Long before Andrae Sutherland was known as Popcaan, back in primary school—the Jamaican equivalent of elementary—he wrote a letter to God. He asked the Lord to “open my brain in school” and to let him prosper in life. Moreover he asked God to allow his parents and grandparents and his brother and sister live to inherit whatever he received.
While cleaning house recently, his grandmother found the piece of folded notebook paper amongst some books and gave it to him. He posted it on Instagram with a message to his 444,000 followers: “God is real and he did answer that prayer I pray to him a long time ago🙏🏼 #givethanks.”
That #GiveThanks hashtag comes straight out of Poppy’s song “Unruly Prayer,” released last May. “Look how much youth deh a jail house,” he sings on the record. “Me never haffi deh a road/Look how much youth deh a grave yard/Me never haffi deh yah don’t… So me haffi give thanks yeah… Tell the devil keep him distance yeah.”
One night last year, in the tidy little stand-alone house in Portmore that her son’s music helped pay for, Popcaan’s mother was watching T.D. Jakes on television and fixing a plate of food. She’s a minister who preaches a weekly sermon, and finds time to cook for her son every day, sending meals to him when he can’t make it home. “I pray for him every day,” she said, sitting in a living room filled with framed plaques courtesy of dancehall distributor 21st Hapilos commemorating all the hits he’s released in recent years. “I pray hard.”
Late last month Popcaan posted a 10-minute video to his Vevo channel, the first part of a documentary called “Abundant Life.” Nursing a fat spliff before a roaring bonfire, his intricate braids unbound, allowing his hair to burst forth as an unruly bush, the artist formerly known as the “Raving King” read from Psalms 40 and 59 above the sound of a crackling fire and the throbbing beat of Niyabinghi drums: “I waited patiently for the Lord, and he inclined to me and heard my cry. He also brought me out of the horrible pit and out of the miry clay. He set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps. He has put a new song into my mouth…”
“Everybody was surprised,” Popcaan says of the heavily spiritual documentary, the idea for which came to him in a vision: 19 Psalms that he felt compelled to share with the world. “Even when me call up the drummer and the camera people, everybody was like ‘Yo, what this is about?' And when them see what it’s about, everybody was surprised and everybody love it.”
Having made his name with light-hearted songs like “Clarks” alongside Vybz Kartel and later solo hits “Raving” and “Only Man She Want,” Popcaan’s music has evolved. His debut album, 2014’s Where We Come From, gave listeners their first glimpse of the artist’s true depth. “We Godly, but we unruly same way,” he says now. “You done know we nah left the street. The street is a part of me, and Popcaan is an artist who represent for the street and the ghetto them at all times. Cause there’s so much youth inna the ghetto who nah have nobody fi look up to, fi tell them to go right or go left. Me as a person who beat the struggles, me feel like it’s a part of my job to give people the advice wha me think can help them.”
As for himself, he keeps his own counsel. “Most advice me get nowadays is from Andrae Sutherland,” he says with a laugh. “You see? The inner me. Because while the days pass, me ah grow up too. Me experience so much things while growing up at a young age. So it come like me old before me young.”
Today Complex premieres the biggest song off Justus JA’s massive “Life Support” Riddim, “Weed Is My Best Friend” by Popcaan. Shot “somewhere in South America,” the visuals show Poppy happily communing with nature amidst a field full of enormous herb stalks. Although he’s normally a pretty sociable guy, he says that life experience has taught him to choose his associates with care.
“There’s so much people who you would take out your heart and give them,” he said in an exclusive phone interview last week. “And those are the same people who will turn ’pon you. So that just make me see say, nuff human being make me can’t trust them. And certain of my problems, ah just me and me weed go through them. Me just smoke weed and overcome obstacles.”
Not that Popcaan has become a total recluse. In the video he can be seen puffing blunts with Chi Ching Ching and members of his Unruly Crew. “We no deal with friend,” he explains. “Family we deal with. Every youth who you see me par with, ah me family dem. Straight. But even when some of my family is not around,” he adds with a laugh. “My weed is around.”
Although the first lines of the song “Nuh trust friend/Nuh trust Devil… Human being no trustable” may be reminiscent of PG-13’s diss tune “Radio,” Popcaan says any similarity to the song recorded by Vybz Kartel’s young sons Lil Addi and Lil Vybz—in which they big up most of the current artists on Jamaican radio before stating “Nah tell no lie me no trust Popcaan”—is purely coincidental. “I never heard of PG-13,” he said when asked directly whether the song was some sort of response. “For real. I don’t know who that is.”
Popcaan always makes a point of bigging up Kartel, who was sentenced to life in prison for murder two years ago this past weekend. The “WorldBoss” has remained arguably the biggest artist in Jamaica with a huge presence in the dancehall despite his incarceration—and it's a testament to his impact on the music that his former protege has emerged as Jamaica's other biggest star. In a 2013 interview via text message, Kartel told Boomshots that he felt betrayed by his former proteges. “BEFORE I CAME TO JAIL I BOOKED FOR TOMMY [LEE] AND PAPI.SINCE MY REMAND, THEY’VE BOTH BEEN SIGNED TO NEW BOOKING AGENTS.PEOPLE WHO WOULDN’T HAVE LOOKED AT THEM BEFORE I TURNED THEM INTO STARS BUT WHO ARE BENEFITING FROM MY HARD WORK. BUT YOU KNOW, ITS NOT EVEN AN ISSUE BECAUSE IM STILL VYBZ KARTEL. RICH AND (SOON) HAPPY.”
Popcaan’s music flows in two streams these days, the godly songs and the rude boy tunes like “Rup Rup (Bad Inna Real Life).” Kartel's issues are what they are, and there’s not much point discussing them. Anyway he’s too busy scouting talent at his weekly Unruly Wedenesday battles and churning out collabs with everyone from Pusha T to Bobby Shmurda, Jamie xx & Young Thug, and most recently AlunaGeorge. "Hard work pay off, bredda," Popcaan says. "My music is not just what every dancehall artist ah sing."
“People gravitate to things me ah do, so me have to always keep me focus,” he says. “Me no take time time off and me no take vacation.” On the day we spoke he was in the studio with Emeli Sandé. Not long before that M.I.A. came to Jamaica to check him, and they have plans to work together soon. Although his slang and voice have been heard up a few Drake records, Poppy has yet to officially collaborate with the 6 God, but as he says “anything possible still.” His own follow-up album for Brooklyn-based Mixpak Records probably won’t drop until next year—by which time, he hopes to be able to attend the release party in person, and not just as a life-sized cardboard cutout like last time.
As Popcaan says in the “WIMBF” video, “Right now it legal, no feds can charge we.” Since last March Jamaica passed a long-overdue amendment to the ganja law, making possession of up to two ounces a petty offense punishable by a small ticket. (And as one government minister explained to me, “we haven’t even printed up the tickets.”) That same minister went on to state that the criminal records for persons with ganja charges would be wiped clean, allowing them to apply for jobs and visas more easily.
“I was locked up for weed once,” says Popcaan, who has traveled to Canada to kick it with the OVO crew in the past but has yet to visit the United States. “Right now me clean as me heart.” The American Embassy in Jamaica has been notoriously tough on dancehall artists in recent years, but the new law has given Popcaan renewed hope. “Yeah man, this year the place ah shut down man,” he says. “I’ll be in New York this year for sure… That will be a day to remember.” And yet another reason to #GiveThanks.