Why She’s a Top 40: For bringing the world of reggae to our city and exporting it around the world
Janaya “Sista J” Ellis isn’t sure which of her roles has made the biggest impact on young people. Maybe it was her 11 years of teaching for the Elk Island Public Schools, or possibly her seven years as Sista J, leader of the award-winning reggae band, Souljah Fyah. Maybe it’s the day home she operates, or perhaps it’s a combination of all three. Regardless, she’s convinced she has made a difference. “If nothing else, I hope that some child grows up and thinks, ‘Well, I saw my teacher do it, and she’s just a normal person,'” Ellis says. “‘Doing it’ means living a dream. I’m already doing it.”
And she’s living that dream in the right place, too. Ellis has a good answer when faced with the common, “Why reggae in Edmonton?” question: “I love reggae and I live in Edmonton.” Several years ago, she was all set to move to Toronto, with its rich Caribbean culture, but changed her mind after her mom took her to see the Big Breakfast Boogie Band at the Sidetrack Caf and told Janaya, “See? You can do this here.”
And so she did, finding like-minded local musicians and penning a potent brand of political music over several recordings, while playing literally hundreds of shows, many of which are fundraisers for everything from African famine relief to Edmonton’s Food Bank. (As well, a special sponsorship by the Realtors Association of Edmonton has the group performing at even more charity shows.) The band scored a Juno nomination in 2008, and in 2009 was awarded Top Reggae Band at the Canadian Reggae Music Awards and Outstanding Album of the Year at the Reggae Music Achievement Awards, both of which are held annually in – you guessed it – Toronto. If that city’s thriving Caribbean community didn’t know reggae could exist in Edmonton, it sure knows it now.
Even with all the industry accolades, Ellis has a vision beyond music: “I do have this image of myself working with children on a ranch. I want to combine youth, music, inspiration and performing and, somehow, nature. I know what I am put here to do. I have no doubt that I am growing into the person that I have thought about since I was little.”