which it’s just past four in the afternoon and I haven’t listened to a single Tanya Stephens track thus far today.

So, perhaps it’s time to crank up Rebelution – Tanya’s 2006 CD, and my personal favourite – and try to decide which song to start with. “Cherry Brandy”, perhaps? “Warn Dem”? “Do You Still Care”? “To The Limit”? “Come a Long Way”?

Decisions, decisions. Thank you, Tanya, for presenting me with such a welcome dilemma.