The music ushered me down the short narrow passage from the front door to the living room of Tracii McGregor’s quaint Brooklyn apartment. Vapors from the incense lazily burning in the corner of the room, meandered through the air to I-Wayne’s song, “Living In Loving.”
A week prior to the interview, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Ms. McGregor at a JAMPACT’s general meeting, where she was the guest speaker. Tracii’s five foot (and change) slender frame coupled with her youthful exuberance belied her passion, her intensity, her power and her wisdom. Then she spoke…she spoke eloquently and candidly about her experience as Life Style Editor at The Source magazine, her passion for reggae music and where she wants to take it, recent controversy with dancehall artists and gay rights activists over homophobic lyrics and her current work with Buju Banton at Gargamel Records.
Obviously I was intrigued by this multi talented young woman who would not be denied nor limited. So when I was asked to interview her for Jamaicans.com, there came a resounding yes! I invite you to read on.
Interviewer: I know your bio sums up Tracii McGregor’s body of work, but I would like you to reintroduce yourself to Jamaicans.com readers.
Tracii McGregor: I have a pretty extensive background in the music industry. I was the Vice president of Content and communications. I started out at The Source, as the life style editor…and my job was to document and make the connection between the culture and the music….and that was representative to a variety of the kind features that I would bring to the table, ie. Break dancers, djs, clothing designers, producers and hip hop entrepreneurs on any level…the founders of our culture…and even tracing the lineage of hip back to Jamaican music and culture. One of the last things I did at The Source before I left the editorial side before I moved on website and the television side was to do an annual Jamaican roots, culture and riddims column, called “Fresh from Yard.”
I: Is it still around?
TM: (She gets up to give me a copy) It was something too particular to …I have Jamaican roots and the music has always been so close to my heart. I’ve never really dabbled in the industry side of Jamaican music as I came up in hip hop industry…not just because of the music but more so because of the movement that was happening through the music in the late 80’s, early 90’s …fused a lot of reggae into their hip hop…it was always about the message and the culture… and the potential global movement.
I: Are you surprised that dancehall music is all over the mainstream radio stations? I am excited.
TM: I heard this before. I grew up in the 80s’ I was born in 1970. I saw the path in the early 90’s with Shabby Ranks, Supercat…then there was Shaggy and now is Sean Paul. But what you have not seen, really though is the uprising of positive and uplifting roots…authentic roots reggae music ala Bob Marley…Buju is a dancehall artists at it core, but he has a greater message that transcends the boundaries of traditional dancehall. He has broken barriers…He is continuing to do that. His latest LP is a roots record, which is incredible, it’s Buju evolved….as an individual as a writer.
I: He writes most of his songs?
TM: He writes all of his songs…all live musicians that played on the album. He has three collaborations, Anthony Cruz, Wyclef Jean and Peter Tosh, Buju paying homage to such an incredible artist who greatly influenced Buju.
I: When is Buju’s album coming out?
TM: We’re looking at November/December release date…we are putting everything together now.
I: Are people excited?
TM: People have been really excited…we’ve been putting out the word about this album… the album is highly personal.
I: Why Gargamel records?
TM: I think the independent route is something that Buju has always seen himself doing eventually. He is just that kind of individual, very business minded. Gargamel music has been around seven years ago. He incorporated here in America about a year and half ago with intent of thoroughly entrenching the brand and his music here in America and building a business here and doing everything a label does.
I: Is Buju the only artist on Gargamel right now?
TM: He is not the only artists…there is Mitch a singer, New Kidz, [a dancehall artist].
I: How hands on is Buju in these artists careers?
I: How important is he as the artist and the businessman.
TM: It is important…that more artists, especially in reggae need to stop fighting for the crumbs and start building on our own for our own. That is the one thing that I learned through hip hop is that we can do it all ourselves…give us our respect. We need show that we have marketability, viability and spend ability in the market place.
I: Regrettably there is an incredible disparity with what the artist make verses the record. And earlier you mentioned us building and coming together. Is that something Buju or his label is willing to take on, having artists present a unified voice on issues that affects them collectively? Is that something you will approach going forward?
