Less than five years ago, Jamaican singer Lila Iké was working in a Kingston call center struggling to make ends meet. Now, she is receiving widespread attention for her debut EP, The ExPerience — and being hailed as one of the most exciting young talents to have recently emerged from Jamaica, or anywhere else for that matter.
Lila’s vocals suggest the smoky eloquence of the late Nina Simone, the sultry cool of Sade and the emotive rendering of her favorite singer, the late Garnett Silk, one of the most revered artists in Jamaica’s music canon. Unlike Rihanna—whose Barbados accent is nearly undetectable in her music—Lila is unmistakably a Jamaican vocalist, her vibrant yet vulnerable delivery shifting between flexible singing and spitting patois rhymes (called deejaying in Jamaican parlance.)
“I want people to know, Lila Iké is not just a reggae artist, I am a Jamaican artist who is influenced by different music and you are going to hear that coming through,” Lila declares. “Jamaican music is moving further and further away from the purist reggae kind of vibe, but for me, it’s important to maintain the music’s indigenousness. I incorporate that into the rhythms I use and in my singing style because I want young people to know, this music doesn’t start where you hear it, it has transcended many years and changes.”
Shifting to patois for greater emphasis, she adds: “Just because we grow, doesn’t mean the tree ah go grow and lef’ di root.”
The ExPerience’s lead-off track, the trap-influenced “Where I’m Coming From” is the compelling story of Lila’s transition from a sheltered upbringing living with her mother and three sisters in rural Christiana, Jamaica, to the challenges that accompanied her move to the island’s capital, Kingston, five years ago, through her current status at the threshold of a major career. “My journey may seem like it’s happening very fast, but it’s been a lot of ups and downs,” shared Lila, speaking to the Daily Beast via Skype from her Kingston home.
“Men tried to rape me; my landlord made a move on me and because I didn’t follow through, when I went to work, he threw out all my stuff; there was a period when I was moving every month. Working in a call center really took a toll on me, I was depressed, I wasn’t taking care of myself or eating properly because I was thinking, ‘Is this really what I am going to be doing with my life when my passion lies in music?’”
Born Alecia Grey, she chose the name Lila, which means blooming flower, and Iké, a Yoruba word meaning the Power of God. “Growing up with a single mom who was extremely strict, extremely stressed, because we weren’t rich and she didn’t have any help, I was the child that my mom was depending on to lift the family. My mom wasn’t comfortable with me moving to Kingston. A lot happened there within a short time,” Lila recalled.
Lila moved to Kingston, initially, to attend the University of the West Indies (UWI), promising her mother she would finish her studies and get a degree in linguistics. She met other young aspiring singers at UWI, began writing songs and performing at various open mic sessions around town. She also posted clips of her music on social media and one caught the attention of vocalist/songwriter/producer Protoje, a marquee name in contemporary Jamaican music; his most recent album, A Matter of Time, was Grammy-nominated.
Protoje took on the role of mentor/manager for Lila in 2017 after reaching out to her on Twitter. “Lila had put up a song about her mom sending her to a shop to buy stuff; it was nice, cute; I wasn’t thinking what a fabulous artist, but I thought there was something special there,” Protoje recalled on the phone from Kingston. “She sounded like a 14-year old boy, actually the first thing I thought was she sounded like a very young Garnett Silk.”
Silk came to prominence in the early 1990s with numerous hit singles (“Zion in a Vision,” “Complaint,” etc.) that helped revitalize Rastafarian roots reggae. He was poised for further reaching international success that he, tragically, wouldn’t achieve in his lifetime: on December 9, 1994, Silk, 28, was killed in an explosion at his mother’s home in Mandeville, Jamaica. Lila was born on January 23, 1994, 11 months prior to Silk’s death and grew up in Christiana, about 30 minutes outside of Mandeville. Lila’s mother often played Silk’s music at home, alongside country, jazz, gospel, R&B and roots reggae. “Before I even understood what he was saying, I was attracted to his songs. I remember thinking his voice sounds like the harmony of angels,” Lila recalled. “My mom is a music fanatic, so it was a hobby for us to be cleaning and singing together. The only music mom didn’t play was dancehall because the content sometimes is not child safe, so when I started to write, I thought, I need to sing songs that my mom would play so that led me to write conscious music.”
