A sweet and graceful voice sings out from the hills of St. Andrew, Jamaica. Soft, feminine, and in perfect melody she inquires, “Oh, what is the sense of love if you hide it all away.” Born to a family of talented artists and musicians, Kelissa McDonald was destined to have a lifelong appreciation of traditional reggae music. But by traveling the world and opening herself up to a number of special educational opportunities she brought a sound that is uniquely her own back to the Blue Mountains.
She reminisces, “I was living music before I was born. It welcomed me into the world and it brings me home wherever I am.” Her parents are the lead singers of the Ethiopia-based reggae band Chakula and growing up both she and her brother, Kenznamdi, who is also a multi-talented musician, watched them tour the world and record ten albums via their in-home studio. From there, music traveled with her to the United States for her undergraduate education at Whittier College in Los Angeles and eventually to Africa where she spent time in Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Ghana learning traditional musical styles.
She’s now back in Jamaica penning songs under the name Kelissa, and has become synonymous with the country’s ever-popular “reggae revival” movement. She joins other young, conscious reggae artists like Jah9, Chronixx, Protoje, and Jesse Royal in offering a new take on traditional reggae that draws heavily on personal experience. Rastafari and roots reggae have been a core part of her upbringing, as has her lifelong interest in dance, but it’s her more recent travels that helped her develop her own sound in Kingston’s highly competitive music industry.One of the strongest examples of Kelissa’s style is her recent single “Best Kept Secret (Locked Away)” that is part of Natural High Music’s Urban Roots Project. The project is a compilation of fan-favorite reggae artists including Jesse Royal, Dre Island, Jovi Rockwell and her brother Kenznamdi, among others. The song itself blends laidback harmonies, dub, and classic lover’s rock in an easy listening hit. She croons beautifully, and each note is soulful and genuine.
Kelissa has a unique ability to sing about something that is entirely personal, but still make the listener feel that he or she can share in her experience. The song evokes feelings of love lost and recollections of a relationship that did not work out, but left one partner especially heartbroken. She has a talent for making music that allows the listener to feel a spectrum of emotion and considering how popular music often lacks substance songs like “Best Kept Secret (Locked Away)” are a welcome surprise.
Musically, the song also manages to go beyond heartfelt vocals and bring together a team of all-star talent on the instrumentals as well. Chronixx is responsible for mixing the track and he also graces it with background vocals, alongside Hector Lewis. Additionally, Nambo Robinson is on the trombone, his son Nnamdi is on lead guitar, Wayne Armond is on riddim guitar and Everald ‘Stingray’ Gray rounds it out with the trumpet and flugle. The result is a carefully crafted riddim that is complimented with eerie perfection by Kelissa’s voice. When she sings, “you told me that I was treasure, but treasure just don’t last forever,” it is hard not to feel a sense of longing and that is a testament to her ability to make powerful, emotional music.
Burnin’ and Lootin’ is a column by Robert Gordon that showcases upcoming artists, musicians, poets, and entertainers from the Caribbean. From Kingston to Miami to New York City and beyond the Caribbean continues to have a lasting cultural impact and each week we look at one individual or group that is helping to promote island culture through the arts.