Oje Ken Ollivierre, the Jamaican artist known professionally as Protoje, is a thoughtful, contemplative individual—a thinker, if you will, who is consciously aware of his role as a creator and his responsibility as a creator to share what’s most authentic to him with the rest of the world.
Born into a family of music-minded parents, music started as a hobby for Protoje and eventually took form as a career once he made the conscious decision to go all-in and dedicate himself to his craft. His latest album Third Time’s The Charm acts as a culminating expression of his life experiences and feelings that have brought him through to the present moment.
When we connect over Zoom, Protoje is in a happy, expressive mood—having just taken a quick puff—and from a free and open mindset begins to share his journey through music, his relationship with cannabis, how he channels a higher power for his music’s creation, and how that higher power gives life to further music creation, performance, and sustenance.
High Times: Growing up in a musical family with both parents being musicians, was music always the path for you growing up in that environment?
Protoje: I really wanted to be an athlete first. I wanted to be a long distance runner and was obsessed with basketball in my teens. I always loved music and was involved in it, but it was like a hobby to me.
A little bit before I left high school I started to realize that the idea of getting a job or working somewhere was not sitting well. Not realizing the work it would take to be an artist, I thought maybe I could become one. Everyone was telling me how good I was and I could see how they were reacting [to my music]. So I declared that I was going to be an artist and that was what I was going to do [for “work”].
HT: What was it about the artistic lifestyle that you realized was different from running, different from having a nine-to-five—what was it that really captivated your spirit?
Protoje: To be honest, it was people’s reactions to hearing me DJ or doing other stuff. I just thought it would be a good way for me to express myself. I think where I felt most natural and felt most happy and content was writing music and singing it to my friends. I would get very excited and it’s what brought me joy.
HT: So there’s a fulfillment element then that being on stage and expressing yourself provides, perhaps in a way that other occupations may not.
Protoje: I think so. As simple as it is, I just didn’t want to have to report to anyone. I grew up with parents who always helped me feel very free. They had such busy schedules that they just kind of let me set my schedule, so it was very hard for me to adjust to operating on someone else’s clock. Doing so takes away my joy, so I knew that while I wanted to pursue music, I’d also have to do it under my own label. I just really didn’t want to have to report to someone, so I built my entire creative process around that.
HT: When expressing yourself through music, is there a mission that you’re trying to fulfill or is it just an expression of yourself and music happens to be the tool to do that through?
Protoje: I’ve found that the most honest way to approach music is to speak about experiences and the meaning that I derive from the way that I see things. That to me is me being my most honest self, and doing that is the most important thing for me musically.
So I may feel some way about something and I think the feeling is valid. After sitting with that feeling, I express it. A year later, I may be going through something else, but once it is valid and honest in me, I express it.
The overarching theme is to appreciate—to live in the moment of gratitude—to make use of the time that you have as best as you can. That’s really what I try to do as an individual. Because of that, that’s what my music tends to focus on.
When I listen to my music—look, I have to sing these songs everyday. I’m the only person who has to sing these songs one thousand times. I’m hearing myself sing this stuff all the time. So [the songs] need to be something that resonates with me and that I one hundred percent believe in. That they’re authentic from me. Otherwise, I’m going to hear it and I’m going to cringe.
The other day I had a show that was really hard to get up for energy-wise. I was tired, everyone was tired. I started the show singing “Deliverance” and said “Choosing how I spend my time is completely by design / They don’t even see the trying / All they see is dollar sign / All I make is sacrifice.” I was listening to those lyrics and I got an energy [that woke me up]. And this is why I [create] this way because it helps power the whole thing. Lyrics help power the whole thing of me being an artist.
HT: So it’s almost like a really cool feedback loop. You’re channeling from a higher power, that channeling then leads to the creation of the music, and then the music gives you the energy you need to perform the music.
Protoje: It’s like if you plant some lettuce yourself and you grow it and it comes up. You take it, and you wash it off, then you cook it, and you bring it out to the table for dinner. You break off a leaf of it and you taste the lettuce. You’re reminded of when you planted it and you get to experience it one more time and it’s a loop. It’s just like that, that’s [how making music] feels to me.
HT: Was there a moment after deciding to focus on music where you realized the path could be both the vehicle to express yourself and provide you with sustenance?
Protoje: I committed to music very early but it was very hard to get traction. I think when my first single “Arguments” came out and it came out and did well, I was like, “Wow, I’m an artist.” People were starting to recognize that I made music. I knew I had the skills and I knew I had the talent but my main problem was that I thought it was owed to me because I was so talented. I was like, “I’m talented, so why isn’t this person recording me? Why am I not getting the respect?”
Once I realized that nobody owed me anything and that talent alone had nothing to do with it—sure, I’m talented, but many people are talented—I began to realize I needed determination and discipline, and after that, everything started to happen fast.
HT: Once you realized you weren’t owed anything, what was the shift in your actions that led to success?
Protoje: The shift was immediate. I was at a friend’s playing video games and I went outside and started to smoke. Anxiety came over me like I’d never felt before. I didn’t understand. I knew I wanted to be an artist, I had a song that I was recording, but I was hanging out playing video games with friends during the day. I could tell you how many points Kobe had in the game the night before. But what was I doing every single day [to achieve my goals] apart from writing some songs at night? What else am I doing?
