Etana has emerged as one of reggae's most beloved and respected female singers and songwriters. Her passion and commitment to spreading an uplifting and positive message continues to shine a warm light on reggae. In a world mostly defined by male performers, her works speak to the strength of women and she is appropriately dubbed "The Strong One". The success of hits such as 'Wrong Address' and 'I Am Not Afraid' have left their imprint on audiences worldwide. She recently toured California stopping at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival where she gave a commanding and much loved performance. Here she sits down with Francesca D'Onofrio after an intimate show in Nevada City where fans were treated to an evening resembling a family gathering.

Francesca: Good evening Etana. What was the initial journey that led you from performing with the female vocal group Gift to your solo career?

Etana: When I left the group and moved to; I went to Kingston Jamaica to open up an internet café, and it takes awhile, it takes like 6 weeks to do the whole registration. During this time I met Richie Spice and Fifth Element. At the same time, Richie Spice was looking for a backup singer to do Reggae On The River and I ended up being that back-up singer. Since it was a one time show I did it and when I came back there was another ticket for me to go to Jersey and then it just went on and on and I ended up on the road for a year.

Francesca: I understand your first solo performance was in Gambia. How did your time spent there impact you and do you plan to return?

Etana: Oh yeah, definitely. Right now I'd go to Gambia. [enthusiastically].

Francesca: And what are some of your strongest memories of Gambia?

Etana: Oh yeah well I can give you two; there are so many but I remember the first day I got there I just dropped my bags. Usually I stay in my hotel no matter where I am in the world. I could be in Paris and as soon as I get to the hotel I stay there. But I got to Gambia and dropped my bags in the room and I run outside and go "Oh My God, Africa". And I saw some people on the street and I talked to them and asked them about certain things like the conch they use to make the street instead of tar, yeah they use conch shells. And there was a lady standing outside cooking in a pot but the way the pot is the fire was inside of it and the food on top and she cook outside everyday like I've seen them do and we were talking about the culture. And then I went to the supermarket and I met -- and I didn't have enough change and the man packing the bag took the change out of his pocket and gave it to me. And I just thought that was unbelievable because here he is looking at me as a tourist and obviously this is a man packing a bag and he gets change from people who give him a tip and out of his tip he gave me the change for my food that I was getting. It was unbelievable and it kind of touched me like, different. And there was this little youth I met and he told me how far he had to walk to school everyday and I went to see his family and everything and I remember leaving and buying him a bicycle and so when he was turning left, when he had to go left and the bus had to go right, he was riding next to the bus all the way to the turnoff and then he started going left and I was going right and it was just... I felt like a piece of me was being taken away when he was leaving. And so he was the inspiration for 'Roots', that little boy. So I started writing the song on the plane thinking about him.

Francesca: What a tribute to him.

Etana: Yeah, it's funny like the other day he e-mailed me and I asked him how he was doing in school and stuff like that but I didn't get a response so I'm hoping as soon as he gets access to the internet we'll talk.

Francesca: So you were able to spend time in Gambia before performing?

Etana: Oh yeah, a week prior to performing. And I remember the performance because I had to basically teach them my songs because they didn't know all my music or any of the lyrics and I sing like one song for more like 5 minutes until dem get the song and the people dem singing the song in the crowd and it was unbelievable. I remember coming off the stage people were trying to touch my hair, my skirt and any piece of me that they could touch and it was amazing. I remember even crying after performing; amazing. Serious emotion.

Etana performing in Nevada City 2009

Etana performing at Bob Marley Days 2009 - Negril JA
Francesca: I read Etana means strong one in Swahili. At what part of your career did you start using the name?

Etana: During that first year in 2006 because Shauna means pretty and I just wanted something else that represents women so every time a woman said the name Etana she could actually apply it to herself and know that every woman is powerful. In our own way we all are powerful more than they want to give us credit for.

Francesca: The positive and uplifting way you represent women cannot be overstated. Do you personally see yourself as a role model for young women? Does it sometimes feel like a burden?

Etana: Ahhhh, you know what? I think I came into my decision to do reggae from a little girl who had a negative family history and she came to me singing one of my more raunchy songs from back in the day... she was 5. I said I wanted to give her songs or girls like her, children like her, songs that could point them in a more positive direction as opposed to just sex sex sex or you know, negativity. I wanted to point them in another direction so I stepped into it thinking OK I'm going to be a role model so getting the name tagged on to me now means nothing because I already had that in me when I stepped in to do this. I stepped in on a mission for the children. Really seriously for the youth to point them in a more positive direction.

Francesca: How do you think society should address the sometimes extreme aggressive sexual style of dancing that is growing within the youth culture globally?

