Born Vivienne Tanya Stephens on July 2, 1973 in Kingston Jamaica, Stephens is an influential reggae artist who shot to international prominence the late 1990s with such hit songs as “Yuh Nuh Ready Fi Dis Yet” and “It’s a Pity”.
Tanya Stephens’ command of the English language and deft ability to tackle deep social issues with powerful messages with the simplest of phrases has gained her fans across many walks of life. From the hallowed halls of higher learning to street corners, from political chambers to executive suites her messages are clear, concise, powerful and prophetic.
With a loyal fanbase across the world, Tanya sat with Ocean Style Editor Douglas Gordon and shared some of her thoughts on various topics.
On Her Music
Douglas Gordon: Do you write your own lyrics?
Tanya Stephens: Yes. Except for I Am Woman by Helen Reddy.
Douglas: What serves as the inspiration for your music?
Tanya: Life, especially people. Humans are the stupidest animals and so they inspire me.
Douglas: Where do you go for inspiration?
Tanya: I just live. There is a story in everything and it is just all about real life and experiences.
Douglas: The Caribbean is a very conservative, close-minded type of environment, and by addressing certain topics and being brutally frank about them, you are going to alienate some people. Do you feel like you are missing out on some of your audience?
Tanya: My music is not just dancing music for partying. It is listening music so people can have discussions, and if my music starts a conversation, I feel like I succeeded.
Douglas: What is the message you want your music to convey?
Tanya: Live and let others live. Live simply so others can simply live. I tried to inject that into everything that I do. Examine things carefully from every angle before you make a judgment. Everybody is a unique individual, and everybody has a different thought process, and everybody has a different experience.
Douglas: I hope you are able to get more people to do that because I think it is a fantastic way to think.
Tanya: Something needs to change. We need to change it. There are many, many people who are working to change the mindset that is already here to something that is more respectful of life and the process of life.
Douglas: Some people think your lyrics represent male-bashing.
Tanya: I analyze relationships between the different sexes. I spot the problems, I highlight them, and I suggest ways to fix them. I would not call that bashing. I will call that providing community service. (Laughs)
Douglas: Why do you think some people consider your lyrics sexist against men?
Tanya: Because some men don’t like to hear my perspective on this old problem. Apart from a few men who are willing to fix their attitudes, others will always have problems with my lyrics.
Tanya: I honestly believe that we are taking more steps backwards than forward. I am not one of those people who obsess with my blackness. It is incidental that I am black. However, I would advise that the people, who make a huge issue about color, first start advancing the race by not bowing to the “bling” and other superficialities in life. There is more to black people than that degenerative materialistic view.
Douglas: Some people say that while some are making great strides, many more black people are being left behind.
Tanya: I think many of them elected to stay behind. I come from extreme poverty in Jamaica. I did not get very many opportunities, but if I can do it, so can everybody else.
Douglas: Do they need people telling them that in a more forceful manner or is it that they need to awaken collectively and figure it out for themselves?
Tanya: It would be best if they could figure it out for themselves, but everybody can use a little help. I have had help along the way. Opportunities are rare and people have facilitated me being able to move. However, it is up to the individual to decide if they want to be silent or if you want to move. The rest is easy.
On Social Responsibility
Douglas: What social responsibility do you feel as a singer?
Tanya: I kind of have mixed feelings on that. In a perfect world, I guess we would look out for each other, but I do not think that it is the obligation of any entertainer.
It is not the entertainer’s job to determine what is right and what is not just like I do not think it is the responsibility of the drug dealer to make sure you don’t become an addict. I think it is your responsibility to not buy the drugs in the first place. The social responsibility I feel even if expressed in the capacity of ‘singer’ doesn’t stem from my being one. Accepting collective responsibility is an individual decision based on personal growth.
Douglas: But there are some who are weaker than others. Does society have some sort of responsibility to help them?
Tanya: It is all collective responsibility. However, we have to take on more individual responsibility for ourselves. All of us make up the society, but if everything begins with the individual, then I think I should place the biggest responsibility with myself.
I try to help other people, but I do not feel it is my obligation to become Mother Teresa. I would not want to concern my life with leading other people, who all have the same opportunities that I did, but just choose not to use them. It is not fair that I should have to deprive myself to raise other people.
On the Music Industry
Douglas: The music industry is going through some very interesting changes. We have seen more digital downloads and less compact disc sales. How have those changes impacted you in your own personal business and your growth as an entertainer?
Tanya: Technically digital downloads are way more convenient than discs in every way. Distribution is now much simpler and more accessible to all. Now I don’t have to go through the song and dance routine to release my music because there are so many alternatives. Also, I think it is wonderful that I get a direct statement from my consumers regarding what songs they find more relevant by watching which ones move faster since digital downloading makes it possible for people to download individual songs. Honestly, as a consumer, I do not feel that I should have to buy a whole album to get just one ‘good’ song. In my opinion, that is robbery.
Douglas: Did Rebelution do well?
Tanya: Everywhere I go, people have it, so i’d say yes.
Douglas: Have you signed with another label?
