Willis and the Illest: Bahamian Reggae

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Above: Willis and the Illest (Photo: Dante Carrer)

Since 2008, Willis and the Illest have been turning Nassau’s music scene on its head with their own brand of reggae from the Bahamas. The group, which is led by vocalist and guitarist Willis Knowles, has seen strong growth in a country that, while it listens regularly to reggae, is largely devoid of home-grown reggae performers, Knowles says. To learn more, CJ Arts talked to Knowles about the group, the popularity of reggae in the Bahamas and Willis and the Illest’s latest single, “Lion in the Jungle,” following the release of their first album, “Natty-Jam” last year.

How did Willis and the Illest begin?

The group was started by myself and two musicians at the time, who was actually one of he keyboardists, and the original drummer, Enrique Rolle. So we started the band back in the summer of 2008, and just started running from there, and working on originals I’d been writing before we started the band, just booking shows and playing around Nassau.

How has the response been to the group?

The response for it has been pretty positive — we’re able to build a really nice fan base here. You have certain people that are claiming that we’re not doing Bahamian music because we do reggae, but other than that we have a good response.

How popular is reggae in the Bahamas?

Reggae is really popular. It’s regularly played – basically, this is the second hub, I think, from Jamaica that you would actually receive the music. Once it’s released in Jamaica, it’s released here. Also, you have a lot of bands that don’t necessarily play reggae music that would play it in their set. But we’re the only band that play it strongly, that it’s the only thing that we play.

What are you working on right now?

We’re working on a single called “Lion in the Jungle,” which features reggae artist Pressure from the US Virgin Islands. That one is an original of course, and we finished another love tune – both will be released in the near future. So we’re just working on the originals, in the studio for the second album we’re trying to release later on this year.

Who are your inspirations?

I have a lot of inspirations – the top one would be Bob [Marley] – he’s the guy that really gained a milestone and put reggae music to the world. But I have other people, not even necessarily in the genre of reggae – like, for example, [Australian rock group] Silverchair, that does more orchestral, pop rock and roll. I like Richie Spice, I like Jah Cure. So I kind of take elements from all of them.

How much is reggae a global art form today?

Reggae has always been a global platform. I think it’s just not recognized – but reggae is everywhere. It’s in Europe, it’s in China – it’s huge in China. It’s in the Caribbean, it’s everywhere. It’s just that it is a genre that is slowly dying out because people are not recognizing it that need to recognize it.

What do you see as the future for Bahamian reggae?

I could see the reggae music, in the industry here, flourishing greatly. You have, for example, artists who do reggae, from us being the only band that does reggae to solo artists and other bands that are coming out now and performing. So I think reggae music is going to play a part in the music industry but also in the society and the community.

What has been the biggest challenge for the band breaking into the Bahamian music world?

The challenge was that, even though we listened to Reggae a lot [in the Bahamas], it was not a music that was regularly performed, and the music industry had already deteriorated so much that there were not that many live bands playing music at venues. So it was tough to score that first gig where you have the trust of a venue holder that says they do live music to come through. That was the challenging part.

Do you foresee expansion beyond Nassau?

Yeah, definitely. We’ve done shows in Abaco, at least three or four shows in Abaco. That’s the only island other than Nassau that we’ve been performing in. So yeah, we’re looking to doing shows in some of those island, in the Caribbean and doing stuff internationally. Hopefully we’ll go to Florida and do a couple of shows. And we’ll see what goes from there.