Introducing to you Jamaica’s newest sensation Shauna McKenzie, better known to Reggae fans as the extremely talented, free-spirited Reggae Soul singer/songwriter Etana. Etana, which means strong one in Swahili, combines the velvety richness in her voice as Jill Scott and Corinne Bailey-Rae, with the self-awareness and passion of Lauryn Hill. This prolific female vocalist has one of the best voices in present day Reggae with the awards and plaudits to match.
Etana's debut album The Strong One combines flawlessly pure vocals, with soft, soothing melodies. It contains a captivating and emotive mix of music and lyrics which observes and celebrates the joys and struggles of life and love. Etana is not afraid to tackle any subject head on, from not being beaten down by obstacles on Overcome, and her desire to be more than friends on More & More, to staying true to yourself on Roots, which features the powerful chorus “You can‘t water down and dilute. You can‘t hide the truth from the youths. You can steal the fruit not the root, ‘cause the youth‘s ah hold them [are holding onto their] Roots.”
The powerful, yet gentle tone of her voice, as well as the beautiful melodies that she creates will help uplift your spirits, even when the sun is not shining, ensuring that The Strong One will be amongst the ultimate soundtracks of this summer.
Marvin Sparks caught up with Etana to discuss the highly-anticipated debut album The Strong One, her recent achievements, journey to the top and more.
Marvin Sparks: Etana is a really nice, unique name is it your real name?
Etana: My given name is Shauna, and it means pretty. I feel like woman are beautiful all over the world, but not every woman knows the power and strength of a woman. I looked up a bunch of names, African names, and I found this one that rhymed with Shauna. When I looked up the meaning it meant ‘the strong one‘, so I figured that would be the perfect name.
So thats how you came to name your album?
Marvin Sparks: Now for those who don’t know you, how would you describe Etana and your music?
Etana: My music is free. Yes, it does have some Reggae base in it, Reggae influence is very high, but then you have Acoustic, some Jazz. Very free spirited music, because I am a free spirited type of person with not much fear of anything. That is why I called my label Freemind Music.
Marvin Sparks: You've been compared Jill Scott and Corrine Bailey-Rae, do you see the comparison?
Etana: Woah! Well I do love Corrine Bailey-Rae. The first time I heard her song, ‘Put Your Records On,’ I couldn’t believe it. I was like ‘Wow. Who’s this?’ Same thing with Jill Scott and India.Arie, I always loved their kinda music, so maybe.
Marvin Sparks: Your music is described as Reggae Soul, what’s the difference between Reggae Soul and Roots reggae?
Etana: Reggae Soul and Roots Reggae is somewhat of the same thing, only that Reggae Soul comes with a bit more of the Blues. When I say the Blues, you ever heard American Blues? When someone takes the guitar and moan? When they sing you can feel the pain of what they are singing? Reggae is pretty much the same thing, but with an R&B twist to it, and Jazz.
Marvin Sparks: Let’s take a little journey from the beginning of your music career to now. You was on your way to becoming a nurse. How hard was making the decision between choosing music and a career in nursing?
Etana: Funnily enough, I never, at anytime planned to become a singer. I never even wanted to do the first audition to get into the group of girls, but I went down there because my friends wanted me to go down there. When I went down there and I got into the group on the same day, it was like a 360. At that time I was thinking, “What do I do? Do I go back to work or what?” But then because of the schedule of rehearsing and working out everyday, and after getting paid the first cheque I realised I didn’t have to go back to work.
After joining the R&B group in the US, you eventually walked out due to differences on the overall image of the group. Tell us a bit about that.
Etana: I was trying too hard to fit in. I just felt naked all the time, it was all about sex. In America, to me, it was all about sex. If it’s not about sex, then it doesn’t sell as fast. When you pinpoint [successful] soul artists in America, there’s only India.Arie, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and that’s about it really. Everything else is Pop and Sex. That’s it.That was a brave decision of you to stand your ground, and true to your morals.Yeah, I couldn’t be bothered with that. Cameramen were just looking anywhere they felt like looking. It’s like your body wasn’t respected in anyway. It’s never respected. As long as you’re doing Rock and Sex music, everybody is expecting for you to be this sex thing, not even a person, y’know?
Marvin Sparks: Your first break in the Reggae world was as backing singer for the group Fifth Element and Richie Spice who is Pliers from Chaka Demus and Pliers’ brother. Both the group and Richie were having a lot of success at the time, so did you get the feeling that this is where you wanted to be?
Etana: No, I was just having fun really. I was just travelling, I was onstage performing with Richie [Spice] as back-up singer, creating routines so we could look good on the stage, buying new clothes so we could match as back-up singers, and making sure the harmonies were hot! That’s what I loved the most about touring with Richie. The music always felt good, we created vibes, and certain times when the music would stop, we would stop. It was fun for me, so it was nothing but fun and travelling really.Wrong Address was created whilst chilling with the guitar player and Percussionist from Richie Spice’s band.
