Caribbean Beat Magazine

Ras Kassa: rastaman vibrations on video

You may not know his name, but you’ve probably seen his work. Nazma Muller introduces Ras Kassa, the region’s hottest director of music videos

  • Ras Kassa, the Caribbean`s most-talked-about director and the mastermind behind Damian Marley`s Welcome to Jamrock video. Photograph courtesy Guru Films

“I’m a political person,” says Ras Kassa, and that explains a lot. The mastermind behind the video for Damian Marley’s Welcome to Jamrock could be nothing else. Shot in Bob Marley’s stomping ground of Trenchtown, it showed the grime and misery of ghetto life. Kassa’s documentary, as he calls it, is a deeply satirical take on the Jamaica Tourist Board’s One Love ads, which portray the island as an idyllic place full of happy people.

“That video doh represent all of Jamaica,” the director admitted, “but it represent some of Jamaica…That is our Time Magazine, our way of sending a message. And it represent what happening in parts of other Caribbean countries too—Grenada, Haiti, Cuba…even in Trinidad.”

As unapologetic and explosive as his videos, Ras Kassa, 33, has become the most-talked-about director in the Caribbean, his startling imagery and distinctive style reaching millions through cable TV stations like Tempo, Synergy, BET and MTV. Born Gerald Maxwell Haynes, he adopted the name of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie’s trusted general, and it’s now almost as well-known as the artistes he works with. These include Sean Paul, Beenie Man, Richie Spice, Lady Saw and Nasio Fontaine. The video he directed for country singer Willie Nelson (featuring Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals), Worried Man, premiered on CNN.

And it all happened by accident. Kassa’s story is one of chance, ambition and instinct. His first love was music. He started out as a DJ and playing in a band. “I remember one day we was going down to a go-go club [strip joint],” he recalled. “We were planning to bum-rush it and go on the mike and DJ and ting.

“But that never work out and we ended up at Frontline, which was a big street dance at the time.” There he met Trevor Bailey, a video producer with a studio. “Him tell me I must come by the recording studio, and there I start making beats and learning to record music. I was like an assistant engineer, yuh know.”

After working as a production assistant with Bailey on a video shoot for Althea and Donna’s remake of Bob Marley’s Simmer Down, Kassa was commissioned to do the Deadly Medley 1 video for TOK. He then did their video for Chi Chi Man—and “it went crazy…it was ridiculous.” Suddenly, he was the director every Jamaican artiste wanted to work with.

He was asked by VP Records to do the video for Dude by Beenie Man. The song was so massive in the US he was given a budget of US$100,000 and the chance to shoot on film. The video premiered on MTV’s Total Request Live, and after that, with three production companies in the US making offers, Kassa realised videos were no longer “a thing I was doing on the side” while waiting for his music career to take off.

Four years later, he is the Marley brothers’ director of choice. In Move, Damian’s remake of his father’s Exodus shot in a parking lot, Ras Kassa captures the raw energy and militancy of the song by synchronising the dancers’ moves with its alternating speeds, from hard and fast to slow and dramatic. It draws on Kassa’s cinematographic eye, his experience of being born and raised in the Kingston ghettos of Dunkirk and Warika Hill, and his love of music.

Now, having co-founded Music+, the first cable channel in Jamaica, and landing mainstream corporate gigs like the TV commercials for World Cup Cricket, the mischievous boy whose ability to paint saved him from expulsion from Windward Road Junior High, who didn’t graduate from high school, has his own production company, Guru Films, and is directing his first feature film. “It’s a cross between Blood Diamond, City of God, Crash and Welcome to Jamrock,” was all he would say. “It’s a decent film, politically heavy.”

We would expect nothing less.

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