TM: Yeah, well, I mean it’s in everything that we do…it’s in the way Buju approaches his music, it’s in the way we conduct our business…we deal on a level of professionalism that there probably needs to be more of in our community. We all need to be more educated about the business as we are wheel and dealing…and we need to understand the business so we can demand better deals and negotiate better situations for ourselves and instead of taking some bulls*** deals instead of complaining about it afterwards. There are things in contracts that are “industry standards” there is no industry standards…it is what you negotiate. And in order to negotiate you have to educate yourself, and there are books and you have to read. Then use your instincts and ask questions of these veterans.
I: Are artists like Buju offering mentorship to up and coming artists?
TM: That’s something that he has to do before start bringing other people through is to get the system set up. And that is what we are aiming to do with the Buju Banton “Rasta Got Soul” project. That is why he is the first artist on Gargamel.
I: And what is the feeling out there, here he is the pioneer and experience artist via an independent label?
TM: A persona that I look to and a person that inspires us in what we are doing now is Devon Wheatley of Fifth Element Records, which is a straight up Independent label. He is an incredible man. He promoted and independently distributed Richie Spices’ record and the Chuck Fendor’s record and they are coming up against what we are coming up against, so no we are not the first ones doing it. Burning Spears, along with his wife also puts out his stuff independently.
I: Switching gears a bit. Over the past 2 years dancehall artists have been banned from venues, dropped from concerts, warned of being arrested for inciting the murder of gays/lesbian and had awards nominations withdrawn due to pressure from Gay rights group like OutRage! Do you think that the situation is blown out of proportion and will stifle some reggae artists?
TM: There is a fine line when it comes to freedom of speech. I got to give props to VP Records and all the other parties involved in brokering that deal, because dialogue still is very important…yet and still…industry or record label cannot dictate to artist what to create. I think that sure…people can come modicum of tastes…to be mindful of different cultures…but I have the wherewithal to turn off or turn the station…I know because I am educated enough to know that does not represent the majority of reggae and dancehall music…and that does not represent the whole mindset of Jamaicans, they are not really preoccupied with that. There are a lot of bigger social issues that Jamaica is grappling with and has been grappling with for years, in terms of violence, crime and poverty…things that make the existence for the majority—the poor majority of Jamaicans difficult. And we need to work on bettering the social conditions in Jamaica and helping to uplift the mindset of the people. And a beautiful way to do that is through the music, instead of trying economically oppress our people, we should be focusing on artists like Buju and so many others who are putting out positive works. It is preposterous for these organizations to try to hold Buju accountable for a song that is created when he was seventeen. That song “Boom Bye Bye” is fifteen years old. Buju is an incredible song writer…piercing and it represented a youthful mindset. I don’t think that he would articulate himself in that manner…write a song…a powerful song that people like, and people are not running out to bash gays and that’s not what’s happening. And his body of work speaks for itself, and if you’re going to judge a man by his music look at his body of work.
I: I hear you, but the fact of the matter is that these songs conjure up violence towards homosexuals. At what point does the artist either not justify their lyrics or be held accountable for their lyrics?
TM: It is not songs that create the mindset…there are laws in Jamaica. There are conditions that existed…really people don’t talk about…where older men traveling from other countries come to Jamaica and take advantages from young poor boys. These are things that I think the artists are responding to in their songs until these conditions are dealt with….There are problems and we need to look at the root of the problems and not look at the artists.
I: Do you think that this can be dealt with simultaneously, because for gay people in Jamaica this is a concern?
TM: Not only are they songs…there are laws…legislation and that is where you need to start.
I: Looking outside in…there is a cultural shift and obviously music is very prevalent in depicting Jamaica’s culture. Either way music is being scape-goated.
TM: Music is being scapegoat because we are only looking at one sliver of the music. And you cannot say that all dancehall represents that.
I: And how does it affect live shows and tours?
TM: A lot of promoters come up with these contracts to bind arts. However, these artist need to be careful of the contracts that they sign that stifles their creativity. And sometimes it is not creativity and you have to be truthful about that. Ultimately you want to be respectful of all people…it’s a hard thing…I’m not an artist…at the end of the day I rally for freedom of speech.
I: Whose role to monitor lyrical content and behavior of the artist. Is it the artist, the industry heads or the public?
