I’ve only missed two summers in New York in my life. There’s a magic that was real for me in seeing people sitting outside while the sun set late blasting dancehall from the subs on the sidewalk in Brooklyn. There are songs that instantly take me back to all those humid days. Lady Saw’s “Sycamore Tree.” The track itself opens with the line “Do you remember?” Over the popular Joyride riddim, Lady Saw speaks of the demise of a young love over—what else but—oral sex. The topic matched her raw voice, which I could poorly describe as a high-pitched bass that is one of a kind and instantly recognizable.
By the time "Sycamore Tree" had seared itself into my brain, Lady Saw was already an undeniable talent. Her first album, which dropped in 1994, came with the single “Stab Up Di Meat,” a song that definitively let them know her music was going to be full of slackness. In the world of Island Culture, where misogyny and patriarchy regularly silence women’s sexual voice, this was powerful stuff. Not to mention she was standing alongside outspoken female reggae artists of the time like Tanya Stephens and Patra—to this day, these three remain my only “feminist” icons. As hip-hop was getting its own share of vulgar ladies, we were little girls expected to be good and pure despite obvious signs that those standards were completely absurd. To hear a woman singing like the men, talking about real things in vulgar language completely changed the storyline. She would go on to many more albums and a Grammy, but the title of Queen of the Dancehall was awarded to her for her talents and truths.
Two years ago this month, she stated that she had decided to go gospel to the dismay of many of her fans. After overturning this decision she is back with a new album, out this week, called Alter Ego. While the LP features many of the topics (There’s a song about masturbating called "Pretty Fingers"!) fans have come to expect, the sound of the album is more wide-ranging than just dancehall. I met up with the Queen in New York last week to discuss the new sound, new outlook, and all the things a woman really needs.
The new album, Alter Ego, I love it. I’ve been listening to it, and I noticed that you have more than [just] dancehall. How do you feel about that?
I feel good about it. Everybody was wondering, "Were you worried about switching it up and doing this alter-ego?" No, I’ve grown. It shows that where I’m coming from to where I am now. My mind has expanded as a writer. For me to write a song for Beres Hammond and me to do, and when I went I said, “Mr. Hammond, I would love to do a song with you.” And when Beres listened to it he said, “You wrote that?” That man is an icon. I feel like I’ve done a masterpiece here. It’s gospel, it’s reggae, it’s dancehall, it’s jazz and blues, it’s soca, it’s pop with a little bounce beat, it’s everything. Love it.
I read in an interview you said that you came back to this music because you felt like you had been tested by God and you failed. Do you feel like it wasn’t a failure and [you] freed yourself?
When I was going through some things, I was at a dark place like three years ago. There was some personal things going on with me and my man. For 18 years we’ve been together. He got a child on me, but not just one child—there were kids before. I don’t even want to talk about it, but it was all over the media and the press. All the females in the game were picking at me like, “Oh, we have something on her, let’s go in!” So they went it. I was like taking it to God, talking about it. I started having some experiences where I started getting in the spirit. The Holy Ghost took me over, and I’m like, “God is this…. I should go get baptized.” I was about to, but then one of them wouldn’t stop, and I said, “So, God, if this is a test, I’m going to fail.” But when I look into it, I dealt with it and everything. I said I’m sorry to my fans because I didn’t want to go down that road. I said, “God, maybe you weren’t ready for me yet." I said, "These people are my enemies. These people were friends of mine, so maybe that’s how you want me to deal with it," but after that, it’s like something just, the shadow or the darkness that was over me was gone.
I remember I was always going back to my ex. Every time I took him back, I realize when I saw him I didn’t feel that anymore. I could walk away, and walk away feeling good too. So it was something, maybe God was making this way like, “I’m showing you these things. These are your enemies, these are people who don’t love you, these are pretenders in your life. These people you’re taking care of, walk away from them.” I think that’s what he was showing me, but I misread it because if he was ready for me to go in, I would be in there. I’m going to go in, but when I’m ready he’s going to take me and lead me in. So I can’t turn back when that time comes, but it was something else, it was cleansing. I was cleaning my house and didn’t even know it.
