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‘I Was Never Trying to be My Dad’: Jamaican Artist Tarrus Riley Opens Up About His Genre-Bending Music and Expectations to Be Like His Reggae Star Father Jimmy Riley

Tarrus Riley isn’t going to allow himself to be placed in a musical box. Instead, he’s focused on creating “quality” sounds. His latest addition to his discography, a Lovers Rock style cover of Giveon’s “Heartbreak Anniversary,” is another example of how experimentation can go beautifully right.

The dynamic reggae artist spoke with Atlanta Black Star about his latest single, growing up with a reggae legend as a father, and what inspires him to continue stepping outside of the box with his sound.

Tarrus Riley performs on stage at Wembley Arena on October 14, 2012 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by C Brandon/Redferns via Getty Images)

Giveon released his somber yet soulful song “Heartbreak Anniversary” in 2020 and Riley was introduced to the single by his daughter, who also gave him the initial idea to put his own spin on the track. Instead of revamping it with a similar slow melody, the “Contagious” artist made it his own by turning it into an upbeat Reggae bop.

“It was neat before. It’s a real good song, you know? A great song,” he stated. “And so far, we’ve been getting a lot of good vibes from it. There’s something about reggae music that just has a different vibe. I don’t know if it’s the drums and the bass, I don’t know, but it just grooves, you know? … The original is perfect. Nothing better than the original. So, I had to just give it my own kind of vibe. And music is something that lifts up people’s spirits in Jamaica. So even the saddest songs still have a vibe.”

That “vibe” is also apparent in the colorful music video. Vibrant colors and flirty glances create the backdrop for Tarrus’ performance among a small group of people, and the kicker appears to be the start of a new relationship, as opposed to the ending of one that the lyric’s song suggests.

The “She’s Royal” artist has experimented with different sounds throughout the course of his career, from soft rock to dancehall to EDM, which has resulted in him working with a variety of artists to include Konshens, Ellie Goulding and Major Lazer. Instead of labeling his music by genre, he prefers the all-encompassing label of “quality.”

“If I have to put a label to [my music], it’s going to be quality,” Riley said. “But as far as style, no way. I just want to keep experimenting with stuff…Nobody’s the same every day. Nobody wants to hear the same song every day. Neither do I.”

He added, “I want to give you more and I think I have more to give. I think I am different. I think I bring a different vibe to the culture. And I have all these different influences. So that’s why I have to give you so much different styles.”

The “Come Ova” singer’s bold musical choices are continuously inspired by his “rich musical” and “rich cultural roots.” There are many different genres that helped shape him, and he wants to pay homage to them all. “I come from rich musical roots and rich cultural roots. So I want to put all of this in music,” he said. “Sometimes one form can do it; reggae can do it, but what about my dancehall roots? And then dancehall can do it, but what about my reggae? And then what about the pop roots? And then what about the music my father used to listen to in the house? What about the country music that my mom likes? And then what about my music that I like? And then what about today’s music?”

Riley’s path is taking him down the road of musical innovation, however, that doesn’t mean he looks down on artists who stick to what they know. “I still believe that if you can only do one thing, you should be the best at that one thing, but if you think that you can do more than one thing and you’re doing it and it’s working out, keep trying new things. Why not? What do you have to lose?”

Riley’s musical freedom and success is undoubtedly a byproduct of the strong musical example set by his father, the late legendary Jamaican singer Jimmy Riley. Tarrus credits his father with introducing him to the world of music as a child but did not find it difficult to step outside of his shadow and create his own musical lane.

“I wasn’t trying to imitate it. We’re from different times,” he said. “My father’s from the reggae time; I’m from the dancehall time. So, we were already listening to different music…. I really embrace it more than anything else, because even though he’s my dad, I was never trying to be my dad or anything like that…”

(L-R): Tarrus Riley and his father, the late Jimmy Riley Photo Credit: @tarrusrileyja/Instagram

Riley admitted that if any part of following in a famous parent’s footsteps was difficult, it was the expectation of greatness that he felt was placed upon him. “The only difficult part would probably be expectations, because people would say, “Oh yeah, you think you’re going to get a walk in the park because your father this and your father that.’ ” So I had to be rough because nobody was giving me any slack… They definitely didn’t want me to use any nepotism, to just use my father’s name because he sings, as any kind of leverage. I had to use skill and talent. No nepotism.”

A lesson from his father that Tarrus carries with him to this day is one that many will agree with and can utilize: “He told me to get paid,” said Riley with a laugh. “Make sure you get paid because the music business will have you high and dry. Make sure you get the bag.”

In addition to getting to the money, Jimmy also encouraged his son’s originality, a trait that Tarrus said his father truly loved about him.  

“He told me to be original…He would actually compliment me being kind of fearlessly creative. He said, ‘One thing with you, you’re not scared to try.’ He used to love that.”

Tarrus’ originality has helped him achieve success across the globe. He’s well-known in Jamaica and toured Europe annually pre-COVID, but the American music industry has been a tougher nut to crack, a common thread among reggae and dancehall artists. The “Lighter” artist feels that some of the barriers to entry come from a touch of culture shock.

“We are coming with a different accent; we’re coming with a different culture, coming with a different song…People like new things, but I mean, a lot of time people don’t want to change their rhythm. So, if they’re used to listening to Lil Baby and these kinds of things, when you hear about a DJ from Jamaica, you’re like, ‘Oh God.’ And then he’s talking about stuff about his culture and where he’s from, it’s kind of maybe hard to digest all of it.”

Riley’s latest album release, “Healing,” dropped in 2020 amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the artist says that fans can look forward to more healing music from him in the future, possibly in person.

“I have a lot of music coming, and the world is about to be open so it’s concert time, and we get crazy on stage. Any time you think about what I’m bringing to music, it’s just good vibes. I believe that the world is a stressful place, so music has to be our little escape,” Riley explained. “I call the music that I make healing music, because my mom is a nurse and my dad is a singer, so if you mix the two of them together, you get me. Healing and music. I’m a product of healing and music. So that’s what I want people to feel.”

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