TM: It is not my place to say what any artist should do. I think that everyone should be more responsible when you have a diverse audience as listeners that are supporting your music. And when it comes to Rasta culture, I can’t really say what people should believe or think. I think that power is important. I respect everyone’s belief…I respect everybody…it comes down to respect…who cares who you’re sleeping with. A lot a times gay life is promoted so publicly where it is hard to see for a lot of people and not just for Jamaicans. The president of the United States is not going for it…he is trying to rewrite the constitution. You have evangelists on television every Sunday who are damning gay people and gay life style…burning fire. And I don’t see any campaigns against these people.
I: Recently it came to my attention that gay and lesbian activist have called for actions to prove that the promises to change lyrics are sincere. One of the actions some have requested is reggae artists performing for gay and lesbian audiences. What are your thoughts on this and would you allow any of your artists to perform?
TM: I never heard of that one…never heard of that…I’m a little confused…I’m heard of that…and I think gay people probably go to reggae shows.
I: Of course they do…Your Jamaican, you do love your culture and you embrace your culture. And I think there in lies the conflict, because you love your culture and the music is part of the culture.
TM: The dialogue needs to happen…the prime minister, other ministers in Jamaica. And the prime minister most of all who I believe have enacted several legislation with regards to AIDS.
I: Are you saying that the artist shouldn’t have dialogue?
TM: The dialogue should not start and end with the artist. There were laws put in by the British government, the buggery laws are still in existence. And I think people are thinking about repealing these laws…and that’s what one big step. And you can’t just repeal those laws, there has to be a continuous dialogue. Gays in America took years to get where they are today…it didn’t happen overnight here in American and will not happen overnight in Jamaica. And the change will have to happen on the inside not from outsiders trying to dictate what should be happening in Jamaica. Dialogue has to be happen internally.
I: A recent apology to the gay and lesbian community by Beenie Man’s was called insincere. Has your label or any of your artists published any apologies for past lyrics, which was deemed inflammatory?
TM: Can we stop with the gay specific questions? I can’t speak for Beenie Man?
I: Do you believe that the media coverage is skewed towards what many Jamaicans may view as liberal thinking? Going back to what we touched on earlier, on the professionalism of artists…you mentioned mentorship as a solution…However, should there be a process or institutions where they can better represent themselves, reggae music and/or Jamaica?
TM: I can’t really speak for other artists. Buju is a professional so we don’t really grapple with those kinds of issues.
I: Isn’t that unfair for him, as he comes in under the same billing or category so he gets lumped with the others?
TM: All he can do is lead by example. I think that’s what he strives to do. And yeah, people can step it up overall…
I: Root music is welcomed by young people. What is your feeling being here in the US of where dancehall music is going?
TM: I thought In Sept. 2004 of the Source, I did the annual reggae package; and my focus was on the roots movement. And because dancehall had exploded so big…I felt that particularly the Source audience needed to be educated on the roots of this music and what really drives the music and culture…we covered that…and we did a segment on some of the women in reggae as well. I think it’s exciting. I’m a roots reggae girl at heart. It’s really excited to see these young heads carry this torch.
I: You have a plethora of men in the music where are the women?
TM: There are a lot of women out there. In terms of the roots side of things, Sister Carole is still out there doing here thing…Lady G. is also doing here thing getting ready to blow up.; and Sister out of the United Kingdom.
I: And on the business…?
TM: There are a lot of women behind the scene.
I: The first time I met you was at a speaking engagement, is this something you will continue to do and do see others in the industry doing this.
TM: I went to lot of conferences, sitting on panels, used to having to relay information….its kind of nerve raking sometimes. It’s always been important to me to give back and share your knowledge.
I: However, what comes of all these meetings?
TM: It’s important….Black kids don’t know what’s out there. They don’t’ see what kind of opportunities that are out there if we can at least share with them the kind of opportunities, aside from being an entertainer or as sports person or TV personality…there are a lot of things that you can do….I choose to be behind the scenes.
I: Tracii, you are doing wonderful work, I wish you much success on this project and I can’t wait to hear Buju’s latest album, “Rasta Got Soul.”
TM: Thank you.