Music

Mr. Levy Comes to Newport

Our exclusive interview with the Jamaican star on the eve of the Newport Waterfront Reggae Festival

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With soulful eyes that betray his wide gap-tooth smile, I can only assume that Barrington Levy has been witness to a great deal of strife during his 48-year journey on this planet. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, a city plagued by violent crime, Levy put forth relentless effort to rise above the adversity and secure a spot as one of the world’s biggest reggae stars.

Levy continues cranking out tracks that feature poignant lyrics and rich vocals over highly danceable rhythms. With song titles such as “No War” and “Teach The Youth,” the dancehall king is giving hope to all kids growing up amid the chaos, while also dispelling the claim that reggae begets and glorifies violence.

Levy shares his personal struggles as par for the motivational course: “I have sold newspapers, candies, red peas. I have been to bed hungry. I have been in the studio recording with a stomach so empty I fainted. But, I still pursued my dreams and [kids] can too… Know that the greatest of person has a story, and it’s not glitzy or fairytale-like.”

His own story begins in the late ’70s; young Levy was a fixture at the dancehalls, performing to much fanfare. “My first memory is performing for [Jamaican prime minister] Ms. Portia Miller, the first time she was being introduced to politics,” he says. By age 14, he had cut his first solo single, and shortly thereafter was taken to the infamous King Tubby’s recording studio by big-time producers Junjo Lawes and Hymen Wright.

Over his expansive career, Levy has released 29 albums and partaken in numerous collaborations with heavy-hitters including Bounty Killer, Shyne and Snoop Dogg. Speaking of the latter, Levy says of Snoop’s recent name change (to Snoop Lion), “I admire his respect for reggae music. The name change must be to show that he has gotten better.”

Levy has solidified an image over the years as well, one which features a heavy rotation of sharp suit jackets and stylish fedora hats; the man has got some serious swag. He assures me, though, that it’s all part of the performance and that truthfully, he’s a jeans and t-shirt guy. “It’s hot here [in Jamaica],” he says with a laugh.

As a hat tip to his cultural roots, Levy says his favorite Jamaican dish is curried chicken and vegetables. Having tasted it during my time there a few years back, I can understand his affinity for the meal. While I happily washed mine down with Red Stripe, Levy keeps it a bit healthier. “My drink [of choice] is water,” he says.

Never one to shun change, Levy’s social media presence has grown along with the times to include a Twitter account and even a vlog. “I answer my own Tweets,” he promises. “I know my supporters better than any staff I could hire.” He does, however, welcome technical assistance from his “tech team.”

Levy is excited to headline the Newport Waterfront Reggae Festival on Saturday August 11, alongside other world-renowned artists including Junior Marvin and Bushman. The show kicks off at noon and culminates with Levy's performance at 8pm. Tickets are $35 in advance and $45 at the gate.