Tanya: No. The last album I did (Infallible) was made available from www.bymriddim.com as a free download and right now i’m working on another on my own.
Douglas: And what label is that going to be on?
Tanya: It is all in-house production so what we really need is distribution. I do not think I could be signed to a label. I am not really that type of artist. I am not really into the marketing and stuff. I am more into the product and the making of it.
Douglas: I think that is happening a lot in the market now. We have seen a lot of artists either doing it on their own label, or signing with smaller labels.
Tanya: Because you get more specialized attention and not just somebody who treats people as statistics and not as people. They feel like if they follow well worn marketing routines, then it must sell even though that works less often than not. Even though they have like a 15% success rate, most record labels still think that is the way to go.
Douglas: Are you going to tour sometime soon?
Tanya: Yes. Last year I was in the US with Marcia Griffiths and Serani and I really enjoyed it. I’m headed to Europe in a few weeks and back again in the summer with more regions scheduled towards the end of the year.
Douglas: In terms of Caribbean music, soca and reggae are the most popular, but do you see it having to change to adapt to what the world pays to hear?
Tanya: I do not feel music in terms of genre. I feel songs on an individual basis. I only judge based on if it is a good song. I dont think any genre has to change, but all genres will depending on changes going on in the society because the music expressed will reflect the kids making it.
Douglas: Some people argue that Rihanna is a function of the marketing machine rather than the music. Does that dispel the notion that it is about the music itself versus the personality?
Tanya: I do not see Rihanna as Caribbean at all because she has not been marketed that way. She is a part of the industry machine. So I would not really use her to reflect on what the Caribbean is doing. It is nice that somebody from the Caribbean has gained international mainstream success, but I do not see her as a reflection of anything Caribbean at all.
Douglas: So we will not see Tanya Stephens going that route?
Tanya: I never say never to anything, but I have absolutely no interest in ‘that route’ at the moment.
Douglas: Your travels stick mainly to Europe or the U.S.?
Tanya: U.S., Europe, and Caribbean. Until a few years ago, I was really very afraid of flying long distances. I still haven’t been there but I have lots and lots of support from Japan, it is just the really long plane ride that used to bother me but i’m good now so I will get there eventually.
Douglas: Your songs deal with relationship issues as well as women empowerment. Your no-excuses type of attitude says take responsibility for your life. But do you see that happening with women today or women in Jamaica, the Caribbean, around the world? Are some making strides while others are held back?
Tanya: We are making strides in both directions. Some are looking significantly worse and some are really much better. There are still some people with such poor standards of living that anything can get violent. The good thing is that the women who have made progress seem to be more group-oriented. They want to teach and they want to influence by spreading what it is they are achieving. You will always have some women who are really smart, and you will always have some women who are really not. Then, you have some who are kind of in the middle. You have some who are over-achievers. There is no one word that can practically any group of people.
I do not mind teaching some of the stuff that I have learned. I teach anybody, male, female, boy, girl. I do not mind. I think humans are too segregated. They are separated into legal groups. I think we should abolish that. I like that the women are moving, but I do not care more about women being dumb than I care about men. I would prefer if nobody at all was dumb.
Douglas: Is there a correlation between women excelling and families falling apart?
Tanya: I think a general evolution is taking place. My grandmother never did anything, but she was smart. My granddad worked and She raised like 11 kids. That will never do for me. She must have been very unfulfilled. She was a suppressed adult woman and as a result she made her kids suppressed. That had effects which were bad for all of us.
Thank God, our generation values the individual. We do that so nobody is left behind due to too much compromise. Compromise is not a good thing. It means you have to give up some part of you. So, we are getting new values which are more practical. If we cannot co-exist, we move on, and if the family falls apart, it is not solely the woman’s fault.
On What Moves Her
Douglas: I really love discussion. I love to read topics that people are afraid of. I love to play Devil’s Advocate. For me, life is education on purpose and if I have a forum, like music, that is the kind of thing I use when I talk to people. I feel like it is my personal obligation to use it.
Douglas: What sort of topics interest you?
Tanya: I think every topic can be examined from many different angles and you get a whole different story from it. I am still very into politics and interpersonal relationships.
Douglas: What do you do for fun?
Tanya: I watch people a lot, including myself. I love to fish, but I think I need to stop telling people that because I have not gone fishing in years. I read a lot, though I am not really into suspense novels anymore. I love self-help books and educational reading.
Douglas: What are you reading right now?
Tanya: Brian Weiss’ Many Lives, Many Masters. I actually read it already but I love going back to it!
Douglas: Any favorite places to visit? Do you go on vacations anywhere?
Tanya: I have never been on vacation. If I go places to work and travel with my family on vacation, I am too busy to enjoy wherever I am.
Douglas: So you live and operate out in Jamaica?
Tanya: Yes. I am home a lot more often now than I used to be too. I would not want to live anywhere else. Jamaican people are so close (sometimes too close for comfort when your privacy is compromised) and i’m addicted to many aspects of our culture.
Tanya Stephens will be performing at Moka Nightclub and Lounge in Queens, New York on April 29. This will be her first show in the Tri-State area for 2011. For more information go to Ocean Style Magazine