Born Keith Morgan on September 23, 1969, in Jamaica, and following in the tradition of such reggae greats as Peter Tosh and Bob Marley, reggae artist Junior Kelly sings of social justice, political and economic empowerment, and peace on earth. His 2001 album Love So Nice hit the number 11 spot on the Billboard reggae charts, and he has remained a favorite at festivals around the world.
Junior Kelly was born Keith Morgan on September 23, 1969, the youngest of five children, and grew up in the Waltham Park area of Kingston, Jamaica. Kelly was part of a musical family; both his father and grandfather played banjo, and his mother sang at their local church. Although the family was of limited means, Kelly later recalled that the family’s deep love for one another kept them going through hard times. On his official website, Kelly explained that despite having frequently to do without, the family stayed happy “because we knew we had each other to lean on.”
This changed, however, in 1983, when Kelly was 13 years old. That year Kelly’s older brother Sylvester was shot to death in a dispute over money, almost before Kelly’s eyes, and the youngster was later called upon to testify at the trial of his brother’s killers. Sylvester had been the family’s main breadwinner, and was someone Kelly had looked to as a role model. The family fell on even harder times after his death.
Sylvester had built a local following as a rapper/deejay working under the name of Jim Kelly. Within a few years of his brother’s death, Kelly resolved to pick up where his brother left off, and became a deejay himself. Taking for his stage name a variation of his brother’s name as a deejay, Kelly began his career playing concerts around Jamaica. Kelly’s mother had mixed feelings about another son getting into the music business. As Kelly explained in a Murderdog.com interview, “She losing a son within the music business, she never want another son to pick up that and then lose him somewhere down the line.”
Nevertheless Kelly stuck with it, and he cut his first single, “Over Her Body,” in 1985, when he was 16 years old. He broke through to appearances on major Jamaican stages in 1995, including the Reggae Sunsplash and Sting festivals. His music also took him to the United States, where he recorded a pair of songs for the Front Page label called “Good Tidings” and “Hungry Days.” Back in Jamaica, he recorded several more singles, this time for M Rush Records. These songs included “Black Woman” and “Love So Nice.”
His work, under-promoted on small labels, failed to propel Kelly into a music career that would enable him to support himself and the family he had started. Forced to work construction jobs to make ends meet, he nevertheless refused to give up on music. “Though I was disillusioned and frustrated,” he said in the Murderdog.com interview, “I just say well, I’m going to continue to write, continue to rehearse, but I’m going to try to get some food on the table for them young children right now.”
“Love So Nice” turned out to be Kelly’s recording break, and it came in 2000, after the song charted in Europe and then made its way back to Jamaica and to the number one spot on the Jamaican charts. It stayed on the Jamaican charts for 15 weeks–the longest-running number one hit of 2000. An album called Love So Nice followed. In addition to the title track, it included the tracks “Hungry Days” and “Sunshine.” The single “Sunshine,” while not widely played in Jamaica, received significant air play abroad, particularly in Europe. The album Love So Nice was released four years after it was recorded, delayed while its producers raised money for its promotion. Much of the money came from Kelly’s fans in his home neighborhood of Kingston. Released at the beginning of 2001, it was greeted with raves in the United States. Billboard called it a mature work from an “outstanding singer/DJ/reggae rapper,” and predicted that Kelly would remain a force in the reggae world for a long time to come.
The year 2001 was a notable one for Kelly in other respects as well; he nearly lost his life in an auto accident in Kingston. The accident left Kelly with broken ribs, a punctured lung, and numerous pelvic fractures, and it took him fully three months to make a recovery. He went on the road again as soon as he was well enough, playing concerts in Europe and the United States to further promote Love So Nice.
Kelly is a devout Rastafarian, a religious philosophy that embraces people of African heritage, celebrates long hair styled into dreadlocks, and incorporates a strong belief in the importance of good moral conduct. Although not raised a Rastafarian, Kelly declared that he has always held Rastafarian beliefs. “I don’t consider me ‘becoming’ a Rasta,” he explained in an interview on Reggaematic.com. “It was always there. … I did have a sense of certain morals, and I guess that incorporates into you being a Rasta. … Somebody that isn’t only growing they hair and saying ‘ok, this is an image thing.'”
Smile followed Love So Nice in 2003, and was well received by critics as well as fans. The album featured Kelly’s songwriting stamp on all of the tracks, and he produced most of them as well, unlike the songs in his previous album, which were produced by others. On Smile, Kelly turned in music that praised marijuana (“Just Another Blend”), songs that celebrated his African heritage (“Black Am I”), and straight-on dance grooves (“Take Me There”) and love songs (“Never Let You Down,” “Sinking Feeling,” and “Baby Can We Meet”).
Working with his unique blend of dancehall deejay music and more traditional roots music, Kelly has appeared as something of a mediator between the newer sounds of dancehall-inspired hip hop and the older roots reggae styles. He has sought to bring back traditional reggae for younger audiences who may not have been exposed to the style. It’s a responsibility, he has said, for dancehall artists to acknowledge their roots. But most of all, Kelly has tried to play music that people enjoy listening to.
(By Michael Belfiore)