Where is home for someone who “had everything he knew about the world ripped out from under him”?
That’s a question John Orpheus has been trying to answer for most of his adult life. It’s a quest that’s led from dabbling in punk to exploring myriad Black music styles, in an attempt to find his identity.
“I built home around music,” the Trinidadian-born singer and musician says. “Every time I’d get on stage and perform – that was home for a very long time, that sufficed, until I found a deeper connection to myself and I was comfortable in my own skin.
“Now, anywhere I go can be home. Home is in my heart,” he adds. “For me, it’s about connection to self and the memories and the stories that made me.”
The “stories and memories” that made him, his journey of transformation, and his search for home and identity is in your face in his powerful memoir, Saga Boy: My Life of Blackness and Becoming, that Penguin Random House Canada published earlier this year. Bearing his real name, Antonio Michael Downing, it’s accurately been described as searing, heartbreaking, and emotionally captivating.
It’s all those things, but above all, Saga Boy is a story of resilience and survival. Saga King, the book’s accompanying album, which also addresses those themes, will be released on July 30, 2021. Interestingly, between the end of 2019 – when he finished the book – and the summer of 2020, Orpheus questioned whether he would ever make music again.
“Then suddenly, last summer, I felt I’d arrived somewhere,” he says. “I felt a sense of sovereignty over myself and I was like, ‘Okay, I have something to say.’” He calls Saga King “a celebration of my journey, a representation of healing and wholeness.”
By all accounts, the album came together organically and smoothly. “I demoed 15 songs on my own, took them to the recording sessions, and in three weeks we had an album that was ready to be mixed and mastered,” he says.
Saga King is a potpourri of sounds, embracing everything from soca to Afrobeat to rock and rap. “It’s a funky Caribbean pop soundclash!” he says, chuckling. “Inter-textuality is a term that’s used a lot in literary criticism. I’m interested in doing that in my music,” says Orpheus. “Some people like to stick to blues, or Afrobeat, or rap, but I want to be the place where all the different sounds meet.”
Orpheus says “Fela Awoke,” one of the songs on Saga King, is one of the most personal he’s ever written. In it, he refers to the death of three people who made a massive impact on his life – Miss Excelly, his grandma who raised him in Trinidad; Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti; and Bob Marley. “‘Fela Awoke’ is “about embracing your heroes, but letting them go so that you can become your own hero,” he says. “Each verse features a couple of lines each of those people said that have stayed with me.”
“Olorun,” named after the most powerful God in Yoruban mythology, is another song that’s close to his heart. “It was the easiest song to write,” he says. “I’d listen to Shango Baptist hymns and end up singing the melodies and words of all the songs.” Orpheus says he woke up one morning singing “Olorun,” adding that the vocal take on the album is the original: “What you’re hearing is the first time I sang it from start to finish. It’s the only song we didn’t re-do.”
“Olorun” sees Orpheus reconnecting with his Yoruban roots, or as he says, “reaching into my West African legacy. It’s about embracing my past to create my future.”