I love that you’re doing the pop and the gospel as well as the dancehall but still talking about the things that I grew up listening to. I tell people you’re one of my three feminist heroes ever. You have a stronger faith, [but] you still want to talk to women about STDs, condoms. Do you feel like that’s still part of your mission?
Yes! That’s still part of my mission. That is why there’s a Lady Saw Foundation. Every album sold, a part of the money goes to my Lady Saw Foundation for abused women and children because I’ve been an abused girl. I just didn’t tell everybody about everything. I talk about some things. Some of my fellow females in the game didn’t understand why I didn’t talk about it. I’m planning a movie about my life about the whole thing. I’m not done yet, and I came for a reason and that reason was to uplift women and to tell them to love yourself. “Pretty Fingers” was about loving yourself. [Laughs.]
You tell women to “love yourself,” but you’re [also] willing to say all the ways to love yourself. Not only self-care but also your sexual self.
If you listen to songs like that, it’s like a story. What kind of man would like to lie to me and cheat on me, blah blah blah. I’m asking, “What led you to cheating?” Then you have another song right there like, “You know what, let me tell this boy I hate your guts first.” [Sings "I hate your guts and then I’m going to love myself."] This album is to uplift women to make them feel strong no matter what you go through. In the end, we’re standing, we’re still here. We’re still beautiful women. It doesn’t matter, if you thought that man was the best thing, or he’s so pretty like, “How did I catch this one?” and when you look he still does you bad. Don’t be dwelling on it, move on. Just don’t look for pretty anymore. As pretty as they seem, they’re pretty little poodle dogs. They’ll hump anything, you know? So look for a man who excites you, who inspires you, who respects you. I no longer look for pretty and perfect. I used to say, “Oh I got the prettiest man in the game." Dirtiest one in the game, mmhmm.
I always think about you and Rihanna and Nicki Minaj and other West Indian women who are big stars now that still talk the same way you talk. How do you feel now? You’re older than when you started with “Sycamore Tree” and “Stab Up Mi Meat.” How do you see that now [with fans] like me, women who are [now] in our 30s?
I love watching all the island girls just expanding. I saw Rihanna just came out with a new cologne for men, and I’m like, "Imagine her on an island growing up. Did she ever dream that [she] would ever be that famous?" Even though I didn’t want to be that famous, I like privacy so I couldn’t do the Hollywood thing, but I’m proud of them. I love them. Rihanna went and put up some pictures, and I was one of the pictures. She said, “My four favorite dancehall artists.” I was one of them, I was like, “Oh yeah? I always loved that little girl,” but I didn’t know. Nicki Minaj, same thing.
Well, we all come from you. All the island women who make us feel good about our sexuality. I’m sure you know [how] island women feel about being sexy with age. We still love being sexy with age. How do you feel about that?
Some people tell me, “You look like you don’t change.” You know my mom was like that. My mother, my mom was like 50-something, that woman, her boobs were way up here. She had eight children and she got no scars on her and no stretch marks. She was flawless, so I guess the gene, we have good genes, I don’t know if it’s the food, girl, but it’s something.
Coming up one of my favorite things in dancehall songs [was] talking about fighting females. “We don’t fight females. We’re too good for that,” but how do you feel about women finding privacy and strength in the era of the Internet where women attack each other so much? How do you center yourself because like you said, everyone was talking about your man and [you]?
I pray about it. A lot of things were being said about me that were all lies. As I said, some females took the opportunity to come out and show their true colors and what they felt towards me. I didn’t even know they hated me so much because these were people that I helped. But I pray about everything, and I leave everything to God, and God always shows me the way, he never disappoints me. No matter how you hear me on stage singing x-rated songs, when I go inside and go on my knees, I pray deep. I pray from way down there in my belly, and it will work out. Right now, I’m just living. I laugh a lot. Sometimes I wonder if there’s a laughing season going on because I’m happy. I’m at a place where I’m happy. Big up to island girls, big up to the women who uplift their own selves, and love themselves. If you think you have to break down each other to make your way up to the top, you’ll never reach. You’ll reach halfway and think you’re there because of the way you tear down another. You ain’t going to go that far, and you’re not going to stay up there. People are confused by my longevity, but it’s because of who I am, and people love me. I don’t know, they just love me. Because I’m clean right here. I have a beautiful heart, beautiful woman right here, and that’s what keeps me going.
