Photo By Juan Diaz
Cold weather isn’t something that comes around often in Kingston, but that doesn’t mean that part of Jamaica doesn’t see its fair share of Snow—known commonly by his birth name of Darrin Kenneth O’Brien. Hailing from Toronto’s Allenbury Gardens housing projects in the northeast part of the city, O’Brien landed one of Canada’s first international hits, becoming the North’s first one-hit wonder with 1993’s “Informer.” Since then, Snow has made frequent trips to Jamaica to absorb the culture he’s become so fond of. “Ninja Man was saying the other day, ‘you’re the only white guy Jamaicans accepted other than Yellowman—but he’s from Jamaica,’” O’Brien says of his reception. According to Snow, Jamaica has always been a place where he could go to clear his head. “I used to live back here in 2000—in fact this is the place where my daughter was born, so really it’s just like another home,” Snow explains. “When I was with Sly & Robbie the other day they were introducing me to people here as ‘the Great Snow.’ It’s been positive. My outlook on life has always been positive.”
In spite of his optimism, Snow’s life has been anything but sunny since “Informer.” He lost his long-time girlfriend to cancer, had stints in jail, and battled years of alcohol abuse. And that’s not to mention his struggles at trying to make it in the music business beyond his now infamous one-hit. But according to O’Brien, his life has been shaped by the adversity. “The police have been after me all my life,” he says, “I wasn’t Snow back then, I was still Darrin—the Booster, the hood kid from the Toronto Community Housing projects.” He found solace in reggae music, which he was introduced to after receiving a dubplate from a Jamaican family next door to his home in Toronto. “I just heard it and said, ‘Gimme a copy of that tape!’ He gave it to me and I went down to my basement, played it and didn’t understand a word,” explains Snow. “It was a whole bunch of artists live at a sound system and it was dirty. Back then you couldn’t get songs clean, you had to get them dubbed, and by the time I got it, it was dubbed 15 times. But I kept rewinding and listening to it. It blew my mind.” Now signed to US-based label, Bugatti Music Entertainment, Snow’s promoting his most recent single, "Shame" which details his departure and return to music, as well as the pride he possesses for the multiethnic influences that have shaped his career.
Noisey: Cultural appropriation, and more so Iggy Azalea, have become an important talking point in the hip-hop community. Seeing as you’ve been blending Jamaican culture with your Canadian roots, what are your thoughts on that debate?
Snow: We should be happy that this Australian white girl wants to do hip-hop. Maybe it’s not the kind of hip-hop that people like, but that’s a whole other thing. When I first came out, Jamaicans and lovers of reggae didn’t say “just because he’s white, he doesn’t get a pass.” You just have to make good music. Be true and everything follows. If you’re not making a mockery of the music and you feel it in your heart, you be who you are. Here I am as a white man, but I can go anywhere in Toronto; from Jane and Finch, to Jungle, Galloway, or Malvern. I can go to all of the projects and it’s just love because they know it’s real. They know I’m real. I’m not doing it for a reason. This is what I was meant to do in my life. Look at Drake—probably one of the biggest hip-hop artists in the world. He doesn’t look like he’s from the hood or acts all tough and bad. He grew up and everything was nice. He’s just doing it from the heart, that’s all.
Irish people are the second-largest reported ethnic group in Jamaica after African. Do you think that your adoption of reggae music and Jamaican culture was almost in a sense ingrained from you since birth?
It’s a strange connection, but I guess they’re the same in terms of the richness of their culture and their mentality towards people. They’re both very happy and friendly groups of people, but at the same time you know not to test them. They’re like two Irie islands. I didn’t even really know the connection until I got back here. But now it makes sense. I’m an O’Brien so I’m top of the Irish, although I don't drink alcohol. I go with the green ocean, ginger ale. It's St Patty's Day for me everyday [Laughs].
Why did you decide to abstain from alcohol?
I’ll tell you a story. In 1997, I was getting in all this trouble and I ended up getting charged with assault. So, I’m standing in front of this judge and he says, in front of my family in the courtroom, “you know, Mr. O’Brien, it seems like you have a big heart. You took care of your mother, bought her a house and gave your dad his own business. But it seems like a lot of your issues stem from drinking.” He was telling me all this stuff and when I walked out of the courtroom I said “he’s right. I’m not drinking anymore.” It’s funny, because I’ve never listened to the law in my entire life, but this judge turned the gears and made me see the light. I quit in 1997 and haven’t touched alcohol since.
Last week, you celebrated the twenty-second anniversary of “Informer” hitting number one on the Billboard Hot 100, where it remained for seven consecutive weeks. Do you remember what you felt hearing that news?
I was on a plane, on my way to Germany and my manager told me. I even told the stewardess and she was like, “who are you?” I didn’t take it in too much. It wasn’t what I planned on, to be a singer. It just happened. One minute I’m in prison writing the song and then when I get out I have a hit number one single. I remember watching the video for the first time when I was in jail. I hadn’t even seen myself on TV before. My first pass to MuchMusic was a weekend pass from jail. I was like [to other inmates] “guys, I’ll be back Monday! Big up!”
And then when the album went platinum, it didn’t do nothing to me. I was just having fun making it. Going back to your culture appropriation question, I made the music out of love. I respect all cultures because I am [every culture]. I’m Chinese, I’m Jewish, I’m Muslim, I’m Black. I’m everybody. I’m like a tree, with all of its different branches. You know? This culture thing, it breaks barriers, it’s easy, and it’s simple.
Photo By Juan Diaz
So what’s the hard part about merging cultures?
The hard part is that we need everyone else to do the same thing. How do we have Catholic and Protestants within Ireland still fighting with each other? These are things we have to figure out. We can’t take everything so seriously. We need to live and relax. Forget about tomorrow, and be about right now. You can only live in the present; if it ain’t happening right now, I’m not worried.
As a Canadian with Irish roots, representing Caribbean culture through music, you’ve been able to successfully embody the true meaning of multiculturalism in Canada. You’re kind of a living mosaic. Do you believe you embody this kind of intricate identity?
I think it’s just Toronto and what it made me. Specifically, my neighbourhood of Allenbury, where there was a Jamaican living here and a Pakistani living there. That’s how I was raised. I wasn’t raised white, but with music and love. I do it from the heart and I’m just here for the goodness.
What kind of impact do you want your new music to have on listeners?
See, I don’t look that far. I just hope that people love the music and enjoy it. The people that do love my music will love this album. I don’t go into it with any intentions other than to have fun. I came to Jamaica to regain focus and get inspired, because I don’t have a release date right now. I’m just working on singles. Eventually, I’ll start going around the world, saying hello to people, doing tours and helping young artists. Because again I don’t do it for the money, the fame, to have the songs out there or do a show. I do it because I feel it in my heart. I have fun.
_Ola Mazzuca is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter - @ola_mazz_