Interview: Ras Puma, Part 1 of 2
Thievery Corporation is known for bringing an eclectic mix of sounds that appeal to various tastes. In the realm of reggae music, "Thievery" comes heavy with added vocals of artists such as Notch, Sleepy Wonder, and even the legendary Sister Nancy. In 2011, Thievery's Culture of Fear album introduced the voice of Ras Puma, who graced the tracks "Overstand" and "False Flag Dub" with his deep vocals and conscious lyrics.
Ras Puma has since joined forces with Archives, a project under Thievery Corporation's ESL Music label. Also an eclectic mix of much-needed foundation reggae, the star of this heavy-hitter is undoubtedly Ras Puma. He sings tracks such as "More To Life" and "Message for the Messenger" with so much depth and fervor, one cannot help but to empathize with his passion for the subject matter about which he sings.
On Friday, August 10th, Thievery Corporation performed in front of a sold-out crowd at Colorado's infamous Red Rocks Amphitheater. Before Ras Puma delivered a powerful performance by singing Thievery Corporation reggae-inspired songs such as "Amerimacka" and "Radio Retaliation," he blessed Inity Weekly with the opportunity to get into the mind of a talented young messenger.
IW: So you’re from the Virgin Islands?
Ras Puma: Yes, St. Thomas.
IW: What was it like growing up there?
Ras Puma: Growing up in St. Thomas was something I seriously took for granted, and you know in the longrun I found out that some people do that. Some people just need a break. But, brother, sister… papa was a Rolling Stone, mother raised us, and she did a good job. Grew up in the church, and of course music was an everyday thing- you’re going to hear music. So, it was just there all of the time.
I went into the “bad man” lifestyle, (was) kicked out of high school. That’s what initially made me move (to the States). I had no other school to go to, so I had to make that move. Went to Miami, finished what I had to finish there, Virginia, D.C., and here now.
IW: When did you realize you had this voice?
Ras Puma: As far as this voice, actually singing and not chanting? It was mostly like a dancehall, chanting style. If you sung back home, you would get laughed at - nobody chooses to sing. It wasn’t until later on that I felt comfortable with it.
IW: In a video from Virginia Reggae, you talked about how you got your start and said there were certain people that helped you with your career...
Ras Puma: There are so many people that contributed to it, yunno? It happened so fast and to tell you the truth, at the same time, it felt like a long time. But it was just like a major ripple effect that just happened - a domino effect. Connections were coming - boom, boom, boom. At first it scared me. It was moving a little too fast. I still feel like I missed a whole frame of time of learning.
IW: As an artist, you’re always asked who your influences are. In that same interview with Virginia Reggae, you gave Dennis Brown the highest regard. What is it about him?
Ras Puma: The answer is that there is no real favorite. When I am asked that question, out of habit I name the first name that I might be listening to the most at that time, or is giving me the most inspiration to write my music. So yes, I can remember at that time, Dennis Brown was a major influence. I listened to a lot of his acoustic songs, and his voice was really comforting and inspirational. Literally, the sound of his voice itself was... attractive.
IW: How long have you been in the business?
Ras Puma: Officially, I would say since 2006-2007.
IW: Obviously this was before Thievery... United Souls, right?
Ras Puma: (Laughing) Oh wow.
IW: I went online and it looks like United Souls is still going strong.
Ras Puma: United Souls has been going way before, and they’ll be going forever because they love to perform and they have a rotating cast of artists. They’ve come in a way like a back-end band for a lot of successful artists. It depends on what you define as "success," but they’ve helped a lot of solo artists progress in music. Even though they might still be home in Hampton, they’re still going strong for what they’re doing, and I respect them for that. Learned a lot.
IW: When or why did you figure you were going to do your own thing?
Ras Puma: (I was) learning more, deeper into what I would like to tell people, growing up musically. Like I said, they wanted to be home, they grew there. I was thinking outside of Virginia… and it wasn’t fun any more. But that was just a sign for me that I needed to move on. We didn’t burn bridges, we’re still good friends, still call each other, but I was just growing up.
IW: That happens.
