Richard Johnson (Jamaica Observer) underlines the “Jamaican effect” on contemporary popular music, writing, “The undeniable influence of Jamaica and it’s culture was plain to see last Friday during the latest staging of the online musical battle, Verzuz, which was between accomplished musicians and recording artistes Alicia Keys and John Legend.” [I was moved to tears by their rendition of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” in celebration of Juneteenth on Verzuz Battle Live.]
Co-owner of the Verzuz brand, American producer Swizz Beats, has been clear about the Jamaican influence even in the concept of Verzuz, drawing on the popular clashes between local sound systems going back to the 1950s and 60s.
Ever since the epic battle between dancehall heavyweights Beenie Man and Bounty Killer in May, the organisers of the event have admitted that the bar for the event was raised to new heights and subsequent stagings have been reflecting more of this Jamaican influence. For starters, the organisers are insisting that both artistes be in the same room for the clash. Prior to the Beenie-Bounty match-up, the parties were not in the same location.
On Friday, the evidence of the influence of the black, green and gold was experienced from the outset.
Both artistes walked onto the set which featured two pianos and began playing the opening chords to Bob Marley’s anthem from 1980, Redemption Song. This song has become part of John Legend’s repertoire and was notably performed at the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony at the Oslo city hall in Norway. That year the prestigious award was presented to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons — one of the subjects touched on in this iconic work by Marley.
Cedella Marley, daughter of the reggae king, took to social media following the performance to laud both artistes for: “Blessing us with a cover of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. What a beautiful way to celebrate Juneteenth,” she posted on Instagram.
However, the Jamaican influence was far from done.
For her first track, Alicia Keys would draw for Ghetto Story, her popular collaboration with local artiste Cham. The song released in 2006 was a remix of the original song released previously by Cham. The music video was shot on location in the Corporate Area, with scenes included from his boyhood stomping ground of Sherlock Crescent located in the Duhaney Park community of St Andrew.
“I’m very excited about this one. This is one of my vibes. I’ll never forget this song and how much I wanted to be a part of it…. Big up to Babycham,” she said in introducing the song.
Both Alicia Keys and John Legend are not strangers to the Jamaican music scene. In addition to Cham, word came earlier this year that she is working on material with reggae sensation Chronixx. In the meantime, Legend has worked with Buju Banton in the past with Can’t Be My Lover in 2008, and renewed that collaboration on another track, Memories, which has been included in Buju’s album Upside Down set for release this Friday. Grammy winner Koffee has also collaborated with John Legend on the track Don’t Walk Away, which is on his album Bigger Love which was released a week ago.
Despite the star power which accompanies these two acts including a total of 26 Grammy Awards between them; John Legend also has the distinction of being an EGOT— winner of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards; they didn’t manage to pull numbers anywhere near the 473,000 viewers who watched the battle between the Jamaican dancehall icons. Their figured peaked in the region of 160,000, averaging at about 130,000 throughout the near three-hour presentation.
The Jamaican influence did not end with the performance.
In the post-show wrap between Verzuz co-creators Swizz Beats and Timbaland, Swizz Beats, who is married to Alicia Keys, said he was going to cook jerk salmon for his wife based on her performance.