Dancehall as a genre and the culture that comes with it has been celebrated in the UK for decades now; being fused with neighbouring genres the sound continues to expand. One artist that blends the dancehall genre with fresh sounds is Alicai Harley. I caught up with her ahead of the release for her new EP to talk about inspiration, open mics, and a new era on the horizon.
On the occasions I’ve seen Alicai on stage or in passing her energy has been bright & contagious. Without the ability to share her energy with the outside world, I was curious to know how she was coping keeping all that energy inside.
“It’s been a journey, but I understand that it’s not just me. I don't feel like I’m alone or anything like that, with everything happening I've had to try and just work with it. I’ve tried to be the light, that’s one thing I’ve been doing from the beginning. Even before this like coming into the industry I’ve always wanted to be the light, I think I am a light from God, but yeah, when people click on my page or scroll wherever I want them to see positivity and be uplifted, so I kind of just try to be that. Even if I am having a bad day I try not to spread that to other people. I just share my good days into the world. And that’s what gets me through it as well, seeing that you’re adding value to everyone else.”
That’s a great way to think about it, artists generally enjoy seeing people listen to their music online and at shows. In the early days of her music journey, Alicai started out at competitions and open mics so she’s no stranger to a crowd. I imagined this time would be quite testing for someone so used to live performances.
“I definitely miss performing, 100%. The energy from people and just everything like. No matter what in life things move and evolve or die out, so I get the whole virtual thing but people! I didn't realise how much of a part physically seeing human beings played. But I’m working through it because again I know that it’s not just me, everyone has to deal with it”
“With the virtual ones, it’s so crazy because it’s almost like my journey set me up for times like this. Coming up in open mics I could get there at the end and see 2 people or be there at the beginning with a full crowd so that made me give energy regardless...it’s just about putting on a show.”
Alongside her earlier performances, Alicai and friends grouped together to get her music out into the world.
“I did competitions and recorded videos and posted them on YouTube. The first song I ever recorded was after my dad died in year 7, I remember I recorded it at centre and edited it and posted it on YouTube. It was like the same thing I'm doing now to be fair, but social media wasn't the same, it grew over time. My friend was the videographer, and we’d all do different things, styling, hair, most of the time I did my own hair to be fair. We just did it because I always believe that if I used everything that I had I would be blessed with more and it's still the same now. If I use what God’s given me already then he will bless me with more. Then I just went to every open mic that I could get into - Nadia Rose is the first person that brought me to an open mic, and I think I could've been about 15.”
Although she’s a proud South Londoner, Alicai was born in Jamaica and spent the first part of her childhood there. I wondered how that comes into play in and out of her music.
“It made me so different, it really did, because I'm a proper Londoner, but I'm a proper yard gyal, it doesn't even make sense I'm both! I love the fact that in my music I can switch and blend it and how perfectly they blend. I always wanted to make sure that worked and was on point and it comes naturally so I don't even think about it too much.
Being an immigrant, realistically cause that's what it is, I’ve got the pressure of needing to make something of my life because my mum came here to give us a better life. It makes me appreciate where I've come from and my everyday life. I stay quite grounded and that’s because of my faith and because I know where I'm coming from. That’s one of the main things I pray about, I don't want to ever get too you know because God will humble you.”
Family and faith are two common themes in Alicai’s life that sometimes appear in her freestyles too. She regularly mentions being ‘Vanny Pickeny’ (her mother’s child) and gives thanks for the opportunities she’s had thus far. I was interested to know how her family supported her music journey. About her mother and family Alicai assured me:
“She loves it! She loves it because she's got to see the ups and downs as well and she knows that it’s like my heartbeat. To be fair yeah, music is my heartbeat, but God swiped me away, and he really is my heartbeat, but anyway, she sees how happy it makes me.
I guess before when I was in school and stuff she didn’t 100% get it, no one can see your vision. My whole family are really excited though, they're really proud, they support everything I do. Even when I was in school my mum was in my open mic shows and competitions; all my brothers came to watch and helped pay for videos, so they clearly believed.”
Recently Alicai was baptised and explained how her faith plays a part in the moves she makes as an artist and a person.
“There's nothing that I do that I don't take to God, even the littlest things. Anxiety tried to take me over in 2020, it really did, so I'm just on a thing where I don’t have time for that and when I take it to God it’s all okay.”
Her latest project The Red Room Intro (Yard Gyal Inna Britain) is full of the dancehall & RnB blend she’s known for, just before its release, we spoke about how the project came together.
“I thought all the records were gonna be made in the red room, a local studio, but over time they were recorded all over the place and it just happened like that. The creative process was amazing, putting the songs altogether and everything. Two of them were written at a Spotify writing camp - No Drama and No Ramping. They’re all different years as well from 2018 to 2020, it was a real crazy journey because it’s been finished like 3 times.”
About the inspiration for the EP cover Alicai explained:
“The actual thought of letting this be the cover was like a moment/spark in my head when we were in the red room, like a lightbulb moment. That book is my favourite book, I never forgot it or the story and what it touches on. It’s the only children's book I read that touched on stuff like that so early and it wasn't spoken about in the world a lot. It was the only time a black/brown girl was celebrated like that and it stuck with me forever; throughout my time in music as well when people didn't see what I could see because music is a very scary thing not just for the artist but their family members as well because they watch you work for it for years and they can't see the vision. The book stuck with me. I wanted this EP to represent where I'm coming from and where I'm at, not just vibes but the reality of me so yeah.”
Also, I always knew people would remember it, seeing how much it touches people has already been beautiful, it sends a message before my music is even out.”
The collaborations fell into place as Alicai reached out to Tony Matterhorn after making Do That and two others were birthed at a writing camp, but one almost didn't happen.
“The crazy thing is that Nadia and I have known each other forever and the crazy thing is we weren't even talking at the writing camp. The song was happening and it was kinda like ‘you jumping on?’ ‘I might still’ - I promise you it went down like that. And we enjoyed it, we were dancing to the song and everything. That’s one person that wants to see me do well like the love’s still there, that’s sis. it’s kind of emotional, we knew where we were coming from as well so her being on the EP is such a big deal because it could have not happened.”
Alicai’s influences are very much in alignment with where she’s from, I asked for a few names that she’s been inspired by.
“Okay so the first person lives fully in my music and I’ve always said this Lady Saw, she's a pastor now I love her so much. She reminds me of my mum but in the industry, which is weird, but in terms of her tone and I've always been inspired by her strongness. And then Buju Banton, because of how he rides the riddim, another person is Wretch 32. One person that I forget to say a lot is Cash (formerly known as Cashtastic). I was #TeamTastic and everything and he used to repost my early music and stuff like that. I wish he was on the EP, we went to film Nah Done in Jamaica, and he was in the video. And Beyoncé, I was a full-on DC fan, I just felt like she worked harder than anyone in this world and I still think she does. Nadia would be one of them too.”
Since the title says Red Room Intro, we can only assume there’s more on the way.
“The thing is yeah, it's a whole new era after this EP. You grow and everything so I kind of know the direction - this is just the intro.”
“I want people to be able to turn on my EP and leave it to play from top to bottom. I want them to feel my energy, the grace that God gives me to sustain through all. Feel loved and take from it the fact that I can do whatever and they can do whatever.
If by the end of the project you don't feel Jamaica or yard vibes I didn't do it correctly, but you know what, they’re gonna feel it. If you weren't there before, you’ll be there!”
The Red Room Intro (Yard Gyal Inna Britain) is now available on all streaming platforms.