ETANA : Supply + Demands
Often photographed smiling, musician Shauna McKenzie is spirited and joyful, her songs a celebration of melody. The 33-year-old is also outspoken, socially conscious and a self-described humanitarian. Ahead of her Australian visit, the Jamaican-born singer known by her chosen name ETANA (“the strong one” in Swahili), was happy to talk 2SER’s Paris Pompor, about her music, but also a charity she’s initiated for gifted children who lack the means to attend university.
“I was a straight As student all the way up to 11th grade,” says McKenzie in her delightfully lilting, sassy tone. Despite living in the US since age nine, her Jamaican accent is wonderfully intact.
What happened after year 11?
“I got my car and, well, you know,” she says with a mischievous chuckle, “I went to parties. Twelfth grade was not as good as the rest of my years!”
With a mother off working as a live-in nurse, McKenzie was responsible for getting herself out of bed, prepared and off to school. She therefore appreciates determination, but recognises that it isn’t always enough. If the system is stacked against you and tertiary fees are high, talent can be denied its full potential.
“Some of [the children I see]… they’re brilliant, but their parents just don’t have the funding. Those are the children I look out for. There is this one guy at Jamaica College, at the top of his class; one uniform that he wears every day and it’s always ironed. That means whenever he goes home he washes that uniform and irons it ready for the next day. They were about to kick him out of the school.”
The charity’s aim is to pick up the bill for such kids, so that those like McKenzie – who had her heart set on becoming a doctor before music took over – can continue their education.
It’s the kind of subject matter that litters Etana’s demanding lyrics in songs like I Am Not Afraid and Rise Up. Issues of the downtrodden set to gorgeous melodies in the Jamaican tradition.
“I’ve been called that so many times that I’ve gotten used to it by now,” says McKenzie who likes the word “inspirational” to describe her songs.
Female empowerment is also discernible in her general aura.
“Girl power is always at the top of my list. Why? Because I’m a woman. Why? Because I know what it feels like to struggle. I know what it feels like to be pushed aside. I know what it feels like to hear: oh yes, you have to work with a male band. I’ve heard it all and I’ve been paid less. I know what it’s like to be a woman in the field of reggae.”
Despite that, Etana was the first female act to top the Billboard Reggae Charts in more than 15 years. Not that reggae is an isolated patriarchy.
“I’ve heard women get paid less in the White House, in corporate offices all over the world,” McKenzie adds.
It was surprising then to hear McKenzie declare her vote would be cast for Donald Trump in an interview back in 2016. The public reaction was understandably largely hostile.
In response, she spent time researching the counter arguments before issuing an apologetic retraction, thus becoming another artist Trump could then cross off his inauguration party invite list.
As if the Trump card wasn’t surprising enough, one of her all time favourite bands is… wait for it…
After some digging, it seems McKenzie isn’t the only Jamaican infatuated with the sentimental, soft-pop, crooners. Air Supply regularly play large shows on the Caribbean island, while in America, reggae festivals such as Brooklyn’s Groovin in the Park, give them top billing above Jamaican icons John Holt and Marcia Griffiths, or even contemporaries like Chronixx.
It’s all about a love affair with melody. As the proponents of the romantic reggae sub-genre known as “lovers rock” – who turned out countless exquisite cover versions of western pop ballads in the ’70s knew, strip away any song’s musical backing, and if the tune’s good, there’s value.
Her favourite Air Supply song?
“Two Less Lonely People in the World…” comes the sung response.
As lovely as it may be hearing her sing it to me over the phone, it’s hard not to laugh.
When I explain that Air Supply were originally Australian and generally considered daggy here, the laughter is reciprocated. Etana had no idea.
Etana plays Sydney’s Red Rattler, Friday January 17, 2020. Info/Tickets here
.A version of this article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald