Exco Levi has won five JUNO Awards for Best Reggae Recording in the past six years, an enviable track record by anyone’s standard, but he’s not a household name… yet. Nobody’s working harder to change that than Exco Levi himself.
“We have to understand life, and realize that life, in itself, is a challenge,” says Levi, born Wayne Levy in the countryside town of Harmons, in Jamaica’s Manchester parish. In his songs, he typically remains positive while facing sometimes harsh realities. “Nothing comes easy, and you have to just work hard… In Canada, as a musician, especially when you sing reggae music, it’s a constant struggle to get out there… But in spite of the hardship, you can also project a positive energy.”
Levi comes by that optimistic attitude naturally. He started in Gospel, singing hymns in the choir at school; now, as a Rastaman, he sings reggae songs often deeply rooted in social comment and spiritual or philosophical concerns – as evidenced by his JUNO-winning songs, “Bleaching Shop” (2012), “Storms of Life” (2013), “Strive” (2014), “Welcome to the King” (2015) and “Siren” (2017).
Typically, Levi’s new album Narrative stays on that constructive tip, ranging from the sweet lovers’ rock of “Feel Like Dancing” to the conscious roots of “Old Capital” to the anti-war anthem “Frontline Soldier.” Elsewhere, “Burn” (featuring renowned reggae star Sizzla) recalls Bob Marley’s “Burnin’ and Lootin’,” “Don’t Cry” references Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” in the chorus, and “Maga Dawg” evokes the song of the same name by Peter Tosh. But if you tell Levi that he’s a natural heir to those pioneering originators, he’s quick to deflect such praise.
“I’m a part of it,” he says. “I don’t want to say me alone, because that would be a ‘self’ thing. And reggae music is not really a ‘self’ thing, it’s a movement of people. There are so many artists in this time that are still bringing the torch of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. They already set it for us, and we’re just transporting the good deeds and the good tidings from their time to now.”
Similarly, if you claim Levi – who’s played throughout Europe, and in Dubai, Zimbabwe, Malawi and elsewhere – as a prime ambassador for reggae music, he’s quick to share the glory.
“Not me by myself,” says Levi, who himself lives in the suburban Toronto neighbourhood of Brampton. “I give thanks that I was blessed with the opportunity to perform in all of these different parts of the world… and there are so many reggae artists who are not from Jamaica: Alpha Blondy [South Africa], Gentleman [Germany], Alborosie [Italy]. In any part of the world, there are artists there who are moving with this spiritual, majestic vibration. I’m truly honoured to be a part of that.”
As for his songwriting skills, Levi emphasizes that his path is largely an instinctive one, where the beat of the rhythm – or “riddim,” in Jamaican patois – often leads the way.
“Sometimes, when you hear a riddim, it automatically tells you something.”
“We’re doing a project soon and they’re asking for written music,” he says. “But reggae music plays on feel… I can say that 75 percent of the musicians in Jamaica have never seen a written strip of [sheet] music. We play on feel, we play our feelings. That’s what makes reggae music different.
“Sometimes, when you hear a riddim, it automatically tells you something. For instance, when I heard that riddim for ‘Feel Like Dancing,’ it just told me… Like ‘Maga Dawg,’ I just heard the riddim and it told me what it needed… And the next stanza, you [might have to] tell the riddim.”
Riding his riddims as far as they’ll take him, Levi is as hardworking and ambitious as he is humble. At press time, he’s vying for a spot performing on the JUNO Awards live television broadcast later this year, only one of his many goals for 2018.
“There’s nothing that happens for Exco Levi in music that surprises me,” he says. “My whole life is déja vu. From a tender age I could see everything that would happen. All my JUNO wins, I could see that from [when I was] a youth growing up in Jamaica. I could see greatness.
“The thing is, in whatever your endeavor is, if you can’t see it here,” he says, pointing to his head, “you’re not going to see it in the physical [world]. You have to see it and work on it.”