Shifta Fras on the big stages: Ethio-Jamaican music sensation

Described by media outlets as ‘the new talent’, the Ethio-Jamaican musician Shifta Fras is shining on the mainstream music scene. He collaborated with mainstream artists such as Lil Wayne, Flo Rida and Che’nelle, a platinum selling Japanese artiste who sold over 10 million copies. Shifta’s collaboration with Che’nelle entitled “Do You Wanna” stayed at the number one position for many weeks on top of the 100 reggae chart. Born in Jamaica and raised in Jamaica and Miami, Shifta is bringing new flavor to the music scene with his hit singles “Hungover”, “Do It”, “Came To Party”. With his unique blending of reggae, dancehall, and hip-hop, Shifta’s powerful voice and his electrifying stage performance is captivating fans all over the world. Within a decade, he was able to release a couple of EPs (Extended play music collections which is less than an album) and a number of mix tapes (homemade compilation of music). As part of his tour, he came to Ethiopia to perform at Flirt Lounge and after that he is scheduled to head to Uganda and South Africa. During his short stay in Addis Ababa, Shifta sat with Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter to talk about his music odyssey. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Let us start with your name. How did you come to be called Shifta?

Shifta Fras: Actually my real name is Shifta; it is not a stage name. My father named me Shifta because my uncle was a shifta (an Amharic word which literally translate to mean a rebel). (During the interview his father said that he was named after Yemane Kidane, a.k.a. Jamaica, one of the prominent Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) fighters). My father was born in Ethiopia and I am half Ethiopian and half Jamaican. Hearing my name a lot of people assume it is a stage name. They never believe me when I say it is my real name.

I read somewhere that the way you do your music also reflects your name? Is it true?

I guess I don’t know the full extent of the history of the rebellious movement outside of a little bit of my readings or stories I heard. I personally think my music is about fun, party and complimenting the ladies. I like to sing about music that represents me as a person. I like to have fun, party and I appreciate beautiful ladies. When I was trying to come up with an artist’s name one of my friends said why don’t you use your real name? It is cool and it’s unique. As an artist I go by my name; so I try to sing about who I really am. Looking into my music, I would not classify my music as rebellious.

How did you get into music?

It was because of my father; I grew up around music. He is a producer and I was always in the studio during my childhood; ever since I was three years old. It was also my hangout place after school. Shortly after, I started to work as a DJ, as part of a sound system ( sound system is a group of DJs and engineers contributing and working together as one, playing and producing music). Growing up, I realized that I preferred creating music instead of playing music. From there on, I never looked back. Throughout my music journey, I was blessed to have a great set of people around supporting me and my father was one of them. He was in the music industry as a producer and a record company owner named Piper Records (A record company based in Jamaica). As we got older, my brothers and I became more serious about our music. My family and friends who aligned with our ideas started a movement called Timeless and currently Timeless Records is the label that produces our music. The CEO of Timeless, Rasheed Ali, packages the music, and gives the directions. My brothers did a lot of production for prominent artists such as Sean Paul. The management of the record label, music tours and the like are a family affair.

Who did you listen to while growing up? Any influences musically?

I grew up back and forth between Miami and Jamaica. My mother lived in Miami so I went to school in Miami. My father lived in Jamaica, so I was always there for holidays. I listened to a lot of hip-hop and R and B musicians such as BIG, Tupac Shakur, Bone Thugs and Boyz II Men when I was in the U.S. During my holidays, I went back to Jamaica so I listened to artists like Bounty killer, Super cat, Shabba Ranks, Beenie Man, and of course the great Bob Marley. To this day, Bob Marley is my favorite artist. American, Jamaican and generally the Caribbean culture influenced my upbringing. So I use it in my music. I fused reggae, dancehall, hip-hop and Rand B to come up with a unique music genre called the Caribbean Fusion. I am still staying true to the roots reggae and dancehall culture, but I mix it up with American hip-hop and pop styles. That is why I had a lot of opportunities to collaborate with artists such as Lil Wayne, Pit Bull, and Pleasure P.

Do you have any connection with Ethiopian music?

I have a few collaborations in the works with artists such as Johnny Raga and Lij Leo. These are the artists that my father has been working with. When I was in DC, I heard a lot of Ethiopian music but I really cannot tell who the artists were. I did not have the time or the opportunity to really sit down and listen to a collection of music from a particular artist. I just finished an album with a Japanese artist by the name of Che’nelle. We were actually on tour this summer for over a month where we went to Japan, China and other Asian countries. And this gave me an opportunity to represent Ethiopian and Jamaican culture all in one. That was a great experience to travel parts of the world that are so far and distant; and so different. Music opens certain doors; it took me to places that I would never expect to go. It is special to be in a position where people are queuing to see your show and you performing at sold-out concerts. It was an overwhelming experience. I have toured all the way to South America, Columbia and Mexico. We actually came from London and we did two shows there before we got here.

How is your music journey? How did you collaborate with commercially successful artists such as Lil Wayne, Flo Rida and others?

