Voice of the director – An interview with Marcus McSweeney

An interview with ‘Voices of Jamaica’ Director Marcus McSweeney

Third Channel director Marcus McSweeney was commissioned by The Face magazine and the Jamaican Tourist Board to capture a songwriting retreat at a musical pilgrimage to Geejam, organised by the producer Cadenza (Oliver Rodigan). In the exquisite film ‘Voices of Jamaica’, McSweeney captures what happens when producers and artists are brought to a secret music hideaway and left to their own creative devices.

How did the project come about?
The Face approached me, as they knew about my past work on music documentaries and that my musical influences aligned. When I was young in North London, after school I would get looked after by our neighbour, who would listen to nothing but 70s and early 80s Jamaican music, Michael Prophet, Hugh Mundell. In my late teens hanging around Loughborough Junction I got a real sense of the community, Jamaican history, sound system culture and developed a fascination with the samples in Jungle music. Then when I was a DJ in Brixton, Ninjaman, Super Cat and Buji Banton were big influences. Dancehall was always there, it existed all around you and was a strong part of South London back then.

How important is space and nature to you and your creative process?
I think freedom, and having a strong sense of it, is very important if you want to create. Often you feel trapped in the city and locked in with so many people, it is important to clear your head and get some perspective. Jamaica is just intoxicating. The heat, the taste, the colour and texture allows you to just open your mind. The people as well have a generosity of spirit. So funny and you never have a bad time, their swagger is infectious and gets inside you.

What themes are explored in the film?
Freedom is the main one. People getting away from routine and grind, allows for creation. Jamaica as a country as well has freedom ingrained in it. As an Irishman I feel an affinity with that anti-colonial sense of freedom. It became a real meeting of minds. A musical synergy between Afrobeats and Dancehall. Also exploring heritage was interesting, There is a line Sevana says in the film “In Jamaica we don’t necessarily know which African country we are from but we know we are from Africa. We understand that we are a displaced people.”

Trust is also a significant theme. You can really see it between the artists and producers as they work together. In turn, this was important for the way I worked with them too. We wanted to look deeper than just your average music documentary, this is more about human connection than just music. They trusted me enough to be open to me filming them, and feel at ease during often vulnerable creative moments. Over the one week shoot, I was able to make intimate observations without them being too aware of me shooting. Which is hard especially for the bigger names who are more used to higher levels of control and ownership, especially Jorja and Aminé.

What were the main challenges you faced on the shoot?
It was a hectic shoot, trust me, definitely not just hold a holiday with a camera. We only had three people on the crew, Rosanna Gouldman the producer, the soundie Joe Harris and myself. The artist’s productivity was inspiring, non-stop music-making. Which also meant non-stop work for us as we had to cover four studios, different locations across Port Antonio and also capture local elements such as the Port Antonio Marching Band and the Roadblock party.

Have you ever been to Jamaica before?
No, this was my first time but I’d definitely heard of Portland and the Blue Mountains in connection to music and being just an amazing and special place. A combination of the location and the people. Also thanks to the Jamaican Tourist Board the driver Aneif and Cheree Morris. I felt at home in the place. Even though Cadenza and Kasien were only with only people on the trip with a direct link to Jamaica, everyone had a deep love for Port Antonio by the end.

As the director, how important is music and sound design in your film?
Well we were really blessed – both to be around all these different artists creating and to include some of their new, unreleased, tracks in our film. The tracks they made were exceptional and have really elevated the film.

But of course none of this could have happened without Cadenza. This whole trip was his brain child and he has such a gift in really making people feel at ease. Producing isn’t just about how technical you are but about connecting to people and Cadenza just gets people. The creative process is not a set formula but as much about feeling a vibe.

It was amazing seeing everyone work. Dre Skull is quiet but extremely self-assured everything he touches is just insanely good. He has an inherent understanding of Dancehall. When he and Marlon worked together there was a fusion between pop and dancehall in Bella Blair’s track Champion, I’m a big fan of female voices in dancehall. Watching them work made me think that artistic collaboration for them wasn’t just purely for practical sake, it was more than that. It is also amazing how quickly tracks come together. With Kelvin, Cadenza and P2J working together on the tracks for Kasien, they made it seem like making any sound was possible, so new and forward facing.

Jorja Smith was just so effortless in whatever she came out with. Miraa May was the life and soul of the whole trip – so nice to work with. Also her voice is just so beautifully powerful. Agent Sasco is one of the most raw and modern Dancehall voices. Protoje is so methodical and brings a conscious element to his work. Stork Ashley has worked with Stormzy and is one of the biggest rising stars. Just massive props to all the artists who came out. You just cannot define the creative spirit of the place, it was such a privilege to be there and see other creatives create. You couldn’t help but feel inspired yourself.