WORDS BY JESSE SERWER
PHOTOS BY MARTEI KORLEY
Our Virgin Islands Nice series spotlighting music, life and culture in the USVI continues in Frederiksted, St. Croix, with Freedom City’s resident reggae icon, Vaughn Benjamin of Midnite, and St. Thomas’ own cultural ambassador, Pressure Busspipe.
“One thing I know for sure is St. Croix [has] something that is bussing up like a volcano right now—something that the world is yearning for, that the world needs.” — Pressure Busspipe
In the last few years, the U.S. Virgin Islands has developed a reputation as one of the most fertile grounds for reggae music outside of Jamaica. Not content to merely mimic the movements of the genre’s mother island, local artists and producers from have created their own roots reggae sound, typified by mystical vibrations, uplifting lyrics and, increasingly, a proudly localized flavor that’s helping to boost the USVI’s international identity.
By all accounts, the epicenter of this energy is the island of St. Croix, home to the Virgin Islands’ most celebrated reggae band, Midnite, as well as I Grade Records, the influential record label run by music producer Laurent “Tippy-I” Alfred. With few established venues to perform live music on the island, the principals of the local scene here have taken reggae to the streets—or more precisely the rainforest, the fish market and the beach, launching a series of live, open-air dub events that regularly draw visitors from around the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean. It’s a suitably independent approach for an island that’s always marched to its own rhythm, going back to the 1848 slave revolt that brought emancipation for Black residents across what is now the U.S. Virgin Islands.
This rising tide of reggae out of St. Croix also represents the culmination of a 25-year journey that began when singer Vaughn Benjamin and his brother, multi-instrumentalist Ron Benjamin, formed Midnite in 1989. It wasn’t until a temporary relocation to Washington D.C. in the mid ’90s that the group released its debut album, Unpolished. But once Midnite found its footing in the studio, it was off and running. To date, some 60 Midnite albums have been released, most of these within the last 10 years.
Midnite wasn’t the first USVI reggae act to release an LP internationally, but it was the first to gain a following overseas, and its renown has only continued to grow since the Benjamin brothers returned to St. Croix in the late ’90s. Driven by Vaughn Benjamin’s dense, challenging lyrics and Ron’s distinctive bass lines, the band has attained cult status in Europe and the U.S., regularly performing three-hour-long sets to sell-out crowds, with little hype or promotion.
Pressure Busspipe has taken a slightly different path to reggae success. Raised on St. Thomas, Pressure released his debut album The Pressure Is On, with St. Croix-based producer Dean Pond in 2005. It was a trip to Jamaica to work with producer Donovan “Don Corleon” Bennett (Sean Paul, Vybz Kartel, Protoje) that made him an international star, when their eminently hummable collaboration “Love and Affection” became a massive hit in 2007. To this day, the song remains a staple, in Jamaica, the USVI and everywhere else reggae is played.
Taking a page out of Midnite’s productivity playbook, Pressure announced his return last year with two distinctive albums: The Sound, his first release for I Grade Records; and Africa Redemption, recorded at King Jammy’s Studio in Jamaica. (Another project, entitled Lovers Rock, is due out shortly.) It was the former that spawned his most notable release since “Love and Affection”: “Virgin Islands Nice,” a tribute to VI culture that highlights the contributions of current-day USVI heroes like NBA superstar Tim Duncan and Midnite, as well as that of historical figures like “Queen” Mary Thomas, leader of St. Croix’s 1878 labor revolt.
Since its release a year ago, the track has become the unofficial anthem of the U.S. Virgin Islands, making its way into local classrooms, a US Virgin Islands Tourism Board promotional campaign, and The Wendy Williams Show. With its focus on authentic expressions of VI culture, the song is also also the inspiration for the series you’re looking at right now— Catch up on the rest of our Virgin Islands Nice features here.
When we decided to visit the U.S. Virgin Islands last summer to produce this series, the first plan we made was to bring Pressure and Vaughn together. These two giants of VI reggae have collaborated several times recently, on “Same I Ah One” (from Midnite’s Beauty For Ashes) and “Nothing No Wrong” (from Pressure’s The Sound), but their relationship, they would tell us, goes back to the ’90s, when a young Pressure sought guidance from the elder Benjamin at the start of his career.
As a place that holds great historical and personal significance for both artists, the waterfront in Frederiksted immediately emerged as the ideal venue for the sitdown. The site of the aforementioned 19th revolts, “Freedom City” and its western St. Croix surrounds retain an independent streak, as seen in the area’s large, deeply-rooted Rastafari community. “This island now have a mentality and a vibe where the true Virgin Islands history and culture is preserved,” Pressure explains.
It’s also the place you’re most likely to find Vaughn Benjamin, who was raised in the area and continues to reside here. Vaughn rarely grants interviews—”I don’t like contrivancy,” he explained to us—making it crucial to reach him on his home turf. Fortunately, Freedom City is also the home away from home for Pressure, who splits his time between the island of his birth and St. Croix.
After catching the seaplane over from St. Thomas, we met up with I-Grade’s Laurent “Tippy-I” Alfred at Christiansted’s Aqua Sounds Studios (where we would return later in the evening for a recording session with Pressure and Vaughn) and made our way out to Frederiksted. Setting up along the city’s picturesque boardwalk, surrounded on one side by the quietude of Fort Frederik (the red stucco structure in the photos below) and the buzz of Frederiksted Pier on the other, we sat with Pressure and Vaughn for a conversation about mentorship, history and that mystical St. Croix energy you can’t help but pick up on in Freedom City. The result was anything but contrived—a natural reasoning between long-time friends and colleagues.
Scroll through Martei Korley’s photo series below for images and quotes from our conversation with Vaughn and Pressure, and keep a look out for the upcoming LargeUp TV episode featuring Pressure and Vaughn in Freedom City.