“I just always keep coming back to the music”

My mom was born in Detroit, but then my grandma moved the family to Racine, which is where I was born and raised. My grandma is a beautician. She created her own shop that she's had for over 40 years. My mom became a beautician, as well.

Photos by Hedi Lamarr Rudd

Demetrius Wainwright | Madison, WI

My mother was very young when she had me, too young to be having a child at the time, so I was raised by more than just my mom. I was the only child until nine years old, and I was lucky because I was guided to do positive things. My grandma and mom realized that I had a musical talent from a very young age.

My mom said I was beating on things before I could even talk, and I was playing to the actual rhythm of the music. So Grandma bought me my very first instrument, my first drum set, at five years old. Then through the years, my family got me a guitar, a bass, and different instruments, so I had a chance to mingle around with the instruments and different sounds. 

We are a musical family, but it skipped a generation. One of my great grandmothers played guitar and my grandmother has a brother who is very musical in the church. He raised all his boys to play music. They’re kind of like the Jackson Five, but the Wainwrights. Each of them plays a different instrument, and I grew up watching them doing their thing, which really made me want to be in a band. 

Around five I was playing in talent shows with the drums. I couldn’t even reach the pedals sometimes. My uncle played bongos and congas beside me. I personally was amazed by the young Michael Jackson, and I wanted to do everything that he did. So, I did contests where I performed like Michael Jackson, and I would win! A cousin saw me at one of these talent shows back around ’83, when I was ten. So I joined their band, singing and dancing and doing the whole thing. 

I played Summerfest for the first time at around 11 years old. It was exciting. There were definitely some scary moments where grownups were coming up to me with praise and attention, and I struggled to react confidently to that. But ultimately, I think the distractions helped me to hone my skills to become a more focused performer. I spent a lot of time rehearsing and practicing in front of mirrors. 

Then in eighth grade, we moved all the way out to Mississippi for a year, which took me totally out of my zone

In eighth grade we moved from Racine all the way out to Mississippi for a year, which took me totally out of my zone. I didn't do great in school at that time because I was going through so much, being in such a foreign environment.

The pace of life is slower there, and getting somewhere takes longer. Mississippi’s so big. A lot of backroads, country roads, red dirt, and hot weather every day, even in December. As a grown up looking back, those places are beautiful. There are green trees, farms, a lot of animals, open spaces everywhere–and warm weather every day. I can appreciate Mississippi now, but in eighth grade, it was horrible. 

For me, I always go back to music, the thing that comforts me, the thing that keeps me occupied. Music was always there. I was in the school band, which was good. In Mississippi, all I had was a snare drum, though. In Wisconsin, I was used to being around all kinds of instruments: guitar over here, a bass over here, full drum set here. In Mississippi, just a snare drum. That’s like having a wheel and not the car, you know what I mean? But I tried to make the best of it. 

It’s tough on children to move to different schools. That’s tough. I feel for any child who has to go through that, because I’ve gone through it and it’s not fun starting all over, not having a crew, not having the close friends that are there for you. But it molded me. I wouldn’t take it back for anything at this point.

A year later, we returned to Racine. I came back independent. I came back to not much adult supervision, but I did well in school—did what I was supposed to do. It was the first time I ever went to the same school for several years from start to finish. It really helped to focus me and keep me positive.

The absence of opportunities to perform in Mississippi also made me hungry and ready to do everything I could musically in Racine: I joined the jazz ensemble, high school symphonics, I picked up the bass, I explored more musical styles, I played live audiences again. Then three of us created my first high school band, Fruit Salad, which really led to where I am now.”

Today, I'm the last founding member of Natty Nation. We consider ourselves a rock band that plays reggae. We call it hard roots because we stick to the original reggae that was started in Jamaica, but the instrumentation is rock. You might think, ‘What? Wisconsin reggae? That is strange,’ but it shows you how wide-ranging reggae is; it's all over Germany and different parts of the world.

We started Natty Nation early in ‘95. A few of us split from another reggae band called Arawak Jah. When we broke from them, we knew we wanted to continue with reggae. We liked the overall message of peace, love, and unity, and we all were interested in the Rasta culture, the spirituality. 

‘Natty’ translates, in the Jamaican definition, to ‘united.’ That fit us because we were a diverse group. Ras Joseph was from Milwaukee, Peter Johnston grew up in Eau Claire, Steve Cadle was from England, and I’m from Racine.

Jeffrey Maxwell, or ‘J-Maxx,’ came in right after we created the band. We didn’t record an album until he was a part of the mix. He was Jamaican, and having a Jamaican come into the band really put the stamp on our vibe, music, and message. He told us stories of living in Jamaica, and we learned a lot about the Jamaican and Rasta culture through him. He gave me the name Jah Boogie. 

