Kreesha Turner channels Jamaican roots in debut film 'King of the Dancehall'

TORONTO -- Nick Cannon's name may be atop the marquee, but the newly minted filmmaker owes partial credit to Canada's Kreesha Turner for helping make his directorial debut a reality.

The American entertainer was acting as manager for the Edmonton-born singer-songwriter when he accompanied her to Jamaica on business.

Turner's ties to the island run deep, having attended high school there and her regular visits to relatives over Christmas and summer holidays. She credits Jamaica for helping her foray into music. Turner said she didn't start singing until she was 16, after landing a spot in the church youth choir based on the strength of her rendition of "O Canada" in a solo audition.

"When inviting foreigners to the island, you want to show them the part of the culture that they wouldn't see if they were just there as a tourist on their own. So I had the opportunity to take him to all of my favourite things in Kingston," recalled the Juno Award-nominated Turner.

"Because I'm such a cultural ambassador to Jamaica, I showed him all the things that I loved. And he was fascinated and intrigued and inspired by it and ended up writing his script, and here we have 'King of the Dancehall."'

Cannon directs and stars as Tarzan, a Brooklyn native who heads to Jamaica to enter the drug trade in an effort to cover the medical bills of his ailing mother (played by Whoopi Goldberg). With the help of his cousin (Busta Rhymes) he makes headway into the world of weed. When Tarzan arrives in Kingston, he gets swept up into the dancehall craze and gets help from Maya (Kimberly Patterson) to find his groove.

The pulsating reggae music -- typically characterized by rhyming or singing over uptempo beats -- was popularized by artists like Sean Paul, Shabba Ranks and Beenie Man and has influenced superstars like Rihanna and Drake.

Turner makes her acting debut as Kaydeen, who is vying for Tarzan's affections.

"The character is so opposite of my personality. I'm like: 'Yo, people are going to hate me after this movie because I cause a lot of trouble,"' said Turner. "Needless to say there's the lead girl, and I'm trying to steal her man."

Turner said many people are unaware of the dance crews in Kingston, which she likens to b-boy culture in hip hop.

She said she had a lot of fun training alongside dancers for her role and "absorbing the culture" entrenched within the local scene.

"There's a certain type of movement that is very African-oriented. It's very grounded, it's very earthy. Their type of movement is just different ... than jazz or hip hop or ballet. It has a very different foundation and usage of the body."

Turner said part of her training involved learning the art of "head top," or spinning on her head.

"I'd never done a headstand in my life, and I started taking yoga so that I could learn because there's a lot of yoga positions that are on your head," she said. "I did headstands every day for at least a couple of hours a day for three months straight until I got it."

Kreesha Turner promotes the film 'King of the Dancehall' during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Turner has three songs on the film's soundtrack. But as she shifted gears to her screen role, she admitted to some initial anxiety about relinquishing certain creative controls.

"When I'm shooting a music video, it's me, it's my song, I know all the lyrics, there's no second-guessing in my head. Everybody who's on set is specifically placed there," she said. "This movie in particular is shot guerilla-style."

Turner credited Cannon's relaxed attitude for helping to contribute to a more laid-back atmosphere during filming.

"Nick's a super down to earth, chill person," said Turner. "Because there's so many unexpected elements with the non-actors and actresses, he kind of allowed us to feel it out in a sense.... He wanted to catch people in their natural element."

"King of the Dancehall" had its world premiere at last year's Toronto International Film Festival and was later acquired by YouTube Red, the streaming site's subscription service. In Canada, "King of the Dancehall" is available for purchase on the streaming site.

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