TURN UP: Interview with Soca Star Bunji Garlin
Once upon a time, a young girl from a small city in Ontario met a young dude from the heart of Scarborough (in the east end of Toronto). The girl was from a Jamaican family, and the dude was from a Vincentian one - so while they vibed on a Caribbean diasporic heritage tip, two major arguments ruled their relationship: "fry dumplin" vs. "bakes" and reggae/dancehall vs. soca.
While we still argue about the former, the latter has simmered into an appreciation and reverence for all things Caribbean music. Admittedly, I used to be one of those "I can't stand soca!" types, but life has gotten infinitely better since I righted the wrongs of my ways - and Bunji Garlin, one of my favourite soca artists, is a major part of that turnaround.
The Trinidadian soca powerhouse has been shaking up the scene over the span of his nearly 2 decade-long career. Known for his booming voice, lush sound, and sharp lyrics, he's created a musical movement that embodies the celebration, determination, and creativity of the Caribbean while being recognized by the rest of the world. His 2012 single Differentology made waves, winning a Soul Train award and Hot 97 FM's Battle of the Beats competition, being chosen by NPR as one of the year's favourite anthems, and being featured on ABC'sGrey's Anatomy. Following that, Bunji released his new album Turn Up on VP Records this September, and is ready to take 2018 by storm, during Carnival season and beyond.
A number of songs from Turn Up have made their way to fetes and Carnival parades over the past year - most notably, the electrifying single Big Bad Soca. With this body of work, Bunji has created a versatile album that satisfies the ears of a variety of listeners, with nods to current EDM and Afrobeat sounds, cross-genre guests like Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley, and songs fi di mandem/gyal dem and Carnival purists overall.
In true 'power couple' fashion, Bunji's wife Fay-Ann Lyons is a noted soca force in her own right. VP Records just released the new video for her single High Heels - check it (and a video of the dynamic duo in action at BET) here!
I got to chat with Bunji via email about Turn Up, mainstream industry recognition, musical appropriation, and more - including the simple way that him and Fay-Ann make everything work.
BQ: Was there anything that specifically inspired your creation process with this album compared to your past works?
BG: Honestly, this album I kind of let it take its own course. Sometimes we try to fit music too much into spaces and I felt as though I should let it breathe its own life.
BQ: Ending the album with The Message ft. Damian Marley is such a great juxtaposition with the first song, Turn Up - if you could describe this album as a musical journey, where are you trying to take your listeners?
BG: I myself didn’t have a particular place in mind I want to take the listeners. Let them travel where they want to. Let them feel their own feelings when they listen, just let it feel good overall while breaking barriers.
BQ:You performed at Drake's OVOFest this Caribana, and this year, Torontonians who are part of Carnival culture felt it was an improvement on his part to have a dedicated Caribbean music night. Do you feel that Caribbean artists are getting the respect they deserve from the mainstream?
BG: I mean, honestly the respect Caribbean artistes are getting now have grown by leaps from way back in one aspect, but the Caribbean sound is gaining more respect at a greater rate than the artistes per se - for example Shabba, Supercat, Buju, Mad Cobra, Ninja Man, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man, also Born Jamericans - we some serious household names on the Caribbean forefront, and every other nationality that's into other music knows those names no matter what age you are. In this era now what we see happening is the music growing so rapid that people are more into the songs because they feel good - and not necessarily knowing who the artiste is on a household name level. So it’s more of yes than no.
BQ:Lines are being blurred right now between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation with regards to Caribbean music - what do you think is being done well, and what improvements need to be made as far as how artists partner with others or take inspiration from other genres?
BG: I think all the partnerships are working well. I think that if mainstream creatives borrow or directly take from the culture, most cases it comes across as though they invented it - and people would expect that [if] they have the ear of the public that they’d educate the public on where the sounds came from and origins and such. So when that doesn’t happen it automatically registers to the wider world as “they took it and we didn’t even get some credit.”
BQ:You seem to be navigating the journey into mainstream well - Grey's Anatomy, NPR, BET, and MTV have all given you amazing looks lately. Is this something you're actively seeking or are they coming to you?
BG: All these mainstream developments, most of the cases they came to us when they saw the movement, and from there we use the opportunities to make other opportunities happen. Part of the mission with us on our team is to keep the culture in their face aggressively as well. The previous approach was most cases friendly, which people tend to discard. What we see is people respond more to bold unapologetic moves. They either hate it or absolutely love it.
BQ:The Caribbean and continental North American music industries are very different, and I think that affects the lack of recognition that most soca/dancehall/reggae artists get from entities like the Grammys. Within your circles, are Caribbean artists seeking this kind of validation, or is recognition from within the culture more important?
BG: Caribbean artistes overall I think have their eyes set on the pinnacle that is the Grammys, but because it is so rare for us it makes us now work on our side to develop us more and for us to accept us as our own people. The reggaetón movement is the perfect example of "we won’t wait for you, we moving and you will hop on." That’s the phase we’re in now on the soca side. My interactions with my Jamaican musician friends has also allowed me to see there is a reformatting of how many of them write to cover larger audiences because that is the goal of every creative, to spread your gifts further and further.
BQ: What do you think is waiting for you, and for soca music in general in the next 5 years?
BG: I think something special is waiting for me as one of the pioneers of this new movement of soca. Fortune favors the brave and the whole soca world now is newer, more modern and extremely brave. Years ago in the US, soca crowds would normally stay to themselves within the soca events - now they are the craziest partiers in the hip hop events and dancehall and EDM events, which works for us, the artistes. When I appear in one of these events, which is also read for soca still in a sense, the whole scenario goes down better because we have soldiers with us on the field to really drive home the message.
BQ: Switching gears: I'm also a huge fan of your wife Fay-Ann, and love her Instagram! How do you both make life, family, and love work while you're both so prominent within your careers?
BG: We do almost everything together which simplifies everything.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.