Interview: 'No No No' Reggae Queen Dawn Penn lifts the lid on the music game

When I first met the undisputed ’Queen of Reggae’ Dawn Penn at an indy record label party in Kentish Town some years ago she was singing an alternative version of her smash hit ‘You Don’t Love Me (No No No)’.  In her soulful voice she sang something a little like ‘No No No, they took my rights and now I’m broke, yeah’.  I remind her of this when we meet in a restaurant for the interview “Is it?” she laughs in her strong Jamaican accent “I do some crazy things sometimes!”

Kingston-born Penn has just flown in from Australia where she has been performing at the launch of Swiss Ska and Reggae documentary “Rock steady, The Roots of Reggae” alongside Stranjah Cole and has fallen in love with black garlic. “It tastes better than liquorice – jelly-like!” she beams, handing me some bumph she has collected on her travels on the exotic herb. She chatters away about her trip - she played with a 30-piece orchestra in Melbourne and a 12-piece band in Sydney and was very taken by the Didgeridoo but notes that ‘in Maori tribes they don’t let the women play it’.  

  She pulls out her CDs – she had phoned me up that morning to let me know she’d be bringing them along ‘so we’ll have plenty to talk about’. “This was my Grammy-nominated album No No No with the track ‘You Don’t Love Me” she says laying it out proudly in front of her.  ‘When I wrote it, I didn’t know anything about business just hearing my name on the radio was enough”. The track was originally recorded at Coxone Studio 1 in Jamaica before Penn left the thriving Reggae kingdom in 1970 for the Virgin Islands where her Father hailed from. She stayed there for a number of years raising her children and exploring her heritage before “You Don’t Love Me” was re-released in the 1990s and her music career accelerated.

Drawing on her performance at our first meeting I ask her if it is true that she has not seen a penny from that ubiquitous reggae anthem? “Now what it was with ‘No No No’ is that I wasn’t getting any royalties from Atlantic. I was signed to them in 1994” she tells me “but I was young and I didn’t know my rights”
  The waiter comes over and asks her what she would like. “Is it on the house?” she jokes to him before continuing “Copyright lasts 50 years after your death before it becomes public domain but they have just extended it now to 75 years so these ‘copyright cats’ can enjoy another 25 years - they are holding onto people’s things..”

  ‘So given your experiences, would you say that the music industry was full of exploitative people?’ I ask. "All the time. Every time." she replies looking me straight in the eye “I have only told you half the problem...”  After Atlantic, Penn registered with Volunteer Lawyer of the Arts where she was put in touch with a high profile entertainment lawyer. However, after two years, the lawyer said he couldn't litigate the case and offered to introduce her to an organisation who he thought could help. Unfortunately, the company in question appeared to be simultaneously representing Atlantic as well as Penn and demanded a steep 50 per cent of Penn’s royalties in return for obtaining them. Desperate to finally see her money she signed the contract believing it was a ‘one-off thing’. However, eleven years later they are still helping themselves to half of the payments.

 “Think about this”, she says on the dodgy arrangement “if a cheque came in for 5,000 US Dollars, they will take 2,500, that’s a lot isn’t it? Up to this day we speak they are taking my royalties. And say if I went in and I said I need some cash they will give me my money but somehow made it out to be a loan or advance. So there is a lot of trickery going on. It’s really really disgusting”  

"So now to earn some money on the track I sing other versions of the song and do lots of gigs. Sound systems like me to sing Dubplate versions of the song. It was all just a learning curve because really, who are these people? Where were they really? All coming out of the woodwork like they did, one of them taking my royalties only would have been about six years old when the song came out! Now I’m my own manager. You want me to do a performance? Talk to me”

 “It must still be amazing to have written such a powerful, influential song?” I say. “Yes, of course.” She answers “And I have travelled a lot. Now, to see the rising of the sun in Hawaii is... A blessing!”

“And who is the song about?” I want to know.  “No one." she replies "It is about finding out someone don’t love you and that’s also sibling rivalry, husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend or your best friend. You think someone loves you and it’s not like that. It’s a discovery, a teething situation that everyone goes through. I think that’s why everybody loves the song."LB!


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