Woman Power: Jamaica’s Etana

Etana, a Jamaican singer with a message

Etana. Photograph by Marvin Bartley

In Jamaica’s crowded musical landscape, Etana has stood out from the moment she first stepped on a stage. It’s not just her flawless alto, or that she has the whole rasta-chic, India-Arie-meets-Morgan-Heritage soul reggae sound going on. Maybe it’s because she’s always insisted she has a different message in a music market that tends to portray women as sexual objects.

“Young women are growing up, and negative influences are out there by the loads,” says the singer in a telephone interview from her base in Jamaica. “There has to be a choice open to them. And I want to be a part of that major influence that is on the positive side.” So, along with her management team, she’s made a concerted effort to demonstrate how she and all other female performers should be treated.

“I would have a man escort me out of the bus, another man take me onto the stage. He would carry my guitar for me,” she explains. “If I was on the line-up, I didn’t have to worry about being respected, and it followed for other women.”

Born Shauna McKenzie in 1983, Etana is no longer a newbie artist: VP Records released her first album The Strong One (the English translation of the Swahili word etana) in 2008, to wide acclaim. Free Expressions followed in 2011. Etana’s third album, Better Tomorrow, dropped in February 2013.

But her musical and philosophical perspective is still refreshingly old-fashioned. She doesn’t sexualise her image, but rather sings about romantic love with mutual respect between partners. On Better Tomorrow’s “4Play 2Love” she sings, “Let’s start over / Found the love that’s new / Let’s start over / Now we play by my rule.” And she’s outspoken about the need for individuals to contribute to dealing with society’s ills. The title track on her new album has a 1980s ballad feel overlaid with an easy reggae beat, but talks about the eternal struggle of looking from an oppressed state towards hope — dance music with a moral.

Etana has always included very strong messages in her music, which some have described as sermonising. But, in truth, she’s bringing reggae music back to its socially uplifting roots of rasta-consciousness. Her fans do not take it for granted. “I’ve had a woman come up to me and say, ‘You don’t know what you have done for my daughter,’” Etana says. “I got so emotional. It makes me feel really good to know that the message in the music is actually reaching people the way it’s supposed to.”

And she takes her mentorship seriously. Etana grew up in a matriarchy, raised by her grandmother, mother, and aunts in a sometimes volatile Kingston neighbourhood. “She kept me grounded the whole time,” she says of her grandmother. And she is passing on that legacy not just to her baby daughter (born in 2012), but to the girls in schools she’s visited across Jamaica. “It’s not just for me to sing a song, but to talk to them and reason with them, like my aunts used to reason with me. I feel like a lot of that is missing from young girls’ lives today,” the singer-songwriter says.

“Live and love life” is the phrase Etana leaves me with. New motherhood has not slowed the vibe a bit — she’s eager to tour, to plan her fourth album, to write songs for other artists. From where the strong one stands, standing out for positivity can take you a long way.