Usain Bolt: ‘I’m aiming for the top — a Grammy’

The gold medallist is now No 1 on iTunes’ reggae chart. He talks about fatherhood and women’s athletics with Ed Potton for The Times of London.

Sportspeople tend to fare about as well in music as Mariah Carey would if selected for a World Cup final. From the wine-bar balladry of the footballers Glen Hoddle and Chris Waddle’s Diamond Lights, to the athlete Carl Lewis’s reggae-pop ditty Break It Up, most notable for the leotard he wore in the video, to the Manchester United striker Andy Cole’s inaccurately titled Outstanding (“Come on, everybody, let’s feel the beats/ My bassline thumping in the streets”), the results are invariably horrible.

Usain Bolt, however, may have just proved that stupendous athletic ability does not automatically denote musical ineptitude. The Jamaican, a winner of eight Olympic golds and one of the greatest and most flamboyant sportsmen in history, has just released his debut album, Country Yutes, a collection of dancehall and reggae pop on which he serves as lead producer, occasional rapper, co-writer and, in the words of his publicist, “vibes curator”.

And it’s rather good. Not as good as him loping 100m in a world record 9.58 seconds, and some of the couplets creak (“Your vibration is electric/ You’re not just about the Netflix” goes one on Fragrance). Yet it’s smartly put together and often hummable, and Bolt’s sonorous, unhurried baritone lends itself well to music as he exhorts his global fanbase (10.6 million followers on Instagram) to “say less, do more”. Yes, it sounds like a motto for a sportswear company, but he has something that not all athletes, or musicians, have — charisma. The album is already No 1 in the iTunes reggae chart.

Bolt winning the men's 100m final at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Bolt winning the men’s 100m final at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

“It wasn’t always the plan [to release an album], but music was always a part of my life,” Bolt, 35, says over Zoom from the unlikely location of a field in Manchester where he is training for a charity football match. He is sporting a large goatee and a wry grin, and his forehead is beaded in sweat as he peers into the screen of his manager’s smartphone. He means it about the music. Having grown up on the raucous dancehall reggae of Beenie Man and Bounty Killer, his appetite for partying is legendary. In 2019 he produced his first mixtape and he has worked with dancehall stars including Baby Cham, Dexta Daps and Ding Dong.

There was musicality to his running too — he would sing into the camera before decimating his rivals and do knee-knocking victory dances afterwards. Athletics is obsessed with who will be the next Bolt, a gobsmacking winner with a brief to entertain. He is impressed with the female sprinters — his fellow Jamaicans Elaine Thompson-Herah and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce have been running very fast. “Their times are great and they’re really keeping the sport exciting. All we need is a personality — most of the ladies are really quiet and chill. What’s missing is the performance that I always put on that people really love.” That will go down well with his female colleagues.

Sharing sporting immortality with Pelé, Serena Williams and Muhammad Ali will open doors, but did Bolt have to prove himself as a musician? “Yeah, definitely,” he says. “And I’m fully OK with that. I think I should have to prove myself. This album is just to show people that I’m serious.” Far more serious than he is about football, which he has dabbled in since retiring from athletics in 2017. The next day he will captain a Rest of the World pro-celebrity team to a 3-0 win against an England side led by Wayne Rooney and featuring the singer James Bay.

His musical ambitions, however, stretch a bit further than trying to get a shot past Joel Dommett of The Masked Singer. He is aiming, he says, for “the highest top of top — a Grammy. That would be a big thing. So that’s what we’re going to work towards.”

Bolt with Nugent “NJ” Walker, who takes lead vocals on most of Country Yutes

Bolt with Nugent “NJ” Walker, who takes lead vocals on most of Country Yutes

Bolt certainly has the kind of tough background that inspires authentic music. He was born and grew up in Sherwood Content, a town of 1,500 in provincial Jamaica, the son of parents who ran the local grocery shop. He’s had to deal with “the deaths of my friends, days when I want food, and there’s no food in the house. Growing up, my dream car was a Honda Civic.”

