by Gareth Shute

Israel Starr: Keeping The Rasta Fire Burning

by Gareth Shute

Israel Starr: Keeping The Rasta Fire Burning

In July, rasta artist Israel Starr (real name Israel Buchanan) released a 17-track, conscious music monster of an album, fittingly titled ‘Keepers of the Flame’. Gareth Shute asked him a few questions about the creation of the album and how it was informed by his upbringing.

Israel Starr first came to the attention of most local reggae fans with his early track, Long White Cloud, featuring Awa (Nesian Mystik) and Lion Rezz, which went on to surpass eight million streams. He also appeared on collaborative single Runtingz Anthem which again did massive numbers online.

Despite such successes, the real drive behind his music has always come from his musical upbringing. He grew up within the Twelve Tribes of Israel Church, which has helped introduce people in Aotearoa to both Rastafarian beliefs and the music of Jamaica since it first started here in 1982. Music is core to Twelve Tribes’ events, so it’s unsurprising that it has produced many well-known local musicians over the years, including Tigi Ness (Unity Pacific), his son Che Fu, and singer Jules Issa. Not to mention the Twelve Tribes of Israel band and soundsystem. In fact, Israel’s dad had his own successful career in music as The Mighty Asterix, releasing a charting single, One Love, with DLT.

Following his 2015 album ‘Through the Ages & Forever’ and two volumes of ‘The Producers Chair’ in 2017 and 2018, June 29 2022 saw the release of ‘Keepers of the Flame’ via BlessUp Music.

It must have been inspirational coming up in the Twelve Tribes Church, which was so foundational to the arrival of reggae music in Aotearoa?

Yeah, I think having those great names a part of my lineage definitely keeps you honest. We were taught authentic Rastafari culture, reggae and soundsystem, so you have to pay respect and homage in the right way. But to be honest there was never any huge pressure to live up to a level of greatness. It was more like ‘do your absolute best and do it right and we will be proud of you!’

In saying that we do try to hold ourselves to a high standard. You have to be able to sing, rap, raggamuffin, freestyle, write great songs and produce conscious works and at the same time still be palatable to a wider audience. Conscious content is the foundation of our music and when we do something for radio or something that might reach a wider audience like a love song, we have to make sure to do it in a way that still keeps it ‘real’ and does not look like we are just trying to get our ‘numbers up’. So in that respect we have to work extra hard to maintain the integrity of our conscious roots and maintain that expectation.

Tell me about the cover image on your new album, ‘Keepers of the Flame’.

The photo is of whanau marching in Wellington on 1 August 1980, during Māori Language Week, to demand that the Māori language have equal status with English. Seven years later on August 1, 1987 Te Reo Māori became an official language of New Zealand.

My son Ezekiel actually gave me the photo for this album cover! I had been searching for something that captured the essence of my songs in total and without thinking he just showed it to me on his phone. I asked him why and he just said he didn’t know – the idea just came. The photo was perfect and especially cool because there was a nanny holding a sign repping our tribe!

The stars really aligned with this album cover, trippy actually. I had no idea my release would be one day before the photo was taken in 1980, and then one day before our language became official in 1987. Maybe the ancestors were pulling the strings and telling me to use this photo as my album cover. I truly and honestly had no idea of these coincidences. I had already planned to release the album on July 29 before we had the photo. I also walk the same street they marched every day as my shop is just around the corner.

Being honest I’m not fully confident in te reo. I can understand what’s going on when spoken to, but I couldn’t hold a conversation. I did consider this before using the photo but ultimately I knew my worthiness of being Māori did not depend on how well I could speak. I grew up totally immersed in Rastafari and the teaching of His Majesty. In saying that, I was naturally taught Māoritanga. I was shown everything in life had a spiritual angle and everything was connected in some way. So reflecting on this truth, I chose to believe that using this photo as the visual representation of my songs and meditations was truly inspired.

These whanau in my album cover are truly keepers of the flame! Thank you whanau! Because of you our sacred oral traditions are able to exist. I promise that while I breathe I will do my best to fight for our people and uplift the consciousness of those who are called.

The album mixes live instrument and digital effects, as well as drawing from many Jamaican styles of music – dancehall, reggae, and dub. Did you aim to balance these approaches and influences?

To be honest I didn’t overthink it at all. I just allowed the creative juices to tell me where to go. This album was the first time I didn’t think about trying to make at least one song for radio. Instead, I just pulled content from what was going on in my life and I allowed the music and the instruments to underline the subject matter.

I have multiple ways of starting a song with no real formula. Sometimes it’s a subject idea that sparks the song. Sometimes I make the riddim first then freestyle over it like 10 times before I find a hook and fill in the verses from there. Sometimes the song writes itself in the space of an hour. I love music because it’s one of the only things in my life that has no rules. I allow myself to just get lost in it and then when it’s time to really piece everything together I am able to keep discipline and turn it into a polished song. Controlled chaos if you will.

How did the guest features by Luciano (from Jamaica) and Million Stylez (from Sweden) come about? And from Aotearoa, you have Tiki Taane too.

My brethren Gabriel ‘Messenjah’ Calcott (Reality Chant) has links to these artists so we took advantage of those channels. It was an absolute honour to do songs with these guys who shaped me growing up. I wasn’t looking for the hottest artists right now but instead, I wanted artists who actually had an impact on me personally. Luciano for example is my number one living artist in the entire world. I wrote the song with him in mind, so having him come on board was a ‘mamma I made it’ moment. I could die happy now that I’ve done a song with Luciano. Also Tiki [Taane]’s dub is the best dub I’ve heard come out of the Pacific in a very long time!

Lastly, how do you see your place in the local reggae/dub/dancehall scene? I wonder if you sometimes feel as if the rastafarian messages  are lost amongst the love songs and party bangers? 

Yeah, you’re right it can get lost sometimes. But I think overall reggae in Aotearoa has great conscious messages within it even if they are not specifically Rasta messages. I think in some form they do pay homage to that militant message music that we all love. No Roots by L.A.B is a great example. Even bands that are not Rasta make conscious songs. I also love ‘love songs’ so I can’t be mad at it.

We can’t expect everyone to be Rasta in reggae, and as long as they are staying true to themselves then that’s cool. It would be totally awesome if there were loads more Rasta messages in Aotearoa reggae music but we can’t expect non-Rasta artists or bands to speak on it – but I would encourage more bands or artists not to be afraid to release more message music. I think the overall expectation to put specific Rastafari messages in music falls on us who are Rastafari.