A Conversation with Jah Sun: Reggae, Hip-Hop, World Music
Nate Gartrell, EDN
Based in Humboldt County, Jason McCommas, aka Jah Sun, is an internationally-known reggae/hip-hop artist, who was nominated for an LA Music Award in 2006, for his single “Fiyah Dance.” But he’s no stranger to the Eugene area, having performed in many Tayberry Jams and Northwest World Reggae Festivals.
Jah Sun will be returning to Eugene on April 19, as part of a tour to promote his recently released album, “Battle the Dragon.” In this exclusive interview with Eugene Daily News, he discusses an upcoming collaboration with international reggae artists and Ethiopian youth, as well as how personal struggles growing up led him to music, and ultimately reggae and Hip-hop.
Eugene Daily News: How did you come up with the name “Jah Sun?” Your real name is “Jason,” did that have anything to do with it?
Jah Sun: Yeah. After I started getting into the Rasta livity and learning about Jah, it seemed like a real easy transition from “Jason” to “Jah Sun.”
EDN: How long have you been involved with reggae, and how did you first get involved with music in general?
JS: I’ve been involved with reggae about 17 years. Music, I’ve been involved with since I was about eight.
To know how I got into music you have to know that I was born to a 15-year-old little girl; my mother was 15 when she got pregnant with me. I never met my father. I grew up on food stamps and government cheese. We were poor, and I had several step-dads. It was a dysfunctional upbringing with divorce, and abuse—it was pretty rough.
And then, when I was about eight or nine years old, my mom married a Black American man—he was really nice to us, and it was the first time I ever had a father figure. I idolized him, and he was a rapper and a breakdancer.
It was 1982-83–breakdancin’ was sweeping over the nation. And I was adopted into this large, southern, Black American family. I was exposed to gospel, and soul, and R&B, and rap music. By the time I was 10, all through my teens, I was a fierce MC. I was into rhymin’ and b-boyin’. At 11, I was singing on a local radio station, and by 12, I was being featured on the local news channel.
At times, in my own personal life, I was running around and being a little hoodlum. That lifestyle almost landed me in trouble, and I knew I had to make a change. Right about that time, I discovered Bob Marely, and was just instantly transformed from where I was, to Jah Sun. I wanted to learn about spirituality and about cultures throughout the world.
EDN: How did you end up in Humboldt County, and what’s the reggae scene like down there?
JS: [Humboldt County] is the home of Reggae on the River. Humboldt County and reggae music go hand-in-hand. Reggae thrives here; it’s a good place for a reggae lover to be.
I moved here from LA (Los Angeles) because my partner of 10 years now, Chrystal, and I were going to have our firstborn child. We wanted to raise our baby in a smaller community; we didn’t want to do it in LA. We wanted to be in a place where people shared our ideas of organic farming and natural livity, so we moved here. It was a great choice—we really love it.
There seems to be a bit of camaraderie between Northern California and Southern and Central Oregon. Do you come up to Eugene a lot, and what do you think of the music scene around here?
JS: Really and truly, Eugene is my second home. My partner is from there, her mother still lives there, and my daughter was born there. I’ve played Northwest World Reggae Fest three or four times, I’ve played Tayberry Jam. I love it there, and all over Oregon.
Why do you think reggae has caught on in these parts, so far away from its place of birth?
JS: Because the message is a universal feeling that people from all walks of life can relate to. It’s a message of love and unity, and it’s a music that raises awareness towards cultural unification and music that fights against oppression. These are all morals and values that resonate to the core of any person who’s awake.
Along those lines, as a songwriter, what do you like to emphasize in your lyrics?
JS: I think an artist goes through changes and grows, and as a songwriter I just write what I’m feeling at the time. At one point, I felt passionate about veganism and wanted to move that message. I have other songs about organic farming, and I have some songs about herb. But mostly, what I like to write about is people believing in themselves, and trying to gravitate towards love—I feel like there’s a lack of love in our society.
The world can be such a beautiful place, and life is the ultimate blessing. So many lives are spent in dysfunction, and wasted. I want people to realize their potential and tap into it and shine, and reflect that beauty to the world.
Do you have any upcoming shows lined up?
Yeah, I’m doing a little CD release tour in just a couple weeks. I start off April 18th at the Mateel Center with Midnight. Then I’ll be up at Luckey’s with Marv Ellis, on the 19th. I’ll play 4/20 in Southern Oregon, and then the 21st up in Seattle. Then the 25th, in Bellingham, Washington.
After, I’ll be going to Ethiopia, Africa, for the first time.
What will you be doing there?
I was invited to be a part of this really amazing project called the Youths of Shasha. It’s about Shashemene, a Rasta community. When Haile Selassie I was in power in Ethiopia, he dedicated a large chunk of land to anybody who wanted to compatriot back to Africa. And so, Shashemene has been a community there for the last 40 years.
Youths of Shasha is being funded by a label in Italy. Eleven children from Shashemene were selected, and each was paired up with an international reggae artist. They’ll be a cd, a documentary, and some music videos. I was asked to be a part of it, and I’m going to meet the kids, and speak at some schools.
What are some of the struggles associated with being an independently signed artist? Do you feel that certain messages are favored in the mainstream?
There’s definitely that element; you sing about bling-bling, or you talk about naked girls, and you have a chance to bust out and go much bigger.
I also think that, in our country, we just don’t respect the arts so much. Art programs always get taken from schools. In other countries, if you have a band and you get invited there to play, the government will pay for your ticket and be proud to showcase the talent that region has. We don’t have that kind of support here, and our idea of good music is auto-tuned pop music. So, players of instruments and songwriters and singers are definitely struggling.
But, at the same time, I’m not trying to be a pop star. I’d like to just be able to make a living at it, and take my family around the world.
The struggles are a bit disappointing. It’s tough to make money and it’s a lot of work. Being in the car for hours, going through airports, being on buses, staying at shaggy hotels, being ripped off by promoters. But there’s no greater joy than having someone say, “I got a lot out of that song, it really helped me in my life.”
What was your latest release, and where can people find it?
My new album, “Battle the Dragon,” is available on iTunes and on CD. I want to encourage people to support independent artists and buy the album—don’t bootleg it.