The title of the album, Country Yutes, refers to rural kids like him, and one of its songs, Days Like These, has a lilting groove that belies its dark lyrics about being “forever in this slum”. He laughs. “I wouldn’t say dark, but behind the scenes it’s not always peaches and cream.” Now he is worth $90 million and lives two and a half hours away in Kingston, but often returns to Sherwood Content. “A lot of my charity work is there, but also I love going back to just chill out because it’s so quiet.”

Another song on the album, RIP My G, pays tribute to his friend Germaine Mason, a Jamaican high jumper who represented Great Britain and died in a motorcycle accident in 2017. “We were really close friends; we travelled together, we hung out together,” he says. “That song meant dearly to me. Germaine has a brother in London that looks exactly like him; it’s the weirdest thing.”

Dancehall has long been tainted by homophobia, misogyny and the glamorisation of gun violence, but Bolt has no truck with that. “I travel around the world,” he says. “I’m a lot more educated than a lot of those persons.” When Bolt is on the mike, he prefers uplifting platitudes such as “believe in yourself” and “don’t take limits”.

NJ, right, is Bolt’s long-time friend and manager

NJ, right, is Bolt’s long-time friend and manager

Still, you sense some tension between the progressive outlook he has learnt on his travels and a more old-fashioned machismo. You wonder, for example, what his long-term girlfriend, Kasi Bennett, makes of lines such as “girls are getting naughty” on It’s a Party or “bring some girls to the car” on Yuh Know. Especially, given that she and Bolt are now parents to a one-year-old daughter, Olympia Lightning, and three-month-old twin boys, Thunder and Saint Leo (Bolt’s middle name).

OK, those lines are sung by Nugent “NJ” Walker, his long-time friend and manager, who takes lead vocals on most of the album, but it’s Bolt’s name ahead of NJ’s on the record. Are there any songs about Bennett? Another chuckle. “No, no. I keep that private. But she really supports me. She knows the dedication and the work I put in.” He says he has reined it in on the social front, especially during lockdown. “I just mostly hang out with my friends and chill out, play some dominoes and have a drink.”

He was at the birth of all of his children, he says. “I didn’t want to be there, but Kasi was, like, ‘Oh, please!’ My dad told me, ‘Whatever happens, do not look.’ ” So did he? “No!” He held her hand at the other end. Does he change nappies? “I don’t change poop nappies; I’m a pee guy. Anytime they poop I’m, like, ‘Mum, here you go.’ I made that deal before she got pregnant. ‘Pee nappies, I’m the one; poo nappies, you’re the one.’ ” Will there be any more little Bolts? “No, we both agree that that’s it.”

Parenthood, he says, “has made me much more patient. People always ask me why I couldn’t coach [athletics]. I was, like, ‘I’m not the patient type of guy.’ [Becoming a father has] really calmed me down and let me know how to live at a slower pace.” He hopes one of his children will follow him into athletics, he says. “Yeah, definitely. I don’t care who.”

Wayne Rooney takes on Bolt during charity football match Soccer Aid for Unicef 2021

Wayne Rooney takes on Bolt during charity football match Soccer Aid for Unicef 2021

Does he still run? “I used to go to a track, but it was too much.” Now he stays at home and does workouts on his Peloton exercise bike. How quick would he be over 100m now? “I wouldn’t be very slow, but I know I can’t break ten seconds.” Still, he’ll be easily the fastest person on pitch when he plays against Rooney and co. “On the pitch tomorrow, for sure.”

His favourite race, he says, was when he first broke the world record for the 200m, his favourite event, in the Olympic final at Beijing 2008. He still holds the records for the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay, but accepts that they will be broken, especially with the advent of high-tech “super shoes”. “People will find ways to run faster; technology will change. I was always focused on winning Olympic medals because you can’t take that away.”

Has he struggled with retirement? “We knew what I was going to do before retiring,” he says, namely working with his sponsors, investing in property. “It wasn’t like I was struggling to find something to do.” Now he has music too. “But I do miss it,” he says. “The Olympics were hard for me to watch.” As the most famous living Jamaican, has he considered running for office? “ A firm shake of the head. “I stay away from politics. Politics is a very tricky thing.” Could sport and statesmanship’s loss be music’s gain?
Country Yutes
 is out now on 9.58 Records

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