When global dancehall sensation Sean Paul (Sean Paul Ryan Francis Henriques) set foot on Kenyan soil in 2004, it was the first time that the musician, fresh from winning a Grammy for his Dutty Rock album, was taking in his first breath of African air.
He has been to at least 20 other countries on the continent since.
“For that reason, it’s a very special part of my memory. I spent about three weeks there and it inspired my song “As Time Goes On” on my 2005 album Trinity. It gave me time to really sit down and think. I thought about war and how rich people make money from it, yet the poor people who go to fight in them don’t get much, despite being told we’re fighting for certain things.
“I had been to a camp in Maasai Mara and saw the basic living. It made me feel like I had gone back a thousand years and think about humanity and the basics we need in life. Also seeing the giraffes walk with their heads high up there was amazing. I’ve been back but not to do shows (he made a stopover in Nairobi one December evening in 2008 while on his way to perform in Kigali),” says Sean.
The rapper, singer and record producer has over the years had four global number one hits “Cheap Thrills” by Sia featuring him (2016), “Temperature” (2006), “Baby Boy” by Beyoncé featuring him and “Get Busy”, both in 2003. He has six other songs that have also made the Top 10 of the Billboard charts. His collaboration with Beyoncé helped breakout the genre internationally and make it more mainstream.
“We did a very sexy song. She’s a beautiful woman and an amazing talent, the queen of R&B. I met her in 1998 when I opened for a Destiny’s Child’s show here in Jamaica. When she planned to step out on her own, she reached out to me and I put my heart into that song. She actually rewrote her verses after she heard mine.
“I knew Jay Z before I knew her; the rumours started because it was a big, sexy tune. I would love to do another song with her one day,” says Sean Paul about the song and rumours that Jay Z didn’t allow him to be physically close to Beyoncé.
With the pandemic affecting curtailing public gatherings in the last year and a half, the musician decided to go back to the studio. In March, he released Live N Livin, a 16-track album that features reggae and dancehall heavyweights like Buju Banton, Mavado, Busy Signal and Damian Marley.
With the dust barely settled from that, he has already finished working on another album – Scorcha will be released on December 11 under Island Records. The title track to the album was released with a music video back in April with the album set for release in May, but red tape saw it pushed back.
“I did two albums because I have the time. I always wanted to do more hardcore dancehall stuff over the years, but they don’t see the light (of day). Big up to Island Records for giving me the opportunity to do it for myself.
“We had always talked about doing more collaborations and supporting each other in the genre with artistes like Shaggy, Buju Banton and Junior Gong (Damian) and we finally got the time to do it. It’s been a dream moment,” he says, adding that he would be on tour for six months per year before the pandemic.
Despite having international success, Sean Paul says that he is still inspired by these legendary Jamaican acts. He believes the history behind the musicians makes Live N Livin a collector’s item. In it, he wanted to see the collaborations that are common among big names in genres like hip hop replicated in the reggae/dancehall community, instead of fighting over who’s the greatest or the next big thing. It is the same reason he also picked newer artistes like Squash and Masicka to work with. On August 13, he dropped the second video song “Only Fans” featuring American singer Ty Dolla Sign.
The dancehall artiste has worked with international performers of different generations. Through the years, he has seen a lot of stars coming up and reach out to him. From Kelly Rowland to Alexis Jordan to Dua Lipa and Tory Lanez, he has been the go-to guy to “riddim up” a track.
“If I reach out to you as an up-and-comer and you don’t want to work with me then that’s your loss. Why the international acts keep reaching out to me is because I provide such a difference in the music they do. I’ve been helped by the fact that I’ve been consistent in putting out good music throughout my career,” he says.
Sean Paul credits his ability to crossover into different genres to “staying hungry and working hard” and “standing out”.
“Cheap Thrills” has so far been viewed more than 1.6 billion times. This collaboration with Sia is Sean Paul’s most viewed work. It was actually the introverted chart topper’s idea to bring on the dancehall superstar.
“My manager called me and said ‘Someone came with a request; if you would want to do a song with her – with Sia’. I said ‘Yeah!’ My mum is a fan of Sia, and my eight-year-old niece too. She has an amazing voice and she’s a dope writer. I jumped at the opportunity.
“It was surprising for me to learn that the song was her first number one song, because I think all of her songs should have gone way up there. The song was just a feel good song and I thank her. We have a new song coming out soon called ‘Dynamite’, I hope people gravitate to it too,” he says.
The superstar has also been keeping his eye out for African music and artistes. He featured on the remix of Ir Sais’ “Dream Girl” alongside Davido early this year. He believes Afrobeats has taken some lessons from dancehall and is doing well with it. He also believes it’s about time it got the space it deserves because a lot of the world’s music like jazz and rap have borrowed from African influences.
Ghanaian dancehall artiste Stonebwoy is one of three artistes featured on Sean Paul’s “Guns of Navarone” in Live N Livin, a song about ending gun violence. He has also been communicating with Wizkid for years and they even worked on a song together.
“We worked on it four years ago but we have decided to put it on the shelf and work on another piece of music. Mr Eazi and I have also spoken about doing music together. I recently reached out to Davido but he wasn’t feeling the song so we’re going to do something else. It’s not always that someone will be able to do the song or shoot the video or be able to promote it, everyone has their own career,” he says.
In 2010, when Sean decided to merge dancehall and the pop music, Jamaicans were not feeling his new direction. They said it “sounded too pretty”.
“When ‘Got 2 Luv U’ with Alexis Jordan had me on charts worldwide, my dancehall community didn’t like it. There were times I was depressed by this but there was no one I could ask how to get over it, I just had to go through it.
“One lesson my mum taught me is that life is about waves (ups and downs) and how you balance it; remember there’s an up time coming,” he says, explaining how he deals with the low moments in his life.
In 2012 Sean Paul married his wife Jodi Stewart after dating for 10 years. The two have a four-year-old son Levi and two-year-old daughter Remi Leigh.
The proud father says “It’s life-changing and you catch yourself when you catch them. Spare the rod and spoil the child; keeping them in line is something that I’m mindful of nowadays. I view life as very special even though I was already positive-minded and spiritually-oriented before. I can’t wait to see their accomplishments in future,” he says. He met his wife when she was 19 and he was 28.
“The first time I took her out, I got into a fight with someone else. The guy had a gun! She tried to take the gun from him but he punched her down, and he and I fought. What went through my mind was ‘This woman’s crazy!’ We all could have died!” he laughs as he remembers the moment he knew she was the one for him.
Jodi is now a vlogger on YouTube. Having been understanding of the issues that come with him being an international star, Sean feels he owes her a lot of respect. He believes touring for over 20 years has helped them get space from each other that could have helped strengthen their relationship. Being home now, he feels like they need to give each other personal space from time to time.
“Not that I want to be with someone else, I do love her, but being together nonstop has been a little of a challenge. Union doesn’t mean you’re twins, but you have to work out problems as a couple. I love the family time that we’ve got because on a regular basis, I wouldn’t have that. I remember having to leave my son on the third day after he was born to go and do shows,” he says.
On his plans, Sean says he had given himself two years for the pandemic situation to be more settled and looks forward to Kenya being one of his tour stops.
“It was hard to come back as I was touring the world, but I think it’s about time to come back. Big up to all the fans who have kept me here,” he concludes.