Ras Puma: (Laughing) It keeps happening!
IW: On to the album Blazin’ Hot Fyah…
Ras Puma: (Laughing) That’s where you’re going?
IW: I’m going everywhere! On the album, it seems like there are more love songs, a little more party music…
Ras Puma: I was just trying to make a feel-good (album). Around that time there was a lot of Beres Hammond. That’s my favorite artist - Beres Hammond was influencing me. The producers I was with at Laundromat were into hip-hop, alternative rock, blues and stuff like that, so they hit me with a whole bunch of music and I was still giving feed from the reggae side. That was a learning process, but we had fun doing it.
IW: So how did the relationship with Thievery Corporation come about?
Ras Puma: After I left United Souls, I ended up with a band called Stable Roots. The keyboard player, "Peanut," and the keyboard player for Archives (Darryl Burke), used to tour with Culture - Joseph Hill and Culture. So Peanut linked me with Darryl. The Archives were in the beginning stages of making music and they were looking for artists to contribute. They found me and Darryl also linked me up with Eric (Hilton). He had him listen to Blazin’ Hot Fyah. They were interested in me, they called me over and since I started recording with Thievery, Archives were performing as well. So it kind of just fused together.
IW: So Archives was already a band before you came in?
Ras Puma: Yes - not for a long time before me, but probably for about a year before I got there. The bass player for Thievery was the original bass player for Archives - Hashish. Lenny Kurlou was the only singer.
IW: How do you think your music has changed since then?
Ras Puma: The quality of the music, the tracks are more organic, more live instruments, less electronic. Archives is almost one hundred percent organic. Everything down to the tambourines that we were shaking in the booth. So definitely the sound itself became more organic, had more of a feel, and the lyrics I think… I’m growing up as far as writing the lyrics.
IW: You have much to say for a young man.
Ras Puma: That’s because of music. I give the majority of the credit to music.
IW: Just music in general or certain aspects of music?
Ras Puma: Just everything about it - the journeys, “making it,” the live performances, at home writing lyrics, new personalities, new musicians, everything. Every aspect of music has, what a lot of people say: “grown” me up.
IW: The Archives album is recognized for its ode to traditional, foundation reggae. Why did you guys go that route?
Ras Puma: It was the style and sound we were going for. It ties into the name. We wanted an “archives” sound - the way music was made at a certain time. All of the members are inspired by it. So that was a sound that we all could send vibrations to and make the album manifest.
IW: What songs did you write on the Archives album?
Ras Puma: All of the songs that I sung except for “Blasting Through the City.”
IW: “More to Life” is a heavy song. What about “Nuff A Dem Claim.” What’s that one about?
Ras Puma: Rastafari, man. It’s about people who use it as a gimmick. Who try to use the look as a gimmick, who try to use herb as a gimmick, who try to capitalize off of the message. So, if you’re inspired by it, say it. If you followed it at one time and you grew past that, say that as well. But there’s certain things you can pick up from a person that’s trying to fake it. Purposely fake it.
IW: Why would anybody want to fake it?
Ras Puma: Money. Especially in music. People try to capitalize off of the message. I can’t blame anybody on that as well. Some people sing something and don’t live it – but that vibe comes through the music. It just changes your sound. Still, it’s easier said than done - some people might not be following it one hundred percent. I can’t say I followed Rastafari one hundred percent, no. But it is still a big inspiration for me. I might not be or somebody might not be one hundred percent Rastafari but still… people know who are faking it.
IW: So, I’m not implying anything, but what do you think of the success of the SOJAs, the Rebelutions, the Slightly Stoopids, and what these rock-reggae bands are doing with reggae music?
Ras Puma: I have to respect what they’re doing for reggae music, yunno? A lot of people don’t like it. A lot of people come with the angle that a white man cannot be Rasta. That’s one of the things I hear most people complain about - they have a Rasta “look.” But you know, if you listen to what they are saying and observe them, they are some humble dudes and they’re not claiming to be Rasta. They might have that appearance, but that’s not only the appearance of a Rastaman, yunno? I respect those bands to the fullest, music-wise. I don’t know them personally.
