Tessanne Chin: a star is made

By the time Tessanne Chin emerged as the champion of the US reality TV talent show The Voice, the Jamaican singer had already won herself millions of fans around the world — and stolen the hearts of her compatriots. But, with a track record on the Jamaican music scene going back a decade, hers was no magical story of overnight success. Kellie Magnus tells the story of a triumph that was a long time in the making

  • Chin’s mother and husband join her on The Voice stage, after she was named winner of the contest. NBCU Photo Bank Via Getty Images
  • The massive crowd at Chin’s “Homecoming” concert in Kingston. Photograph by Adrian Creary
  • Photograph by Adrian Creary
  • Tessanne Chin in 2006, when Caribbean Beat singled her out as a talent to watch. Photograph by courtesy Gary James
  • Tessanne Chin. Photograph by NBCU Photo Bank Via Getty Images

It’s the stuff of fairytales.

On a starlit Sunday night in January 2014, Tessanne Chin took the stage at a free concert on Kingston’s waterfront. The set-up was no different from concerts she’s graced in the past, with one noticeable exception. This one was hers: “Tessanne’s Homecoming,” an official heroine’s welcome, staged in a beautiful but formerly rundown part of the city now positioning itself for renewal.

There were performances by major singers. There were fireworks. There was confetti. But the highlight of the night, for most of the thousands who thronged the streets and nearby rooftops, was watching Chin, tears streaming down her face, receive the Gold Medal of the City of Kingston from Mayor Angela Brown Burke.

It was “one of the most moving, proudest moments of my life,” Chin later wrote on her Facebook page. And the medal was a fitting reward. Since winning the US reality TV show The Voice, Chin has become Jamaican royalty, receiving the kind of adulation and support usually reserved for the nation’s sporting greats.

Just four weeks earlier, on 17 December, 2013, a similar crowd of thousands had crammed the streets in Kingston’s Half Way Tree — the unofficial official venue for public celebrations of Olympic and other feats — to watch the live broadcast on huge outdoor screens as Chin was crowned the winner of The Voice’s fifth season. Never mind that few of the thousands assembled on either night had heard of Chin before her first appearance on The Voice on 24 September. In four short months, she had not only won the contest — bringing herself to the attention of millions of viewers around the world — but also won over a nation that can be hard on local artists who dare to colour outside reggae’s lines.

There’s something eerily perfect about Chin’s story. She’s a self-described “multiracial woman,” a living embodiment of Jamaica’s motto, “Out of Many, One People.” She’s an artist known for a unique brand of reggae fusion, drawing together Jamaicans of all races, classes, and musical preferences. And she’s an unabashedly proud Jamaican, capturing international attention while staying true to her roots.

But Chin’s apparently overnight ascension to international stardom came after more than a decade of plying her trade at home in Jamaica. She was long a favourite at local venues, including Red Bones Blues Café and Carlos Café, at first as the front woman for the rock band Mile High. Comprised of Chin, drummer Andrew Thompson, guitarist Paul Chang, and bass player Jason Morris, Mile High earned a dedicated following for their distinct rock-reggae sound, but struggled to break through commercially.

Chin found more success in her solo career, honing her signature sound — which she describes as pop with reggae, rock, and R&B influences — and wooing audiences with her impressive range, sultry delivery, and emotive lyrics. Her songs like “Hideaway” and “Messenger” were local hits, and popular collaborations with artists like Ky-mani Marley and Trinidadian Kees Diefenthaller of Kes the Band earned her respect in Jamaica and the Caribbean. She performed regularly at major concerts, including Jamaica’s Jazz and Blues Fest, Reggae Sumfest, and the island’s Jamaica 50 Grand Gala. She opened for leading recording stars, like Patti Labelle, Gladys Knight, Peabo Bryson, and Roberta Flack, and even toured the world as a back-up singer for reggae icon Jimmy Cliff. And as far back as 2006, a Caribbean Beat feature on up-and-coming Jamaican musical talents highlighted her “big, throaty voice” and “outstanding vocal mastery.”

Chin says she felt grateful to earn her living singing at a time when many other musicians struggled. Jamaican music insiders and Chin’s loyal fan base were convinced of her talent. Reggae Sumfest head Johnny Gourzong, who has twice booked Chin to perform, told Jamaica’s IRIE FM it was just a matter of time until Chin hit it big. “Her talent as a vocalist is immense,” he said, “and we knew that this was going to happen. Whether it was going to take five years, ten years, or fifteen years, we knew that one day it was going to happen.”

And yet, for a long time, it didn’t.

Despite earning a comfortable living in Jamaica, Chin grew increasingly frustrated by her efforts to move her career forward. “It’s difficult as a singer to get airtime in Jamaica,” she says. “You rarely hear local singers on the radio. In fact, you hardly hear reggae on the radio. Dancehall is what is dominant.” And the absence of local venues for live entertainment also made it difficult for Chin to expand her local following.

