With over 20 years of hits under her belt, Tanya Stephens is a dancehall and reggae legend

Melissa Murphy

Though she still sees herself as that little girl from St. Mary’s, Jamaica, the veteran performer was all laughs as she spoke with the Community Contact via a telephone interview for a bit of girl-talk about life, and of course, music, as she prepares to make her way to Montreal for this year’s International Reggae Fest.
Making her dancehall debut with the now classic, “Yuh Nuh Ready Fi Dis”, which was featured on Reggae Gold 1996, Tanya made sure audiences learnt very early on that she was not your typical dancehall artist. With dancehall classics like, “Goggle”, “Ninja Bike”, “Handle di Ride” and “Draw fi mi Finger”, this break-out star embraced a confidence, in self and sexuality, that allowed her to stand shoulder to shoulder with her male peers.
When asked how she got into performing, she admits:
“Growing up in Jamaica, reggae music is a part of, I think I can say, every child’s life. Music for us is more than entertainment. It’s communication. It’s a transfer of energy. [We grew up] beating on benches in schools and coming up with our own songs. But more than that, reggae is the song of rebellion and resistance. No matter what direction you’re headed in life, as a teenager music is going to be a part of it.”
Through laughs, she admits that the journey that music has taken her was not always the best or safest, but it was a journey that allowed her to see versions of the world that staying in St. Mary’s would have deprived her.
Choosing to leave “St. Mary’s on a dream, choosing to put off university to go to the studio, to practice with bands and go to dance” she recalls, wasn’t the most practical, but “I took a risk and it panned out”. A choice her fans are forever grateful.
It was through these risks, failures and triumphs that Tanya came to hone her skills as a revered lyricist amongst some of dancehall and reggae’s biggest acts. As an artist that most can turn to when in need of upliftment and female empowerment, the self proclaimed, “realist”, confesses:
“I hope that I make music that people can relate to. Every song I have reflects a phase in my life. I did a lot of things wrong and I like to think that I came out wiser. And I don’t take myself too seriously, so whatever I’ve gone through, I share it. I find it therapeutic.”
She goes on to say, “Once I let it out, it becomes less of a burden on me. And when someone else hears it and they can relate, we can link up after the shows and talk about it. It reminds us that we are not as unique as we think. You want to feel unique with the positive and good things. But the fact of the matter is, when the bad times come, no one wants to feel unique. And I feel honoured to stand here as a testament to a younger Tanya who lives in the country, who still lives in poverty and going through times, that she can look at me and see that there is a possibility of coming out of it.”
The bond she shares with her fans, she admits, “I will never be able to describe,” as one of her favourite things about performing over the last two decades is being able to curate real and long-lasting relationships with her audiences.
She continues, “whatever I’ve done that women can relate to, or can be useful to them, they have done just as much for me. It has been really uplifting knowing that I am not alone… From sharing a drink after parties, we have shared experiences and I have incorporated their various experiences in some of my songs. We have actually been doing this together.”
But aside from perfect lyrics, to make a Tanya Stephens hit, the artist also leans on her emotions. From the beats she chooses, to the artists she chooses to collaborate with, it all must begin with a feeling. “It’s all about energy”, she says. “Whenever I listen and follow my feelings, my gut, I’ve never been wrong”. And these feelings allowed for a seamless transition to reggae with more classics like, “It’s a Pity”, “1-1-9” and “These Streets.”
She acknowledges, “It’s not about name or status of the person I work with, it’s about the music. I am a fan of music so I love collaborating with young artists, too. I really am in favour of good artists getting an audience”.
And as we see a re-emergence of female dancehall stars, the veteran admits that, “Today is not the same as when I did it and I try not to impose my bias on other artists because I don’t know what they’re living with. Everyone travels a different path and lives through different things. And I don’t know where you are in your growth. So, I would not want to mess with someone else’s journey because creativity does not have a set path or plan.”
However, in relation to lyrical content and social responsibility as artists, she admits, “I do demand that collectively we try to advance, to progress [Jamaica] so I make that my personal goal. Even with my daughter now, I teach her to not bully or be apathetic. I want her to be the kind of person I needed when I was growing up.”
Although the hit-maker is now “self-retired”, Tanya Stephens still enjoys hitting the stage after so many years. “Though the excitement is different from when I started, it is more of a mature excitement I feel now. I like to be able to engage with the fans wherever I go.”
When asked what the Montreal Reggae Fest audience can look forward to when she hits the stage on Sunday August 20, the master of the craft excitedly said, “Of course I’ll be performing everything. I don’t shy away from any part of me. And mi love mi bruk out!”
Though she jokes, “My ego is very healthy, I know I’m the s—t, I also know that no man is an island and from DJs to musicians to even the fans, they all made Tanya Stephens happen. I am not alone and I have to say thanks for us doing this together.”
Tanya Stephens comes to Montreal to perform at this year Reggae Fest. She’ll be on stage on Sunday 20 together with a line up of other stars including stars Lt. Stitchie, Etana, Pressure, Rock City, Montreal’s Jah Cutta and Saboo
Tickets call: 514 482-7921