So I stopped everything that day. I got rid of my PlayStation, I stopped watching TV, I stopped everything else I was doing and I just started doing music all of the time. I started to bring my song to every radio station and go to every live event that they had where it was possible for me to get in front of people. Every day, everything I started doing was centered around “how is this helping me get closer to my goals?” I did that for a little and then everything started to happen when I stopped doing everything else. It was wild.
HT: You went all-in and took the action of consistently showing up for yourself. And it sounds like, from that place, good things happened.
Protoje: G, I’m telling you. In life, I’ve never seen it not work to really just narrow in on exactly what you’re trying to do and work towards it every day. I don’t see how that’s possible to not get closer to your goal if you work towards it every day. Once I realized that, everything changed.
That’s why I tell artists that I work with, “You want this and you want that, but have you done today to get there?”
From that day [of my realization] to now, no matter what it is that I’m doing, every day I do something that is helping me get towards where I am trying to go.
HT: And you’ve had the positive feedback from the universe to validate that way of living.
Protoje: I know that if I stay up another hour and send out another hundred emails today instead of tomorrow, I’m twenty-four hours closer to getting where I’m trying to go. That’s how I operate.
HT: How do you protect your energy from getting burnt out?
Protoje: The people around me will joke that I have an obsession or that I need to get hobbies, but I think it’s a balance. I have my family and my daughter, who give me a lot of relief. My family knows that I work really hard because I’m trying to do as much as I can do in as short a time as I can because I don’t want to be out here doing this forever.
I can spend five hours working feverishly on my craft today and then I have ten hours extra that I can use to go to the beach, I can hangout with my daughter, the whole family can chill and watch a movie or whatever—but the thing is, when I’m doing these things, the way my mind works is that these are all life experiences that are going into the process of me thinking. In turn, this leads to my music. You understand? It’s not focusing on being in the studio all of the time or recording all of the time, because that will burn you out. It’s living, experiencing, feeling.
Movies are a big thing for me and my writing because movies really make me feel. To someone else, watching a movie is time off—which it is for me, too—but at the same time, my mind is working and I’m getting ideas. So I’ve found a way to use it all as creativity.
HT: In terms of creativity, what’s the inspiration behind your new album Third Time’s The Charm and what do you hope people take from it?
Protoje: The album is an extension from [the album] In Search of Lost Time. It picks up right where it left off. Everything was coming from things that I was going through and experiencing. As I said, I communicate best with the world by talking about the things I’m going through and people can relate to it in some way and get something from it for their lives, as opposed to being preachy. That’s something I’m not interested in—being preachy and telling people what’s right, how you should live your life. I’m about sharing my experiences as you would when you meet someone and you’re talking to them.
Think about it: If you meet someone and you’re speaking to them and they say, “Hey look, you should live like this, this is wrong, this is the way,” or whatever, you’re not going to be receptive to the ideas and concepts I’m coming with, right? It’s the same thing musically. I’m just making music and communicating and sharing my thoughts and ideas. Maybe you connect with it, maybe it makes you come up with your own great idea.
I love this album, I really connect with it on a personal level. I love the words that are being said, I love the sounds that are playing behind the words. I love the way the album is mixed, I love the art. The visuals are possibly my most favorite that I’ve ever done. Everything is precisely how I want it to be and that’s what matters to me the most, knowing I’ve done exactly what I’ve wanted to do. However that’s perceived is up to people, and whatever that is, I’ll definitely be able to accept it.
HT: It sounds like you’re consciously making art for yourself which enriches your life, and there’s an awareness of the power it has to also potentially enrich the lives of many others.
Protoje: I like to think about van Gogh back in the day with an open canvas and him listening to his mind saying “Make this stroke with the brush here, use this color there.” I’d like to think he wasn’t there thinking “I wonder if someone is going to like this color here,” or “I wonder if people are going to like the way I do the grass here.” I don’t think that’s what people are doing when they’re making art. You have a picture in your head and you’re trying to put it as good as you can on the canvas. I feel like I’m hearing the songs in my head and all I’m trying to do is get it as close to how it sounds and looks in my head. When I really break it down to that, it takes away all of the pressure from making art. It helps you as an artist to not be anxious and feel like a hostage.
HT: How does cannabis help you with this kind of creative process?
Protoje: I have a very interesting relationship with marijuana. Sometimes, it gives me feelings that I’m not too comfortable with. Sometimes it makes me very anxious. Sometimes it makes me doubt myself. Sometimes it makes me question a lot of things. There’s lots of different reactions that I get from it depending on what I’m going through and how I’m feeling within myself.
When I smoke it causes me to overthink a lot and overanalyze. When I’m going through it, I feel anxious, but when I come out of it, I usually find something positive from the experience that I was having. So I’ve even learned to even accept the anxiety at times when it comes.
When I’m creating music—especially when I’m producing or recording another artist—and I’m smoking, it makes me able to spend as much time as needed without losing my focus. When I’m writing, marijuana will help me to be locked in and not be as easily distracted with outside elements. So creatively, I do think it helps me a lot, but I try to make sure that I’m not high all the time either because my conscious brain without being on marijuana is also such an effective thing and it brings its own qualities. It’s about finding the balance as with everything.
Follow @protoje and check out http://www.protoje.com for tickets, tour dates, and his latest album Third Time’s The Charm.
The likes of Koffee, Buju Banton, Bob Marley and Damian Marley are the artists that have made me so interested in Jamaican music and I really want to discover more of them.