OMI Soars With ‘Cheerleader’ Remix and Aims to Keep Riding High
Don’t call OMI a reggae artist.
The little-known Jamaican singer, who hit the top of the Billboard singles chart this week with a German dance remix of his song “Cheerleader,” a sticky ode to monogamy originally released in 2012, knows the risks of such a narrow categorization — especially in the United States.
“I am not a dancehall artist, and I am not a reggae artist,” said OMI, 28, referring to his home country’s signature musical genres.
“I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m Jamaican; I will never disown my roots or influences,” he added, with some defiance, while tucked into the back corner booth at Miss Lily’s, the hip Jamaican restaurant in downtown Manhattan, and in the vortex of a four-day New York media tour. “But if you say you’re a reggae artist, you’re cornered. You’re that.”
OMI (pronounced oh-mee), born Omar Samuel Pasley in rural Clarendon, Jamaica, knows his history. It’s been nearly a decade since a Jamaican artist topped the Billboard Hot 100 — Sean Paul did it with “Temperature”in 2006 — and longer since the American record industry last talked up reggae or dancehall, reggae’s faster, more hardcore rhythmic cousin, as a commercial force in urban music. More often, Caribbean dance music has been a summer fling — one-off hits by largely anonymous acts that, for a time, fill playlists for barbecues and boom from cars but rarely result in sustainable stateside careers.
“There is an unfortunate tendency for radio in particular to treat all reggae projects as a summer novelty,” said Rob Kenner, the founder of Boomshots.com, Complex Media Network’s dancehall reggae website. “D.J.s pick one or maybe two records for the run-up to Labor Day, and they become a seasonal thing. People don’t know the artists’ names — they just know the melody.”
“Cheerleader (Felix Jaehn Remix)” is nothing if not recognizable — the song has topped the worldwide charts of iTunes (No. 1 in 55 markets),Shazam (11.3 million identifications) and Spotify (300 million plays), and has more than 230 million combined views on YouTube.
On Tuesday, as the song hit No. 1 in the United States, the OMI promotional machine was purring. “Cheerleader” received its coronation with performances on “Good Morning America” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” where OMI, looking fresh in sunglasses, shiny shoes and a three-piece pinstripe suit, was backed by the Roots.
The following day, there were trips to “Good Day New York,” MTV, VH1, The Huffington Post, Billboard, Shazam and more. OMI remained agreeable throughout, glad-handing and cracking little jokes that got outsized laughs from industry supporters. In the black S.U.V. shuttling him between appointments, OMI yawned as his team discussed his call time for the next morning, perking up only when someone promised he could stop at a sneaker store during some downtime.
“It’s a very good experience,” OMI said later of the promotional blitz. “And it’s part of my obligations as well.”
OMI has no album to his name; his path to fame has been dependent entirely on a single song that wound its way through Europe before reaching the United States, giving his preferred genre classification — world music — more weight. He released the original, reggae-tinged version of “Cheerleader” in 2012 on Oufah, an independent label in Kingston, after being discovered by the dancehall impresario Clifton Dillon (known as Specialist). Along with a low-budget, high-concept video shot in Oregon — OMI’s first trip to the United States — the song was a modest hit in Jamaica and percolated in Hawaii.
The track got a second life when it was discovered the next year by Patrick Moxey, the president of Ultra Music, a dance label partly owned by Sony Music. In early 2014, Ultra commissioned two remixes, including an airy tropical house version by Felix Jaehn, a 20-year-old German producer. That reworking became a hit in Sweden, then France and Italy, and went platinum in the United Kingdom. The “Cheerleader” remix was given a sleeker music video set, fittingly, at the beach.
OMI's path to fame has been dependent entirely on a single song that wound its way through Europe before reaching the United States, giving his preferred genre classification — world music — more weight. CreditBryan Derballa for The New York Times
While OMI does not deny Mr. Jaehn’s magic touch — for one, he sped up the beat, making it more danceable — the singer said: “It’s always been a good song. If there was no song, there would be no remix.” (Despite their world-beating collaboration, the two men have yet to meet.)
OMI is also looking toward life after “Cheerleader,” although he insisted that he is not impatient to release a new single, tentatively scheduled for August. Sticking around beyond one huge hit will be “98 percent business, 2 percent talent,” he said, invoking Specialist, who is credited with bringing Jamaican stars like Shabba Ranks to the United States. “The timing has to be right.”
“A lot of people have come with 100 songs and never had the impact that I have with one, and I’m well aware of that,” he said.
But a hit can be a millstone, too. Wayne Wonder is a Jamaican singer whose “No Letting Go” reached No. 11 on the Hot 100 in 2003. “It’s hard, in a sense, when you get a megahit, and then you don’t follow it up with anything,” Mr. Wonder said. Once backed by Atlantic Records, he is now independent. “If something hits, they just want to keep on that same train,” he said of the major labels. “I’ve been through it, and it can limit your creativity.”
Craig Kallman, the chief executive of Atlantic, who helped bring dancehall to the masses with artists like Mr. Paul and Elephant Man, said, “Dancehall artists that suffered were ones that left their sound to chase an R&B or hip-hop sound and lost their identity.” But, he added, “as genres continue to meld and fuse into each other, you’re seeing exciting productions that are different and not just your typical dancehall execution.”
Atlantic recently signed Kranium, a Jamaican artist whose song “Nobody Has to Know” gained crossover buzz with remixes from R&B hitmakers like Ty Dolla Sign and Chris Brown. Meanwhile, Shaggy, a survivor from the dancehall moment of the late ’90s and early 2000s, is climbing the charts again with “I Need Your Love,” a world music collaboration that first caught on in the Middle East.
And Ultra Music is trying to stretch “Cheerleader” even further with the release of a new remix featuring the rapper Kid Ink. The song’s genre malleability has thus far been a boon — it is now in the Top 5 in three radio formats (pop, dance and rhythm) — and OMI is counting on his own continued appeal among such varied audiences.
“He couldn’t have a better dream team behind him,” said Mr. Kenner, citing Specialist, along with the producer Salaam Remi (Amy Winehouse, Nas), who is working with OMI on a potential album.
OMI isn’t celebrating just yet. “It’s like taking the lead early in the race,” he said. “I’m just trying to hold out and breathe properly to cross that finish line.”