Lila Iké has the unique challenge of introducing herself to the world in the midst of a pandemic, but the songwriting on her debut project feels tailored to this moment. The ExPerience is the musical salve we need, using the healing power of reggae to soothe our restless souls. Her music is steeped in humility, but signals her entry into Jamaica's class of promising reggae artists, like Koffee and Chronixx, who share a similar ethos of openness and gratitude.
"I want people to know that I'm a Jamaican who is really good at making reggae music, but I'm also really good at making other things," Iké tells me over a video call. "I want to introduce people to different sounds, so that when they hear me sing a country song, they don't think, Yo, what is she doing? I want to dismantle the idea that you're expected to make a type of music because you're from a particular country."
The ExPerience is a valiant induction of Iké not only as a force to be reckoned with as a rising reggae artist in Jamaica, but globally. All too often, Black artists are forced into urban categories. Pair the industry's obsession with labeling artists from the diaspora as "world music" with the success of the highly appropriative "dancehall-inspired" songs by pop stars, and we find ourselves listening to diluted versions of the real thing. With the media blindly categorizing reggae as merely songs that "channel summer," The ExPerience is a reminder that Jamaican artists aren't singing about a season. They're singing about their entire lives.
Iké, born Alecia Grey, credits her affinity for music to her mother's ear. Traces of the songs that filled her childhood home in Manchester are found in the texture of the self-taught singer's sound. She's a product of the storytelling of Kenny Rogers, the consciousness of Lauryn Hill, and the swagger of Buju Banton. Growing up in a strict religious household, she wrote songs in her spare time, searching for solace in the things she couldn't admit to her mother and three sisters. It wasn't until she wrote the commencement song when she graduated Manchester High School in 2011 that she, and everyone around her, noticed that her voice could be her ticket out of Jamaica's south central parish. Despite the encouragement, she enrolled at Northern Caribbean University in Mandeville to appease her mom, who wanted her to study something more practical, like teaching.
"Nobody wants to send their child to university and that child says, 'I don't want to do [this] anymore. I want to become a superstar,'" she says. She promised to make music when she wasn't studying, but after withdrawing from school due to financial issues, she focused on establishing herself as an artist. The transition from Alecia Grey to Lila Iké is the coalescence of the singer's humble beginnings and her bright future, and surprisingly, she has Facebook to thank for her name.
In high school, Iké began curating her online persona, but that was difficult to do under her mother's stern rules. "I was scared to be on [Facebook]," she says. "I knew my mother had a Facebook page, so I knew I had to sign up under another name." Combing through the nicknames she'd been given throughout her childhood, she landed on Lila. Years later, when she arrived in Kingston after her stint at college, she began singing under the moniker Lila Music—until she met a Nigerian man who shared the meaning of his first name, Ikéchukwu, which means "power of God." From there, Lila Iké was born.
Her time in Kingston was spent going to jam sessions, figuring out her musical identity. The city knew her by "Mama Send Mi Go Shop," a song she sang everywhere but never released, about her sister sneaking to meet a secret boyfriend when their mother sent them to the store. The anecdotal song caught the attention of Protoje, who signed her to his In.Digg.Nation label two years later. After releasing a string of singles, Lila Iké finally has a body of work that puts the range of her talents on full display.
"Music is like water," she says. "If you have water and put it in a circular basin, it's gonna take that shape. Music is changing and I have to catch that wave. I can't be stuck in the purest "One Drop" Bob Marley kind of vibe. It's about being exposed to different sounds but finding a way to make it me, so people don't hear it and think, Oh, she's just doing this to cross over."
"ISpy" is one example of Iké's chameleon-like adaptability. Crafted by IzyBeats, the same producer responsible for Koffee's "Toast," "ISpy" leans more toward reggaeton than it does reggae. But Iké attributes the sound to the duo's willingness to experiment while staying true to their roots.
"When I heard 'ISpy' I was like, 'Bro, what am I going to sing over this? This is not really my style,'" she says. "Even the octave I'm singing in is not where I normally go. Izy's the kind of person who encourages you to get a little bit out of your comfort zone."
Elsewhere on The ExPerience, Iké takes risks with her songwriting. She strings the listener along with a narrative detailing the tribulations of a relationship. The infatuation on "Stars Align" quickly turns into the nonchalance found on "Forget About Me." But the wandering bassline of "Second Chance," which samples Dennis Brown's "Promise Land," finds Iké on the other side of her pride. On the track, nothing will stop the singer from professing her love for her boyfriend, even though he's moved on.
"When I first sang 'Second Chance' it was a freestyle," she says. "I had a boyfriend at the time and he got another girlfriend out of the blue. I went home and listened back and I'm like, Hell no. I'm not gonna be making a song asking no guy for no second chance." Iké rewrote the song, but was met with resistance. The producers wanted the original version.
"The producers were like, 'The one you put down yesterday, that's the song.' I'm like, 'Yeah, but you done know mi is a G. Mi can't just a beg man fi second chance.'" Her team's unwillingness to regurgitate the endless loop of "savagery" associated with millennial women added vulnerability to her lyricism. "It's not just about being a bad bitch or cutting a nigga off. That's not even me. I'm really a crybaby," she says in between laughter.
Although Iké didn't write her debut with COVID-19 in mind, there are moments that underscore our current reality. "Solitude," which evoke the spirits of Lauryn Hill and Sade, could double as a theme song to self-isolation. But "Thy Will" feels like a relic of an older Jamaica, and that's intentional—the original horn players from The Tamlins' reggae version of Randy Newman's "Baltimore" can be found on Iké's rendition. "Thy Will" feels like a prophetic warning that fate doesn't care about worldly possessions. "Negative thoughts and impure heart / A plague we like a sickness," she sings.
"You have to always give people something other than feeling good or singing about yourself," she says. "What have you observed in the world that you want to give your point of view on?"
With her first project under her belt, Iké has her sight set on her debut album. She admits she will be "extremely snobbish" with the final product, but knows she wants to keep people thinking.
"When it's all said and done and it's been 30 years since the project, what are people going to be talking about?" she asks rhetorically. "What's going to last?"
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.