Beginning with the phenomenal success of teenage sensation Koffee, 2019 has been a banner year for women in reggae. Lila Iké, Jah9, Naomi Cowan, Sevana and Zia Benjamin are a few of the rising female stars whose work has generated wider interest in contemporary reggae. But it’s the audacious, genre-blurring, female-championing collaboration between Kelissa and Shacia Päyne that has yielded one of the year’s finest releases: the Anbessa World mixtape.
Kelissa McDonald is a Jamaican singer/songwriter/guitarist hailing from a musical family: her parents, Errol and Kerida (a.k.a. Chakula and Goldilocks), are the founders/lead singers of the reggae band Chakula; her brother is reggae sing-jay Keznamdi. Known for her poetic lyrics and angelic vocals, as heard on the beautiful lovers rock singles “Best Kept Secret” and “Take Your Time,” Kelissa also projects a fierce warrior spirit (“Gideon” featuring Keznamdi) and a unifying social conscience (“How Many More” featuring Sa Roc); both tracks were remixed for inclusion on Anbessa World, which premieres below.
Shacia Päyne Marley (who deejays as Shacia Päyne) is the daughter of Stephen Marley and the only professional deejay among the Marley musical offspring. Born in Miami, Shacia has lived in Los Angeles for 10 years and has been deejaying since 2015. She is a co-founder of the L.A. dance party To Di World and a resident DJ at the monthly Shabbaaaaa. Shacia recently spent two and a half months touring with her father, each date concluding with Shacia spinning Afrobeat and vintage dancehall selections.
Having previously seen Shacia play a set at the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, Kelissa asked her to be a part of the mixtape project and Shacia readily agreed. “I really like Shacia’s stage energy, she dances the entire time, something I don’t see many selectors do,” Kelissa told Billboard at Skyline Levels, an outdoor venue in the hills above Kingston built by her father. “Shacia was instrumental in helping weave the mixtape’s story together, in molding many of the songs’ concepts, and in the transition between songs. My music has been very contemplative, serious, but Shacia is very fun loving, which brought out that energy in me.”
“Kelissa and I are very different characters, but our connection was great,” Shacia told Billboard on the phone from Los Angeles. “We blended our takes, that’s when we added in hip-hop and other flavors. There were challenges working in different places but when we finally got together, we got the project done, and we felt good about it.”
Kelissa was raised in a Rastafarian family; they moved from Jamaica to the eastern African nation Tanzania when Kelissa was in high school. She lived there for three years then went on to college in California before returning to Jamaica. Kelissa has lived in several African countries, including Ethiopia, the ancestral homeland of Jamaica’s Rastafari movement.
In the Ethiopian Amharic language anbessa means lion or lioness, a symbol of bravery and resistance. Anbessa World merges the Ethiopic culture Kelissa has experienced with life-affirming observations (“Spectacular”), commentary on the underestimation of women’s skills, musically and otherwise (“Don’t Be Fooled”), and a tribute to Rasta females’ spiritual strength (“Lioness Order”).
The Anbessa World journey (the mixtape’s accompanying visual offers a winding road trip across Jamaica) begins with a poem by Jamaica’s Meeka Nyota, “Skin Out Yu Mind,” urging women to expose their intelligence, not their bodies; it’s a powerful message conveyed in terms commonly associated with dancehall’s explicitness. “A main thing for me is making music that children can listen to,” says Kelissa, who gave birth to her first child, a daughter, eight months ago. “That poem was mind blowing, but I wondered if it was too vivid for a child to hear? But when you consider what children listen to today, it’s better that they associate that vivid imagery with a positive message.”
Anbessa World offers a seamless blend of reggae, rock steady, hip-hop, R&B, classic dancehall rhythms, traditional Rastafarian drumming and various samples and effects. The project originated from Kelissa’s writing specifically for sound system sessions, and she toasts lyrics here as impressively as she sings them. “When an artist goes to a show in Jamaica, you can be called to jump on a mic at any time,” notes Kelissa. “Some of these songs were lyrics I could draw for when that happened, then I decided to record them.” Additional guest artists include Kabaka Pyramid (“Topsy Turvy” remix), Chakula and Goldilocks on a remix of their song “Grabby,” and Hempress Sativa on the ganja anthem “Pass That Kutchie,” an interpolation of Missy Elliott’s “Pass That Dutch.” “U.N.I.T.Y.” utilizes the refrain of Queen Latifah’s 1993 single, which addressed the disrespect faced by women in hip-hop; here, Kelissa’s incisive storytelling details a Rasta man’s refusal to share a steam chalice of ganja (a sacred ritual among Rastafari) with her solely because she’s a woman. Imparting knowledge of the ancient African Nyabinghi order of females who used drumming, chanting and other spiritual elements to ward off colonial oppressors, Kelissa defiantly chants, “if the original drummers were exclusively queens, then why should I go unheard and unseen?”
Kelissa and Shacia will perform together for the first time on Dec. 7 at the Anbessa World Sound System session at Skyline Levels. “I want to create a mass shift in consciousness. Artists have done that, from the days of Peter Tosh and Bob Marley, but now it’s time to hear the women’s perspective,” states Kelissa. “Women have something to say so I encourage people to listen with an open heart and open ears, without judging or being offended.”