ZJ Sparks of ZIP FM, one of the radio stations that did keep Chin in regular rotation, puts it this way: “I think we were all waiting for something to happen for Tessanne internationally. The talent was there. That was indisputable. But you can have the best product in the lab, and if only the developer knows about it, it doesn’t matter.”

Despite the frustrations, giving up was not an option. Singing is Chin’s lifelong passion, fuelled by the support of her family and a profound belief that it is her highest purpose.

Born on 23 September, 1985, she grew up in a highly creative and musical family, with parents who were members of a band, The Carnations, and a sister who later rose to local stardom under the stage name Tami Chynn. Tessanne got bit by the performing bug singing during her parents’ rehearsals at age five, with her aunt singing backup. “I was sure then,” she says. “I knew that was what I was supposed to do.”

Her first public performance came at age seven, with Cathi Levy’s Little People and Teen Players Club. After that, the bug took hold permanently. At age eighteen, she started singing professionally, drawing inspiration from Celine Dion, Pink, Whitney Houston, and later artists like Beyoncé, Emeli Sandé, and Adele.

But while dreaming of international stardom, Chin remained firmly committed to staying in Jamaica. Married for three years and settled in Jamaica, she was determined to make her career work from the island, rather than moving to the US or back to Britain, where she had gone to high school.

“You have to recognise that this is a small space,” says ZJ Sparks. “It takes a lot of other elements than talent to break an artist internationally.” Not that Chin didn’t try. Her efforts to break into the US market were similarly challenging. She’d done the rounds of major label showcases, without success. “People see this Jamaican girl, who looks Chinese, but has a rock sound — and didn’t know what to do with me,” she says. “You’d have labels say, ‘Can’t you just be the next Alicia Keys?’”

Then, in 2012, her friend and mentor Orville “Shaggy” Burrell summoned Chin to his house to encourage her to audition for The Voice. The two had met four years before, in the lead-up to Shaggy’s first benefit concert for Jamaica’s Bustamante Hospital for Children, the only pediatric hospital in the English-speaking Caribbean. Over the years, Shaggy had become a friend and a mentor. “If anybody has a voice, Tess,” he told her, “you do.’”

“Shaggy always knew that I wanted an international career,” says Chin. “I did all I could do in terms of here [Jamaica]. I was hesitant and scared, because I didn’t want people to think I was turning my back on Jamaica, on my roots, on my career here. I very much love Jamaica.”

But despite her initial apprehension, Chin seized the opportunity to move from her Jamaican plateau to an international platform. Not everyone thought The Voice was a good idea. “A lot of people said, ‘What she a do dat fah? She bigger than that,’” she recalls. “I’m not bigger than fourteen million viewers. I don’t have a Grammy. I don’t have a Moon Man [MTV Award]. That’s where my sights have always been.”

So in December 2012, Chin and a small army of her girlfriends, including her then newly pregnant sister Tami, headed off to Los Angeles for the private audition Shaggy had arranged. That was followed by executive callbacks, more auditions, and what Chin describes as a scary series of meetings with show staff for psych tests and wardrobe consultations and a mountain of paperwork to comply with the strictures of being on reality television.

“It feels like you’re signing away your life,” says Chin. “But my family was very supportive. My husband and my sister said, ‘What do you have to lose?’ I was most afraid of how we would be treated, but The Voice staff was amazing. They treated us so well.”

Signing on to the show meant giving up some of the creative control she had seized in her solo career. While she had input in the songs she performed on the air, selecting from a list of pre-cleared songs and submitting other suggestions for clearance, many of her performances were not on her original list. Each contestant is matched with a coach — a celebrity singer — who helps shape their performance skills. Chin’s was the pop singer Adam Levine, of the band Maroon 5.

Buoyed by support from Jamaicans at home and in the US, and an increasing American fan base, Chin made her way through the rounds, delivering outstanding performances of songs like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing”. As she progressed, discussion peaked in Jamaica about whether her song choices were too Jamaican or not Jamaican enough. But for Chin, that was not a concern.

“Why I like this programme is because it’s based solely on your vocal ability,” she says. “I wanted to establish myself as a vocalist, no matter what. No matter in what genre. I’ve never used being Jamaican as a stumbling block, and I never will. But I think in some instances it was being used to overshadow everything else. It’s nice that I’m from Jamaica, but can you criticise it [her performance] on the song?”

On the 2 December show, coach Blake Shelton — a country music singer — scolded the other judges for putting too much emphasis on Chin’s being from Jamaica, calling her a world class vocalist. “I was overjoyed when Blake said what he did,” Chin says.

“Adam [Levine] in particular didn’t want to put me in a box,” she continues. “He was very cautious with the song selections. The night we did ‘Redemption Song’ and ‘Unconditional’ was such an important night. It was important to show that I can go to my roots, but I can also do a song like Katy Perry.”

