Tanya Stephens may be one of the most down-to-earth current artists to receive major play in the dancehalls. “Accept me as I am,” she says, “I’m just saying what the hell I feel.” This attitude was born from experience. When she first rose up out of the sound-system scene, her producers steered her into the “slackness” category, though her sexual metaphors weren’t as explicit as those of other artists. Of that time, she recalls now, “It felt like I was in a loop, expected to do the same thing over and over. There is only so much things you can do on one topic. No matter how creative one artist is.”
Leaving the deejay life behind, she signed with Warner-Sweden, where they attempted to turn her into a Top 40 pop star (she has a remarkable singing voice). However, she soon tired of the empty lyrics and yearned to return to the energy and freedom of Jamaica’s dancehalls.
Stephens says she wanted to “express more of myself” on her latest album, Rebelution (Tarantula/VP). When asked about the title, she replies, “I’m rebelling against whatever is typical, whatever is expected of everybody. I want to do whatever makes me happy and comfortable as long as it doesn’t encroach on anybody else’s space.”
Although most of the songs on Rebelution have a laid-back, acoustic sound, the lyrics come fast and furious on even the slowest songs. Stephens co-produced the album with Andrew Henton. When asked why she named their co-owned label Tarantula, the petite Ms. Stephens asserts, “Because it’s a small spider with a fatal bite. It has a really big bite for a small insect!”
Rejecting the shock and awe of slackness, Stephens has a playful attitude about her sexuality. When she recently performed “It’s A Pity (You Already Have A Wife)” at NYC’s Knitting Factory, she told the women how to get a man alone: Send drinks to his girlfriend until she has to go to the bathroom. “Believe me, I’ve done it,” she exclaimed, continuing, “There are enough guys to go around, and if not, we can share them!” She then introduced one of her new songs, “To The Rescue,” by noting, “Some women can be miserable, and I’m just here to say I’m going to be rescuing some guys from their gals.”
Offstage, she explains, “It’s expected of me to see everything from a female perspective. I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse, but I’m able to see things from both angles. If a guy doesn’t come home early one night, it might be that I’m doing something to aggravate the situation. Most females, we don’t see what we can do to solve the problems we have.”
Another new song, “Spilled Milk,” deals with a breakup (“No use crying over you”). Over acoustic guitar, Stephens declares, “I’ve mopped some bigger messes than you up off of my floor — you’re just another chore.” She told me it’s about “providing common ground for other people to get over stuff. I’m not saying anything that people don’t already know, but maybe hearing it said, I hope it works for somebody else.”
Stephens brings together sex and the city on “These Streets.” She asks a boyfriend who’s turned to the thug life “Why you can’t stay ’pon me like the corner? Keep your lips ’pon me like your marijuana?” She’s not only asking for the undivided attention he’s giving to his crew, she’s also warning him about the choices he’s making. By the end of the song, the boyfriend is in jail, and his contact with her is limited to ten collect calls per month. When asked if the lyrics might be autobiographical, she says, “It’s a very common story. Most times, guys who do that take their woman for granted. I’m just telling them you need to know where your loyalties lie. In one sentence: This too shall pass.” She goes on to note that even the lyrics that aren’t personal “are experiences of people close to me.” On “Do You Care,” a KKK man’s life is saved with a black man’s liver. The song also deals with Middle Eastern conflicts, and, notably for danc