Sticking to his roots: I-Wayne

I-Wayne’s conscious lyrics move to their own rhythm

I-Wayne. Photograph courtesy VP Records

Reggae music currently encompasses a multitude of divergent forms that sometimes seem at odds with each other. Although the predominant style still tends to focus on the art of partying and the pleasures of the flesh, and a significant minority continues to voice mindless boasts about high-calibre weaponry, a group of “new roots” artists are continuing the tradition of the classic reggae stars of the 1970s, such as Burning Spear, Bob Marley, and Culture. Instead of concerning themselves with hedonism or nihilism, these musical warriors are striving to better the planet by emphasising the benefits of living in harmony with nature, while attacking what they see as government corruption, social injustice, and other negative forces blighting our world.

One of the most strikingly individual of these artists is I-Wayne, whose breathless voice and heavily symbolic lyrics have proven exceptionally popular. Born Clifford Taylor in 1980, his moniker denoting longstanding membership of the Rastafari faith, I-Wayne lives with his uncle, Ansel Collins, one of Jamaica’s most respected keyboardists. This close association with one of the island’s cornerstone musicians undoubtedly influenced his professional direction. In mid-2004, I-Wayne burst on the scene with the single “Can’t Satisfy Her”, a vivid portrait of the denigration suffered by women forced into prostitution and the vicious cycle that perpetuates their poverty.

A number-one chart-topper that caused a terrific buzz in the Caribbean and the UK, “Can’t Satisfy Her” also received heavy airplay on New York’s Hot 97 radio station — an unusual situation, given that I-Wayne is no “bashment” artist, his sensitive songs totally devoid of the hip-hop leanings typically required for commercial airplay. Soon after came the outstanding single “Living in Love”, a call for unity that describes elements of the Rastafari worldview in cryptic language. The song remained near the top of the international reggae charts for several months, and even made the Billboard top 35.

In November 2004, I-Wayne signed a recording contract with VP Records, currently the most prominent reggae label. His forceful and provocative debut album Lava Ground appeared in the summer of 2005, its themes cloaked in heavy symbolism and delivered in a high-pitched whisper. From the opening number, “Life Seeds”, a song backed only by sparse guitar lines, it’s clear that I-Wayne has a distinctive agenda: he speaks out against those seeking to lighten their skin tone on “Bleacher”, condemns street gang violence on “Life Seeds”, salutes the elements on “Cool as the Breeze”, and warns of a coming retribution on the title track. The musical backing is of a higher-than-average standard throughout, with Luciano’s arranger, Dean Fraser, contributing to several tracks, as well as drummer Melbourne Miller, former leader of Burning Spear’s band; even Sly and Robbie and uncle Ansel make their presence felt. It all helped fuel I-Wayne’s rise to international prominence, as reggae’s “One Drop” roots rhythms become fashionable again.

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. After he was quoted in the March 2005 issue of Vibe magazine saying that soca music is “devil dancing . . . dancing with the demons”, the slim-framed reggae singer roused the ire of soca fans and bore the wrath of an upfront rebuttal in the form of Trinidadian Bunji Garlin’s castigating “Yuh Bad Or Wha”, a challenge to what many saw as I-Wayne’s disrespect for Trinidad-born soca. Then a number of high-profile press conferences and international live dates were inexplicably cancelled at the last minute, reportedly because of exhaustion, possibly exacerbated the strict ital diet the singer adheres to.

But neither the popularity of his music nor the “devil dancing” controversy really seems to faze I-Wayne; he still lives in the same house he grew up in, and continues to grow organic fruit and vegetables with his Rastafari brethren at a farm in the Jamaican countryside. Exactly what the future holds for I-Wayne remains to be seen, but the level of interest generated by his early work suggests he isn’t a one-hit wonder; he is in for the long haul.