Dancehall artiste Cham: Dancehall's revolutionary fighter
The Jamaican deejay on political corruption, early morning wake-up calls, and planning his family around the economy.
COMBINE TWO of dancehall’s most prolific artists and the result is pretty much inevitable. So it’s no surprise that the pairing of Cham and Damian Marley resulted in a hugely powerful single.
Aptly titled Fighter, the song, produced by legendary dancehall producer Dave Kelly, examines political corruption in Jamaica’s inner cities and encourages working class people that through hard work, they will “reap the riches”.
“I'd describe it as a passionate song about life, where you want to go in life and how much you have to sacrifice in order to get there,” said Cham, who was formerly known as Baby Cham.
“It's basically a song of hope. And people need hope in these times.”
Despite the video being filmed in Jamaica, Cham insists the message is applicable for many people throughout the world.
“I think it's really a third world story, it's not just about Jamaica,” says the 34-year-old. “If you go to places in Brazil, Africa and the Caribbean, you'll hear tales of political corruption, so it's not just about Jamaica. To me, music is a mirror to society and as musicians, it's our job to reflect what's happening in society through music.”
If ever there was a dancehall artist to tackle social issues head on in his music, it’s Cham. In his track, Desperate Measures, the deejay examined the desperate conditions of working class people in Jamaica and warned the MPs “oonu leave wi with no alternative” but to resort to desperate measures in order to survive.
Then, there was the superbly scathing smash, Letter To PJ, in which the artist questioned Jamaica’s then Prime Minister P.J. Patterson on a number of issues, not least “the British monarchy and dem immigration policy.”
After recounting Britain’s involvement in slavery – “dem bring we come yasa pon plantation/ rape nuff woman and kill nuff man/ turn we inna slave and build up England” – Cham questioned the decision of the British government, who, in 2003, announced that Jamaican travellers would require a visa in order to enter the UK.
Perplexed by this announcement, Cham asked the Jamaican leader through song: “How dem fi tell we say we need visa? England was built by our fathers.”
Considering where he developed his desire to be so politically outspoken, Cham said: “I think that passion was born in high school because in high school I loved history. I read a lot of books like Emancipation to Immigration and I think it was my love of history that created a passion in me to want to tell real stories through music.”
His most internationally known “real story” is his smash hit Ghetto Story. The song saw Cham recalling his life pre-success, including memories of his impoverished childhood where his bed was “a big piece of foam.”
The 2006 hit earned the artist international prominence, which was aided even further when US singer Alicia Keys, who loved the song, teamed up with Cham for a remix.
Ghetto Story received mass airplay in the clubs and on radio, earning the Jamaican star international prominence.
Acknowledging the value of radio airplay for artists, particularly dancehall artists, Cham expressed disappointment at the fact that UK radio station Capital XTRA (formerly Choice FM) no longer has any shows dedicated to reggae or dancehall music.
“The fewer platforms we have for reggae/dancehall music to be heard, the less of an audience the music will have,” Cham reasoned. “By virtue, this results in decreased returns for us artists. So it's clear that these mediums are very important for reggae/dancehall music and by extension, for us the artists.
“We have to also remember that reggae/dancehall music is a form of expression of the Jamaican culture and if there is no outlet for this, you will find that there will be a lack of development of the music, the artists and also the industry.”
Nonetheless, Cham has managed to maintain success through his career, establishing himself as one of dancehall’s most talented artists.
And despite his name change in 2005, Cham acknowledges that he’ll always be Baby Cham, particularly for a certain set of his fans.
“Baby Cham is for my ladies,” he laughs. “I know I’ll always be Baby Cham to many of my female fans.”
Insisting that his success is the result of “teamwork,” Cham heaped praise on one of the key members of said team; his longtime collaborator, Dave Kelly.
“We live like brothers; like family,” he says of the revered producer, whose hits include the Nadine Sutherland and Terror Fabulous collaboration Action; Beenie Man’s smash hit Dude; and Cham’s Ghetto Story.
“Whatever I’m thinking about, he’s often thinking the same thing. I think that comes from working together for a long time. As soon as I graduated from high school at like 16, I was in the studio with him. He taught me how to record professionally and by working with him over the years, I’ve learned so much.”
So strong is their bond that the pair aren’t averse to calling each other early in the morning to share musical ideas.
“With Fighter, Dave called me one day at like six in the morning and started singing this crazy hook down the phone,”
Cham laughed. “He knows I’m always up early, so I can often expect a call or text from him early in the morning and it goes the same the other way round as well.”
Though music remains his number one passion, Cham also likes to make time for his other love – football.
“When I'm not on the road, which is rare, my day would involve watching a lot of soccer games. I'm a very big soccer fan and I support different teams in different leagues. In England, my favourite team is Liverpool. In Jamaica, we grew up on Liverpool, as John Barnes was playing for them. They had a good team back then!”
Does he play too?
“Oh yeah, I play as well. I’d say I’m pretty good!”
Music and football aside, the artist is also a family man. Married since 2002 to singer Ophelia Beckett, who sung the hook of his single Wine, the couple have two sons. Asked if he and his wife might try for a daughter, the financially cautious star laughed:
“I’m watching the economy!”
Fighter is out now on Madhouse Records. Follow Cham on Twitter: @thecham