Etana: Well, put it this way. For me I think in America, in the entertainment world, one of the most popular quotes that you hear all the time is 'sex sells'. That's the favorite line of them all and I believe that if you force the things on the people dem, just like sweet reggae music, the more you hear the more you want, the more you dance to it the more you just don't want to stop dancing. Well the more of the sexual stuff that they get the more they're going to feed into it and people are making money off of it and so once the people selling the sex are making money, the government making money off of taxes, well it's like a forbidden fruit. They know it's not right but because it's forbidden people tend to draw to it... you know people just want it more. To me if the government makes money off of it there is no way they are going to scoop up all of it and take it off the air and take it off the websites. They're not going to do that, there's just too much money in it. So all me can say is it starts from the home because no matter where you go, children 5 year olds, 10 year olds can go on to the internet and type in sex and it just starts popping all over the place sex sex sex sex sex. They can tune into an underground station and listen to all negative music they want to listen to or whatever music they are playing. They can go online and type sex and music and they get all the sex songs so hey, it's in their face so the best thing you can do as a parent is start within the home, start explaining the truth. Don't talk about the birds and the bees and all these things. Tell the children the truth, yeah. Tell them directly, be straight up and straight forward because when you're not straight forward with them they go to school and they hear and say all these things and then come home and say "mom what is this and what is that" and you tell them well the birds and the bees and dogs and animals…No. The child is asking what-is-sex. Tell the child what is sex, not what the birds and the bees do but what mommy and daddy do.

Francesca: And the way women are sometimes viewed in the dancehall... ?

Etana: Well you know what, there are different levels of thinking and different levels of mentality. And you have some women who enjoy that and some women who don't. And even when you listen to some of the songs that are more you know sexually driven you'll hear some people talk about... some say well tell that big ray ray girl do this and do that and she rayyyy and she jump up and she go on. That is her enjoyment so she encourages the men in the dancehall to do that. So it starts from the woman, the women themselves have to go in the dancehall and NOT react to this stuff. You gotta teach people how to treat you, you understand? So it starts with the woman, see the woman has to go into the dancehall and say look here now we won't react to this stuff because this stuff is degrading. Yeah, so it starts with the woman. We have the power, see. As women we have so much power like I always say when I'm on stage, we have the power to shut the household down, we can make everybody in that house unhappy or happy.

Francesca: On days when you may feel down or confronted by stresses, where do you get your strength from?

Etana: I pray. I read books and sometimes I just listen to music or I'll go by the river; sit by the river and listen to the water run. Simple things like that you know to reach my inner peace.

Francesca: The energy of the audience probably varies from show to show. How does it impact you?

Etana: Yes. Sometimes the energy when you walk on stage you can feel it immediately and sometimes it gives you goose bumps. Like it gives me goose bumps sometimes when I get on the stage and feel the positive energy from the crowd or from me connecting with the crowd. And sometimes it builds. Sometimes you go out there and after praying you don't really feel that much but as you go into the set it builds.

Etana performing at SNWMF 2009
Francesca: You've received several awards in recognition of your songs such as 'Wrong Address' and 'Roots'. When you think about what you've accomplished, what do you reflect on?

Etana: Well while I'm grateful for everything that I've done and the awards I have received, I think of how much more I have to do to maintain what I've already done or to bring it to the next level. I think more of the next step, more than what I've done.

Francesca: How would you describe your song writing process? Did you start writing at a young age?

Etana: Yeah, I was always into poetry. I loved writing poetry and I still do. And then I realized; I would sit in biology class, anatomy and physiology, and write songs in the middle of a lecture. So I figure o.k. maybe I need to start writing my songs out. And the process usually for me to write a song is like today, I just sit down and I feel a vibe and it comes to me. It comes to me sometimes in full melody and I can hear the song itself or it comes to me in just lyrics. So it's not like there is a method, it comes to me in different ways and it comes as I'm writing. Most times it comes with melody and sometimes it comes the chorus alone. Like 'Roots' came to me the chorus alone. 'I Am Not Afraid' came to me as verse first. And 'Wrong Address', the whole song came to me in five minutes.

Francesca: I understand your have your own label?

Etana: Yes, Freemind Music.

Francesca: Do you plan to produce or collaborate with any other artists in the near future?

Etana: Yeah, definitely. I'm seriously considering a few artists I've seen. I am looking for a female but I haven't seen it yet. As soon as I see it; that passion, that drive, that hunger and need to express I'm going to jump on it. Besides my backup singer who is also a female, Tammi. She is a very serious female into her music and her work so I'll definitely be working with her on the next album. She will be on my next album, Clive as well. But I plan to do it separately because they are two individuals who do their own music.

Francesca: When is your next album coming out?

Etana: Next summer. Just like the last time in 2008 it was June 18, so it's going to be 2010 right around the same time.

Francesca: We all look forward to that! Any last words you'd like to share?

Etana: Well, there are so many things to share but I would say that to love life is the greatest gift. Try to spend most of your time creating positive memories because while situations pass, troubles come along, obstacles, challenges, all kind of things, I think it's best that we spend our time creating positive energy and positive vibes because memories last forever.
Interview by Francesca D'Onofrio
(Please do not reproduce without permission)