In the few weeks leading up to the release of Romain Virgo’s debut album, over 70 people were killed in Kingston, Jamaica’s Tivoli Gardens, as the army swept through the streets in search of alleged drug kingpin Christopher “Dudus” Coke. With Jamaica in a state of emergency, Virgo was forced to delay all promotions. In hindsight, he may have been just what people needed to hear, a young artist with a passion for peace and love despite growing up surrounded by the same violence and poverty dividing the nation.
"I write songs that can help people through their struggle,” Virgo says. “I always want to represent poor people—to show the world how we Jamaicans live. People that live in the countryside, especially kids in the garrisons." Virgo was raised to be a sensitive gentleman in St. Ann, where he shared a one-bedroom house with his mother, brother, sister and grandmother. He sang lead in church and his high school choir, so when he won Jamaica’s version of American Idol at 17 singing a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” his family was rightfully worried about his turn to reggae. And while Virgo’s not shy about his gift for taming wild bodies of estrogen with a voice that can sound both desperate and nonchalant at the switch of a syllable, the now 20-year-old with a million Jamaican dollars of prize money in his bank account is proving that his success shouldn’t worry the women who made him a man.
“You have to be cautious of the things you put on a record,” he says. “That's why I take a positive step.” You can hear this prudence on somber album cut “Who Feels It Knows It,” which flips The Wailing Wailers’ 1966 ska classic of the same name into an updated paean to the working class struggle, and fellow Donovan Germaine-produced single "Mi Caan Sleep,” where Virgo implores the rude boys to give the guns a rest. Both are examples of his many conscious tunes over riddims (like “Live Mi Life,” a contemporary version of the '80s throwback Boops riddim) that romanticize the old Jamaica that tourists easily flocked to. Compared to the generations of deejays and singers that exaggerate their musical lineage to Bob Marley—because of their proximity to St. Ann’s hallowed ground—it’s Virgo’s humanitarianism that irrigates the most from the Marley well. When Virgo sings, his optimism is palpable. Even when he’s echoing the afflictions of his community, he sounds certain there’s a better future ahead. Between two worlds, Virgo’s confidence resides in his message: love is all you need.
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