Marvin Sparks: What made you decide to go from back of the stage to the forefront?
Etana: People kept asking who I was, so I wrote the first song called ‘Time’. That was for a little girl who was singing one of my more sexual songs. I said I had to write a song that would uplift and educate them, and see life in a different light, as opposed to just being a sex figure, or known for sex, having babies, and being in the kitchen. I wrote ‘Time’, then I wrote ‘Wrong Address’ and released them both, but ‘Wrong Address’ caught on faster than ‘Time’ did.
Marvin Sparks: What’s the better feeling, the moment you realise you`ve created a hit song, or seeing the reaction from fans when performing it?
Etana: [Deep thought] You never know when a song is gonna be a hit when writing it. Like, if you’re writing it from your heart, you’re just writing what you feel. I would say the best part is when you see the people singing it and reacting. Even when I get onto the stage now, certain songs I don’t have to sing out. I just start it, and they sing it. That’s the best part. Just to see the people smiling and vibing back with me.
Marvin Sparks: In ‘Wrong Address’ you are singing about being disadvantaged simply for the fact they are from bad places. You were born in August Town, Kingston, Jamaica which is considered a wrong address. Is the song based on real-life experiences that you had seen around you?
Etana: Well, we see it everyday. Even to go to certain schools, you can’t go to if you’re from the certain address. My aunt was applying for a job, and she got friendly with the front-desk girl. When she came out she told the girl, “It doesn’t look like I’m gonna get the job, because the man said he was gonna call me back later, and he kinda put the application to the side.” When she picked the application back up, because she knew she wasn’t gonna get the job, which was kinda negative on her part, she took it to the front, and showed the girl. The girl said, “How do you think you’re going to get a job and put August Town as your address? You can’t get a job with a [ghetto] address.” But, I mean, that is just life. They’ve got the division, Uptown and Downtown. Working class, middle class, and upper class.
Marvin Sparks: Which would you say is your most personal song?
Etana: Woah! Most personal? Well you’ve got ‘Roots’. You’ve also got ‘I Am Not Afraid’...That was very personal with some of the struggles I was going through. I really kinda flipped out on that track somewhat. I have ‘Roots’. To me, all of them are personal, all of them. They have to have apart of me for me to express it the way I do. It has to be something the irked me, something that bugged me, something that I needed somebody to know, or something that happened to somebody else.
Marvin Sparks: What else can we look forward to hearing on your album, 'The Strong One'?
Etana: To me there’s something in it for everyone. I call it a flower garden. It has many different colours, but when you look at it all together it’s beautiful. I never just stick to just one type of tune, like just a Reggae album. I gave a piece of me in every way possible that I could. That’s why I call it, for me, it is like an introduction album which shows different sides.
Marvin Sparks: You’ve spoken before about artists such as Erykah Badu, India.Arie and Jill Scott, who else were your influences growing up?
Etana: I listen to a wide range of music. First of all, I always say give thanks to Bob Marley for spreading Reggae. For staying in hotels that were not the best, to going without food, and making sacrifices for taking Reggae as far as he did. Sizzla Kalonji is the one that made me cut the perm off my head [laughs]. I used to listen to likes of Gladys Knight and Dolly Parton. ‘Stand By Your Man’ is one of my favourite songs, and it was my Mother’s favourite songs. Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Oh, and Alanis Morissette, every one of them.That’s quite a diverse selection there.
Marvin Sparks: What was the last album you uploaded onto your iPod?
Etana: Truthfully? [Deep thought] Last were NeYo and Lil Wayne [laughs]. Bob Marley was the first. The one that has ‘Babylon System’ on it [Survival] was my first, first one. Sizzla, Capleton, all of them are on it. Jill Scott ‘Live’, Avril Lavigne, Pink. I have a lot of people on there.
2007 was a good year for you.
Marvin Sparks: You won quite a few awards for 'Female Vocalist of the Year'. Which awards did you win?
Etana: I won the Teen Observer, Excellence in Music & Entertainment (EME),Irie FM, and Reggae Academy. I know of about 5 awards [5th award was ‘27th International Reggae & World Music Awards’]
Marvin Sparks: That must have felt like everything was paying off for you?
Etana: I keep them in this case just to keep myself reminded, but really and truly I see past that. I know I have a mission, and I know I have a lot more work to do. I’m grateful for every award, all the people voting, and calling in. I really appreciate it, but I’m still on a mission, because the work is not done yet, for me. The work will not be done until every woman realises the strength of her powers, and to use them in a more appropriate way where men can respect them to the fullest, y’know? And not feel like “Yeah, I can have sex, so what?” That’s not supposed to be a means of survival.
Marvin Sparks: What are you aiming at for the rest of 2008?
Etana: Just to have good tours. I’m touring Europe for 4 weeks, then I’m going to the East and West coasts of America after, I’m just hoping to have good tours. I know that, for some places I will be introducing myself to people that have never heard my music before, some places that will already know me, so I think either way it’ll be good.