The various sounds Lila’s heard throughout her childhood and teenage years color The ExPerience. There is textural similarity between Lila and Silk’s vocals on “Solitude,” Lila’s aching tone crying out to escape the demands made by those wrongly equating her recent career advancements with sudden, excessive wealth. She’s confident yet beguilingly coy on the pop/dancehall/up tempo reggae single “I Spy,” produced by IzyBeats (co-producer of Jamaican sensation Koffee’s 2019 crossover dancehall smash “Toast”). She croons dreamily on “Stars Align,” and mesmerizes while recounting a doomed relationship on the soulful “Forget Me,” both produced by contemporary reggae maestro Phillip “Winta” James. Also included is Lila’s breakout hit: “Second Chance,” her sincere yet seductive plea for a another try sung over a classic reggae rhythm initially heard on Dennis Brown/Aswad’s 1983 African repatriation anthem “Promised Land.”
“Lila’s voice is incredible, so soothing, and some of the elements she uses interestingly mix with R&B; this is music that can translate, stand the test of time and as people live with The ExPerience they say this is what I didn’t realize I needed,” comments Archie Davis CEO of RCA’s Six Course Music Group. A former senior executive at Interscope, where he oversaw campaigns for Kendrick Lamar and the Black Panther soundtrack, Davis heard Protoje’s music at L.A.’s Delicious Vinyl Pizza, asked about him and met him shortly thereafter. Davis wanted to sign Protoje, but when Protoje played him Lila and another young singer, Sevana, the offer was expanded; after a year of negotiations, Protoje’s In.Digg.Nation Collective label was signed to Six Course/RCA for three albums/EPs from each artist. “This is not traditional, it’s an evolution, it’s refreshing, intelligent and there is a 1000 percent commitment to these artists,” Davis acknowledged. “I am hoping to be in business with them for more than three albums.”
The In.Digg.Nation Collective deal with RCA/Six Course is another significant advancement for Jamaican artists within the mainstream market that has transpired over the past 12 months: Buju Banton signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation, dancehall veterans Beenie Man and Bounty Killer attracted over 450,000 viewers in their song-for-song battle on Timbaland and Swizz Beatz’ Verzuz Instagram series and, most impressive of all, is the success of Koffee (also signed to RCA in the U.S.A.) whose “Toast” has been streamed more than 50 million times. Koffee made history on January 26th, three weeks before her 20th birthday, becoming the youngest and first female winner of the Best Reggae Album Grammy for her EP Rapture; she has often said Protoje’s music inspired her to start writing and rhyming lyrics. Koffee’s stunning breakthrough, notes Protoje, has made U.S. major labels more receptive to taking a chance on reggae. “Koffee’s success has brought more eyes to the music. Her getting signed is one thing, but her surpassing all expectations has made many people think, OK, what else can happen? Of course, with the work Lila, Sevana and I have put in, we were prepared, so when other labels looked around at what else was there, it was obvious we already had a structure in place so it wouldn’t take the ground up effort it might have taken with other people,” Protoje observes. “Now, when Lila releases music and does as well as she’s doing and then Sevana and myself, more opportunities will open up for other artists.”
The ExPerience arrives at a time of great upheaval in America. The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks at the hands of police has sparked countless demonstrations with protestors demanding equality and accountability for the systemic injustices African Americans have endured for centuries. More than any other music, roots reggae has consistently, powerfully, addressed these issues, decrying oppression, critiquing societal hypocrisies and urging unified action against “Babylon.”
“At an extremely racist time in America, almost the worst we’ve ever been, for many Black Americans, we don’t really know where we come from, and this is when the roots, the reggae, the sense of being grounded and belonging to something really starts to emerge as a renaissance,” acknowledges Davis. “To be able to shine a light on that and make it popular, brings a different connotation to the genre and its artists, so it’s an honor for me to be associated with these incredible people.”
The ExPerience concludes with “Thy Will,” produced by Protoje, which offers spiritually fortifying lyrics that are essential in surviving earthly struggles: “Don’t they know, Thy Will will always be done/my people rise, ‘memba now we black and we strong/and when we are one, this is when we’ll overcome.”
“‘Thy Will’ is a song that I wrote over time based on things that I learned about, things I saw happening in and around my community, encouraging my Black people that in unity is when we will be able to fight this great war,” states Lila. “I watched a documentary about Nina Simone and that really encouraged me to be bold in studying my history and becoming aware of where this systemic racism comes from and how it affects people today. As a Black woman in music, Nina Simone really fought for what she believed in, equal rights, and I’m trying my best to play my part by using my voice and my platform like she did.”