To be honest with you, a lot of these collaborations came through management. It came by, I guess, because we have a great team. A lot of people should understand that even though it is entertainment (music), it is still a hardcore business like anything else. One can have the greatest artists, the greatest music or even have everything but if one does not have the right set of people behind who will make the right phone calls, opportunities might not just come. These are relationships and connections which takes many years to nurture. So, I would say thank you to the timeless team. Rasheed has made a lot of those connections possible. He has personal relationship with a lot of artists such as Lil Wayne, Red café, and Che’nelle. It takes patience and a lot of hard work and sacrifices to make this happen.

Did you think you have the musical chemistry with artists such as Lil Wayne and Flo Rida?

I always take pride with the artists that I am collaborating with. I do not want to do collaborations on songs that I do identify with. Musicians like Flo Rida are really serious about music; and they do it for the love of the music. I remember him standing by the DJ booth just like other artists and I remember him going to places and performing just for the fun of it. And I was happy to see him catch his break and the same thing with Pit Bull. These were people I witnessed growing up as they turn from local artists to international super mega artists. They obviously heard about me the last few years in the Miami music scene. When we reach out to them it was a good vibe they appreciated and respected the differences we make.

How was the feedback of the collaboration?

The feedback on the collaboration with Flo Rida went well. It topped music charts. We went on tour to China and opened up for the Black Eyed Peas. With Lil Wayne too, it went really well; the video got millions of viewser so it was a great thing. So, the most recent collaboration which is the main focus right now is with Che’nelle, another mega superstar. Collaborating with her was completely different. She may not be popular in the U.S. or the rest of the world, but in Japan she is one of the top five artists and has billboard type status. She is very humble. On the first day, we recorded two songs and before you knew it the song went viral on the internet; it was also an instant hit on the radio and also in the nightclubs scene. The song entitled “Do you wanna” went number one on ITunes’s reggae chart. That was a blessing. Because of the love and the support we received from the funs we were inspired to do our seven song EPs, which is set to be released this year. She is a Japanese pop (Jpop) and R and B singer. So, the style turned out to be reggae and dancehall genres meeting R and B, Caribbean, fun, good energy kind of vibe. It is a lot of club music, which is fun and somehow sexual. I am collaborating with a lot of artists from various corners of the world such as Nina Sky, another popular artist who has a Latin origin; I am also working on a remix song with Red Café, a popular hip-hop artist in the US.

On your Bio, I read that your sound is similar with artists such as Vybz Kartel, Sean Paul, Sean Kingston and Bennie Man so what makes you different? What is your sound?

That is a hard question! I would definitely have to say the diverse culture I was exposed to as a child, growing up in both places: Miami and Jamaica, gave me a different style. So, having a background of both cultures make me sound a bit different compared to other artists.

You opened the show for the renowned hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar; you are also collaborating with commercially successful artists. So how does it feel to go mainstream and get famous?

I honestly try to remain level-headed and focused. Once the artists start to feel that they are better than people they start to forget what brought them to this point. You lose yourself, lose the support of the people who were there before the fame. I just try to be real and that is my personality in general. If anybody comes up to me and ask me a question about anything I don’t pass without answering. You just never know what door that might open for you. And I remember being an upcoming artist and asking other artists I looked up to a question. Some of them explained and some didn’t. I just remembered promising to myself that I would do it differently; you probably might change somebody’s life with the mere words that you utter, or inspire them.

How do you balance it?

I am big on family. I am very close with my parents, with my brothers, my sister and with my two beautiful kids. I always take time for them; they sometimes help me balance my work and traveling. I try to spend quality time with them. That is how I balance it. Maybe, if I did not have people who really cared about me, I probably would have been lost or caught up in the moment.

Dancehall genre is frequently criticized for celebrating crime, drugs, dehumanizing women; what do you say to that?

It is a tough question. I partially viewed it in the sense that I feel like it is limiting dancehall as a music genre at the moment. And that is why I am really working hard on my music and on myself as a reggae and dancehall artist.  I try to create music that everybody can relate to. I always want to make music which the whole family can listen to in a car, for example. I like to imagine a scenario where a mother in her thirties, her child who is eight, and a grandmother who is in her 50s or 60s are traveling together tuning into a certain radio station. It is my wish to make a music which when played on the radio the mother and the grandmother would not object to on grounds of it being inappropriate. Some artists have records with its lyrics containing derogatory terms. Some dancehall songs might be glorifying violence. The listeners might not realize that these are just songs.  These artists are just doing it for popularity, fame or for the glory of another hot record. I cannot say all in fear of perpetuating a stereotype but I partly agree with the criticisms. We at Timeless want to inspire making a music that is truly timeless in the sense that it could be appreciated 20 or 50 years from now. We like to view ourselves as creating music for the society. Everybody already has a lot of things going on in their life. They got bills to pay, classes to attend, they also got families to take care of. My music is about taking listeners on a musical journey and making them forget about their issues for a split of seconds. When they are in a car listening to a radio, working out in a gymnasium tuning in on their ear phone or when they are in a club partying, I want my music to make them forget their problems, concentrate on having fun and enjoy life for that moment.