Shining a Light: A Q&A with reggae artist Joseph Israel

Editor’s note: Joseph Israel’s July 19 show at the Orange Peel has been canceled — but that didn’t stop Xpress from chatting up the reggae artist. See the Q&A below, which was conducted while the show was still scheduled.

Joseph Israel, born Joseph Montgomery Fennel, has Celtic-red locks, a crop of freckles and skin tone that begs for maximum SPF. Yet, when he answers the phone from his Arkansas home, his voice has far more island lilt than Irish brogue — a side effect of spending countless weeks in Jamaica recording reggae albums.

Israel, at 28, is an old soul. Devoutly spiritual (raised Christian but now adherent to the principals of

Rastafari/a>) and troubled by social and ecological issues threatening the world, the musician uses his songwriting to call out wrong and nudge his listeners toward a path of peace and justice. It’s a tall order.

But Israel isn’t alone on his quest. Already he’s dueted with reggae great Luciano, opened for Ziggy Marley, recorded at Kingston’s famed Tuff Gong Studio and toured with rising star Abijah. His most recent album, Gone Are the Days, features Mikey General.

These days, Israel tours with his band, The Lions of Israel, and works in collaboration with his sister’s service organization, Restore Humanity. Here, the atist talks to Xpress about everything from reggae’s youngest fans to a musician’s responsibility to work toward social justice.

Mountain Xpress: Did you know that your show is replacing a Christian band previously scheduled at the Orange Peel?
Joseph Israel: Yeah, that’s good. Nice!

MX: I caught your show with Jamaican artist Abijah at Warren Wilson in 2003. Have you played other Asheville shows?
JI: We opened for Luciano at an all ages show [at the Grey Eagle]. There were all these families. I would love for children to be allowed to come [to the show]. I feel that Asheville’s a place that would really allow that.

MX: Do children respond well to reggae music? [Israel has three children of his own.]
JI: Oh, definitely. When I was little that was my thing that I wanted my dad to play over and over: Bob Marley, “Rasta Man Vibration.” That was my song! (laughs).

I think reggae is an ancient sound. It’s more natural to people than maybe all this digital music and all this stuff that people have today. If you go back to Hebrew music, it has reggae. If you go back to African music, it’s like a blend of Eastern music. Even Indian music, the ragga stuff, they have similar things. They just have a lot more scales that they run but it’s the ancient music. It’s simple, but it’s complex at the same time. Rhythmically it’s complex. It speaks to people.

MX: How long have you been based in Arkasas? [Israel, born in Oklahoma, grew up in Arkansas since age 2.]
JI: I’ve lived in California and Idaho and different placed. Jamaica. Definitely, Arkansas is my home base. We have some great families that we study scriptures with and cook food together. Lots of children. They send the night over here or they spend the night over there. Pure children running around (laughs). Yeah.

MX: How much time have you spent in Jamaica?
JI: I started going there for two weeks every summer when I was like 14 and then I started going twice a year when I was 18. [He stopped visiting Jamaica for a while after getting married and having children.] I went back [and] everything started to happen. I went down there for a little week trip and then I came back and I opened for Ziggy Marley. Then I got invited to go down and record and then everything changed. When I went to record I stayed for about four months and had my family there. I’ve been going back and forth ever since. I spent most of 2005 in Jamaica.

MX: What is your favorite place in Jamaica?
JI: Wow. There’s a parish called St. Elizabeth near Treasure Beach … it feels so clean and nice over there. All the people are real relaxed. There’s no big hotels or tourism.

MX: What kind of reception do you receive as a white reggae artist in Jamaica?
JI: In Jamaica they’re real accepting. Everywhere I go I get so much respect and people really treat you with a lot of respect, especially when they hear my message. All the elders and the Rastas, they really rejoiced to hear it. I had a lot of people rejoice over the vibration and the message. It made me feel good. You find less acceptance in reagge circles outside of Jamaica than in Jamaica because people outside of Jamaica are trying to be like people in Jamaica. But people in Jamaica, they just are how they are.

If you’re trying to know what’s going on on the hit radios in Jamaica, then you’re far from what music I’m bringing. But all the real musicians and all the people of Jamaica, they really want real original music and music that someone wrote from their heart. They really respect music and music is a way of life down there. Poeple make a living from music. There aren’t a lot of jobs that make a lot of money down there so [music] is a way that’s brought a lot of money to the ghetto and to people able to raise themselves out of their situation. If you come as a musican, you’re respected, whereas [in the U.S.], where I’ve lived in different towns, there are not really big music scenes. Most musicians I know, they have jobs as well, so you’re not really treated as well in the U.S. [In Jamaica] it’s just great and all the [major artists] from Luciano to Sean Paul to Shaggy, from Dancehall to Culture artists, they’re all so respectful and nice.

MX: Because of your Rasta beliefs, is it difficult for you to have to make a living playing in bars?
JI: Definitely any time money becomes involved with things, it’s a struggle. Money is the root of all evil, they say. It’s not easy in this time in this world and it never has been, but it’s a joy. I give thanks for the opportunity to carry the message to people wherever tehy are. People need it in all types of situations. I feel that you can actually reach people better in some of those places than if I was to go play in a church where everybody’s already made up what they believe and they don’t want to hear anything else. So, in a setting like that, where people are just people, you can really reach some people and heal some hearts. I’ve always enjoyed it. Some bars are nasty and dirty, but we try to shine a light in them anyway. That happened the other day in Tallahasee. The bar was gross, but the people were amazing! They had so much love it just blew my mind. It’s the people that make it.

MX: Reggae is known for slipping social and political messages into very contageous grooves. Why is this?
JI: If you were to get up and scream it on a loud speaker or something, then no one would want to hear it. But you can sing it and even somebody that might want to throw a stone at you will end up dancing. If feel like people’s guards let down and the music lifts them up.

MX: Why, at this time, are musicians taking a role in healing social problems?
JI: [Bono] is an exception person … he’s realized the power he has. From a long time [ago] I remember hearing that guy talk about Bob Marley. It’s like he’s been influenced by those same things, those things he wants to stand for. I think it’s really important. Hopefully it will spread into the hip-hop rap thing and they will start to stand up and do things for people in their message. Music is the voice of the people and it’s our job to share that and let the people’s voice be heard. So artists like Bono, Jack Johnson, Michael Franti, Ben Harper — there’s so many to list. I just think it’s the time. Who knows why? The leaders of the world aren’t doing it — they just want to sit around and play golf and have more meetings. They don’t care as long as they get re-elected. But musicians, this is our life. We don’t get elected or dis-elected. We just bring what we do.

I’m working alongside Restore Humanity, which is something my sister started. She’s the real star of the family. She’s been going to Africa and taking clothes and school supplies to children. I’d encourange everyone to check Restore Humanity. … We’re working on a Restore Humanity disc that’s going to come out this fall. So anyone who wants to get involved, I welcome them to contact me.

Joseph Israel plays the Blue Cats in Knoxville, Tenn., on Friday, July 20 at 9 p.m. $12. Info: (865) 544-4300.

— Alli Marshall, A&E reporter

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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