John Q: navigating the fine lines between reggae and afropop
One afternoon in August 2016, a bespectacled artist name John Q, a reggae artist, was driving down a lonesome stretch on White Plains Road near the train tracks, stretching far from the Bronx beyond Manhattan, New York.
He greeted almost everyone in sight before making his way into an African shop, where he dropped copies of his music album, ‘Feel Good Reggae’, to the owner of the shop, an old friend. He stopped and briefly interacted with onlookers who asked for a photograph and signed copies of the album.
The album, recorded in the studio of reggae legend Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong studio in Kingston Jamaica, remains his first major piece of work, though he has done other singles spanning a period.
Good musicians are judged by the quality of their lyrics and for Q, known in real life as John Kwesi Quansah, he is equally appraised on his ability to navigate the fine lines between languages, a gift he very much explores with ease.
The album contains the songs including ‘Born Alone’, ‘Reggae Babaoo’, ‘Rain and Sun’, which, after their release, received enormous airplay on radio stations across the United States, London, Ghana and Jamaica, and then Australia.
John Q, a product of John Teye Memorial Institute, Accra, is at the moment visiting Ghana where he hopes to research the country’s music scene, and pick ingredients that could be key to his own music career.
A gifted guitarist, Q had always wanted to become a musician and back in August, he told me Bob Marley’s ‘One Drop’ was the song which ignited his passion for the genre. “There’s something in the song that I still struggle to put a finger on.”
He wrote the usual songs with a bit of wobbliness and sometimes wonderful but always frighteningly self-conscious stuff that smart, ambitious aspiring artists often indulge in. But with time he got better and started to smoothen the rough edges of his writing, reflecting a grounding in the social consciousness that often influences the character of reggae music.
Originally from Ghana, he moved to the United States to further his education, where he studied science related subjects.
But music kept drawing him into a space which calls on its apostles to pick raw words, stitch them together in order to make them appealing to the ears- while satisfying the emotional needs of consumers.
John Q comes from a family with strong credentials in both law and science, so it was natural he followed the family’s tradition by pursuing any of them. But he chose the latter and ended up as a health safety expert. He found the love affair with music too strong to ignore, something he admits was a bit unsettling even for the family.
John Q was not blind to the juicy opportunities health safety expert position offers, which remains his main professional life. But the source of fame, though modest about it, is the music which caught the attention of some of the heavy weights in the reggae music leading to a recording spotat Tuff Gong, a studio known for producing some of Bob Marley’s greatest hits.
Wearing a white t-shirt with short black pants and snuggling his mobile phone, Q said he made sure the affection for music did not bruise his expertise in health, a situation he describes as a “love and hate” relationship. “I find spiritual fulfillment in music and anytime I pick my guitar, the vibe is always different and that is what continues to sustain my passion.”
Often willing to experiment with other genre of music and how it could fit into the bigger musical frame, he collaborated with Bright, formerly of hip-life group Buk Bak, to produce a single, ‘Dirty Dance’, which continues to enjoy massive airplay across the globe.
A high tempo afropop song, Q sings in four different dialects, including Spanish, a language he has found comfort in and uses to the best of his ability, as he also tries to satisfy a large Hispanic fanbase in the United States. “It is the biggest international afropop song across the world,” he said.
He was full of praise for Bright’s willingness to feature on the track, something he reserves for trusted friends in the music industry.
Bright’s “unique voice” and legendary status in the hip-life scene are massive plus for him, which have somewhat earned him airplay on most of the country’s radio stations, though he admits more work needs to be done to cement his place in the heart of his growing fanbase.
While here in the country, he is hoping to use the time to meet with colleagues in the industry to discuss potential collaboration and see what will come out of it, admitting he does not expect that to happen overnight.
“Music is spiritual and the fact that an artist is big doesn’t mean you can collaborate with them successfully.”
John Q is confident his new found love in afropop does not mean he is ditching reggae for good, it is just a sign the two can co-exist without bloodbath, musically.