IW: What does it mean to be “Rastafari?”
Ras Puma: At a certain point in my life… Rasta served as an introduction into more and seeing the world through different eyes. Some people just need something to believe in. Me personally, I can recommend Rasta. I cannot personally recommend a lot of other stuff.
IW: So to the layperson, is Rastafari a lifestyle, a religion, or a little bit of both?
Ras Puma: I think it has become a little bit of both. But my personal belief is that it is a way of life. It has been turned into religion in some aspects, because religion sells.
IW: It’s a business too.
Ras Puma: Oh yes.
IW: What are your thoughts on religion?
Ras Puma: The song “Overstand” says it all. I mean, what we’ve turned it in to. Religion is just rituals and a planned out lifestyle. Planned out, scheduled, manmade rules and regulations. But they’re telling us it’s coming from a divine source. Religion puts fear into people. They scare people into converting to something else that they are not really happy (with). It does not allow people to figure out who they are. From young, we are telling somebody to believe this. We don’t let them open up, they don’t know who they are. That’s why relationships go bad and friendships go bad, because they don’t know how to say, “this is who I am.” People are saying “I’m somebody different.” Religion just hinders people. But it can still be an introduction to something bigger.
IW: On your social media pages like Facebook, you post attention-grabbing articles and pictures. For example, you posted a picture of a child killed in Syria, carvings from the Mayan civilization, chakras, and it seems, expression of your overall frustration with the world. There’s a lot of spirituality and science mixed in there as well. What are you telling us? What are your beliefs?
Ras Puma: I have beliefs, but my purpose is to stop trying to base my salvation on beliefs, and rather on facts. I believe now that my concept of God, the Most High, is different. My concept of heaven and hell is different. My concept of life after death is different and I know that this right here is just an early phase. We’re just learning, we’re remembering. We’re going back to remembering what we already know.
We are spirits first and foremost, the flesh is temporary. But we’ve forgotten that, or we don’t care about it. Some people know and admit it, but don’t even care to build on that.
We have to start with ourselves first. I don’t expect one person to go out there and change the world. Let’s just stop and find out who we are first, then go on. We don’t even know where we come from. We don’t even know recent history. We are raised with a serious case of amnesia, and we don’t know anything. We have a lot, but we don’t have our wisdom. We have knowledge, we just don’t know how to use it.
IW: What’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom?
Ras Puma: (On knowledge) I know what made this technology here (points to electronic device). Do I know when it’s harmful? Do I know when it’s not? Do I know how to use that technology for progression or for… oppression?
IW: Do you constantly think about these things as you go about your daily life?
Ras Puma: I’m learning not to because it’s a big burden. The level that I’m at, if I keep thinking about that 24/7, I would get depressed.
IW: What do you mean by the “level” that you’re at?
Ras Puma: I believe in spiritual densities. If we go back to the earliest forms of writing - the Sumerians, the Egyptians- they talk about spiritual levels being in densities. Right now they say we’re in the third density. We forgot everything, so we have to back up in levels. I’m not an enlightened person. I’m still learning. I’m young, so I don’t want to act like I know everything… because I don’t.
IW: So what are you trying to get out there with your music and everything you’re saying? You could go another route, you can put out what’s going to make the big bucks. Why do you think it’s important to have a message?
Ras Puma: Because everybody listens to music. We look at society, we look at people, we look at the next generation coming up, and we see how music makes people act and want to live, how to spend money, how to wear clothes, how to talk, and how to walk, and how to eat. Music contributes to all of this. So we have to be careful and conscious about what we are saying.
IW: Why do you think music with a message is not as well-received as the superficial music that’s out there?
Ras Puma: Because of what we are asking people to do. We are asking them to change, and nobody wants to. Even the same people who are telling others to change, it’s hard for them to change as well.
It is necessary for us to make mistakes so we don’t go to others seeking salvation. Can’t trust them. Like we say in Thievery Corporation, we live in a “culture of fear.” We are afraid to change because we forgot what happens after this.
Click here for Part Two of Inity Weekly's interview with Ras Puma
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