J-Maxx passed away in 2001 from cancer. He was 42 and I was 27 at the time. We still play his songs. We did a remake of one of his songs from our second album Earth Citizen, called Stand in Love. We don’t do a lot of love songs, so that was perfect to do. His songwriting definitely still lives with this band. People that have been long-time fans of Natty Nation still request his songs. J-Maxx asked us to continue Natty Nation without him. But you know, I consider him a living member of the band. As the head guy now, I have to continue his tradition, just like I continue the music tradition for my own family. It’s similar. 

A song that is very personal to me, even to this day, is Arise written by J-Maxx. The chorus says, ‘Arise Rasta children,’ which spoke right to us as members of the band, because he was like our father figure and we were the children. Natty Nation would not be the same today without his influence. 

The lineup that we have now is one of the best in a long time. Aaron Konkol, our keys player, actually grew up on our music and was a big fan. He’s been with us since 2002. Paulie on drums and I grew up together in Racine. He’s been in and out of the band since ‘97. Nick Czarnecki is a very special individual, very crafty, curious and talented. And myself, Jah Boogie. 

Much love to all of those who have come and gone in the band. Everyone that’s been a part of this, we consider family. We care about them personally. If you’re part of this band, you’re part of the family. Even if you’re not in it anymore, we still care about those people, their well-being. That’s what Natty Nation is all about.

My band Natty Nation has gone through a lot through the years. We haven't always made the best decisions, but who does? We definitely show that we're diligent. It's deeper than doing things for fame and popularity. You ask yourself, ‘What am I really doing? Is it just because I love to play a guitar?’ It's like, ‘No, it's something deeper that's there.’ It's a feeling you get that you can't explain. It's healing. It makes you feel better when you listen to a certain song.

I’ve had to redefine what ‘making it’ is, what really being successful is. It’s not just making a lot of money. A lot of people get involved with music because they want all the women and popularity. That gets old quick. You realize that it’s deeper than that. 

When you get older, you realize what life is about and you realize what music is about, too. Music was never meant just for entertainment. In African cultures, for instance, music is meant to draw certain spirits up. There’s spirits of water, air, fire, earth. There’s spirits surrounding us now, all types of different spirits. 

Certain music, even certain classical music for instance, heals you, calms you. I heard that if you listen to classical music before you take a test, you’ll do better on the test. Rasta music talks about the spiritual essence of the human and the human mind. It’s about peace, love, and unity. 

I would love to get back to more of what music is really about: the healing. We’re healers. If musicians were looked at like that, I think the career would be totally different. To me, that’s our responsibility as musicians: to heal people. We’re in a world of sickness, physically, mentally, in all types of ways. Our mission and our purpose is to heal some of that. We may not be reaching a million people like Jay-Z or some big star, but just a small amount of fame is wonderful for me. That’s making it. So yeah, we’re making it.

I never stopped wanting to pursue music. I've quit technical school and other things because I wanted to play music. It may not have been the best decision financially, but that's definitely following your heart. Music is my religion.

When I hit the stage, I’m not the same person. I’m Jah Boogie; I’m going into my persona. I don’t want to say I’m acting, but it is like you’re going into a different part of yourself that’s not the same as the one that’s at home, sitting on the couch. 

Playing in front of an audience…there’s nothing that matches that. For me, the audience is a part of that show. They’re part of the energy. You’re bouncing off people, you’re talking. It’s a back and forth, give and take, ebb and flow. That’s so important. I can’t say enough about the support from a crowd of people. It’s for them. 

The musician’s life is not as glamorous as a lot of people think, though. It’s stressful traveling around and getting in front of different audiences. Sometimes things don’t go as planned. Improvisation is key a lot of times, acting skills, knowing how to keep your cool in situations. One time we were in Milwaukee for a gig, and a fight broke out. But once we started to play, it kind of broke the fight up and just mellowed everything out. It seemed like the music really calmed the situation. So that made me see how powerful music can be. 

Because of the coronavirus situation, we’re in such an uncertain time that it’s zapped my creativity a little bit.  Trying to distance ourselves from people, that’s the worst. I mean, we need interaction with people. We all need that. For us as musicians, if the audience isn’t there, then there’s no one to react to the music.

I’m writing music now about things going on, but for a while the writing took a backseat. I just always keep coming back to music,  because there’s something about it that makes me feel good. Music makes you feel a certain way. I’m a true musician from start to finish. It’s like a calling. So that’s my proof that I’ve gone in the right direction.


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