Big up to island girls, big up to the women who uplift their own selves, and love themselves.
Do you ever feel like your religious self is at odds with your x-rated self?
Mmmhmm. Many times, I feel like God wants me for another reason. I’ve had experiences where I feel the Holy Ghost takes me over and throws me on the ground. Many songs come to me, just like that. The words, the melodies, the things I say. I must be in another…I don’t know who say these things. They want me for another reason, and sometimes I think I disappoint him. When I go on stage, I go all in, I go overboard. I go home, and I pray about it. I say, “God, I know I went overboard, this is survival, I promise I’ll give my whole life to you one day.”
So movie, album, what else do you have coming up? What are you most excited about musically to do next?
What I’m most excited to do musically is to shock them with a gospel album because I told you I was on it already, about six songs. I even lost two of the songs, but I can go back in. That and the most exciting is my project for the movie. There was a lady I met in Jamaica, and she was the woman who wanted to do a movie about my life, but she was no longer working for the company. So I told her, “I have people in Jamaica. Why not get my people together and do this low-budget thing because I know Lifetime will take it because…." If you ever know where I’m coming from, people try to inflict pain on me. It’s nothing. They don’t know pain. I’ve gone through rape, I’ve gone through…you would call it abuse. But I grew up on getting my ass whooped, and I’m not talking about normal ass whooping. I’m talking about being chained to a tree, like a long chain like you chain a cow. Lock it with a padlock on it, electric cords and all of that. I’ve been through so much.
Sometimes I see where I struggled to have kids, and I’ve never carried them well, I try to figure out why. Your womb is all right, yes, you’re having some issues with your tubes. I wonder if that was because I was raped when I was younger in the ghetto? Didn’t get to go to the police, didn’t get to go to the doctors. Is there something sitting there? I wonder is it because of the way my dad beat me? Is it because of me climbing all them coconut trees to get those coconuts to sell to the tourists? And you’re going up and you feel like your womb is tearing out, but you’re going up in that coconut tree? What did happen? Whatever went wrong? You look back and say, “I’m here for a reason.” The movie will be something.
And how do you feel about love now?
Right now, I told my friend, “If I find love, I would kill him.” [Laughs.] I have a friend, my little girlfriend out in Jamaica is one of my best friends, and I said to her, “If love ever come my way I’m going to knock him out.” But you know, I’ve loved. But I don’t know if I’ve ever been loved. Maybe I think, I’ve been loved by people, but I wasn’t. I have loved but I’ve never been loved. If I was loved it was for the wrong reason or that was not love. Maybe a man thought that was it, but it was not it. So I could say, all I need now is a sex partner.
Did you see what Rihanna said she wants for Christmas? She said, “A big trimmed dick.”
No. I got a big one, I got a name for it. It’s called Rack and Pinion. You know what that is? It’s a part from your car. The whole rack and pinion, girl. I used to look at pretty, sweet guys. I’m not looking for no damn pretty, I just want a nice clean dick and I’m good. [Laughs.] I got one, I got me one. I got me an old Rack and Pinion. We were getting at it, and this new sex I got, I never got that one before. I thought I was…and this boy—not the boy—the man was up in it rocking. I said, “Fuck you trying to rock my rack and pinions out?” So I went home and I tell my sister, “Yeah, this dude give me this new sex. I never had that one.” She said, “Well, what’s it called?” I said, “Rack and Pinion.” The boy was rocking out my ball joint. [Laughs.] You know? So. When you’re getting it good…. I just want to enjoy life. It’s clean. I don’t have to go to the gynecologist tomorrow. That’s all I need, conversation and good sex with a clean dick. I’m off of the pretty boy.
Judnick Mayard is a writer living in New York. Follow her @Judnikki.