Ensconced in The Voice camp for three months, Chin had only a partial sense of the kind of impact her appearance in the show was having at home in Jamaica. Initially, her goals for the show were conservative. “I wanted to make an impact. I wanted to be remembered. When you’re sitting in a big auditorium with a hundred and fifty of us [contestants] and they say, ‘The winner of The Voice is in this room,’ nobody thinks ‘It’s going to be me.’”

But with support from Jamaica growing, the urge to win took hold. The Jamaican fan base mobilised into action, unleashing an unprecedented social media campaign to drive votes from Jamaicans in the United States — the show’s viewers can participate in the judging process by voting online and by phone, and purchasing recordings of the contestants’ performances from Apple’s iTunes music store.

Chin was “completely blindsided” by that support, she says. “Shaggy had told me it would be big, but I had no idea. When TVJ [Television Jamaica] bought the rights [to broadcast the show], I started to think, This is definitely bigger than I had anticipated.

“I keep saying that I started this because I wanted to move forward. It quickly became about a lot more than me. Omigosh, I have a little nation with me. Very moving and empowering. I have the backative of my people.”

By the time her version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” hit number one on the iTunes charts, Chin had realised the magnitude of the momentum behind her. Pundits disagree on the degree to which Jamaican support had an impact. The numbers speak for themselves. The first contestant to earn a number one slot on the iTunes chart, Chin made Voice history. By the close of the competition, she had six songs on the iTunes top 100 chart, surpassing all other artistes in iTunes charts history. And as of the first week of January 2014, two of her Voice performances — her covers of “I Have Nothing” and the Beatles’ “Let It Be”, which she performed with Adam Levine — had made the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Chin’s first two public appearances after winning The Voice befitted her status as a new star: on 1 January she performed at the annual Rose Bowl Parade in California, atop the first ever The Voice float, and three days later she headlined the Shaggy and Friends benefit concert, joining Ne-yo, fellow Voice contestant Matthew Schuler, Sean Paul, Damian “Junior Gong” Marley, and a host of local artists in raising funds for the Bustamante Children’s Hospital.

“It felt right to have Shaggy be my first show back [in Jamaica],” she says. “I’ve been a part of it since the beginning. And I love the cause. I was happy and proud to be back. The Jamaican crowd can be very iffy, but they showed me so much warmth.”

And with her homecoming celebrations now behind her, Chin’s focus is on her debut album with Universal Music Group, scheduled for release in late March. She promises a generous helping of what she describes as “island swag,” and collaborations with artistes including Jamaican superstar Junior Gong. It’s rumoured that the album will be recorded at GeeJam Studios, in east Jamaica’s Portland, where stars like Drake, Diplo, and Snoop Lion have also worked. It’s all in keeping with Chin’s dream of creating world-class music based at home.

Above all, her goal is to make music that’s true to her. “It’s not about trends, or anything but you,” she says. “Lyrical content means a lot. I want to make the kind of music that’s still around, even when I’m not.” More important, the album marks a return to her songwriting roots, after devoting a year to cementing her credibility as a vocal artist.

Along with spending time in the studio, she’s adjusting to a life now filled with new challenges and expectations. She already has performances scheduled for the St Kitts’ Music Festival in June and Jamaica’s Reggae Sumfest in July, while balancing an ever-increasing schedule of interviews and appearances.

With her new single “Tumbling Down” in heavy rotation on Jamaica’s airwaves, Chin enjoys the little downtime she has with her family and friends, and coming to terms with the lessons of The Voice. For her, some of the best moments of the show were off-camera: the relationships she developed with her fellow contestants and her coach. Then there’s her newfound sense of confidence and style.

Her friends used to mock her as fashion-challenged but now say she’s grown exponentially. “That was one of the best parts of The Voice,” says Chin. They took me as I was, and made me feel beautiful. Learning to dress my body in a cool way has done wonders for my confidence. It’s amazing what clothes can do for you.”

While Chin is making music, pundits in Jamaica struggle to make meaning of her victory, both for her and for the music industry as a whole. Insiders hope that Chin’s victory can bring renewal to an industry. “There’s a lot we can learn from Tessanne’s win,” says ZJ Sparks. “The need for mentors, for venues. The importance of perseverance.

“More than anything, she’s shown us what we can accomplish when we unite for a singular purpose, and dedicate all our energy to it. The universe conspires in our favour. Anything can happen.”


Behind the winning voice

Tessanne Chin’s favourite food:
“Spicy wings and ribs from KFC. Devon House ice cream.”

Her favourite place in Jamaica:
“My sister Tami’s house, and my friend Ariane Williams’s balcony.”

Her favourite spot in the Caribbean:
“I love Trinidad for doubles and bussup shut [roti]. Kes [the Band] introduced me to that. I also love Bermuda.”

Her favourite Caribbean musicians:
“Kes the Band. They’re my Trinidad brothers. I also love Bunji Garlin, Allison Hinds, Destra, and Li’l Rick. I grew up with my mom and dad in a soca band. I love to see people enjoy themselves.”

The last book she read:
Hunger Games: Mocking Jay. I love reading. That’s my escape.”

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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