At first glance, Iakopo doesn't look like what you'd expect for a typical reggae music artist: He's tall and white with dreadlocks.
But, with the launch of his first U.S. single "Touchdown," featuring Shaggy, he could be reggae music’s next breakout star in America.
Born into a Mormon family in Southern California but raised in Samoa, the boy originally known as Jacob Scott Jones knew that music would be a special part of his life from an early age: "I remember when I was really young, like maybe 3 or 4 [years old], and listening to 'Red Red Wine' [by UB40] ... I just loved that music.”
During his chat with NBC News, Iakopo — the Samoan version of his birth name — discussed his life and the multitude of adopted family members that took him in when he was ripped from his childhood home in Orange County and sent to the South Pacific.
"I lived with the whole family, it was all in one small piece of land in the village ... there must have been at least sixty or seventy of us," he chuckles.
Finding humor in his circumstances is evidence that music has been both a method of expression and a remedy to heal emotional trauma from his childhood prior to being adopted by his Samoan family.
At the age of 13, while living with his birth family, Iakopo says he was snatched from his bed in the middle of the night and eventually taken over 4,000 miles away to American Samoa — something coordinated by his birth parents to correct what was viewed as deviant behavior in the Mormon community.
"I didn’t know what was happening to me, I didn't know why they were taking me or what they were doing with me. It was really scary."
He spent a year at Paradise Cove, a behavioral modification facility in Samoa operated during the 1990s that was investigated by the U.S. State Department under allegations of mistreatment and abuse of students.
Knowing that his personal story can inspire his fans and draw a closer connection to the energy in his music, Iakopo is working on a movie about his life.
“That’s one of my biggest dreams...just something that I always thought would be really powerful to do.” He’s currently on a radio tour to promote “Touchdown.”
He spoke to NBC News about his single, drawing inspiration from music, and establishing himself as an artist in the U.S.
NBC: How has everything been going with you?
It’s been awesome. I’ve been doing a different city every night and we’ve been getting great response on the record and I’m just working the record. We’re just starting to see the traction now and it’s been great. We’ve gotten a lot of great response so far and I’m excited to put in the work.
NBC: What is “Touchdown” about? Why did you write this song?
We got in the studio and we recorded about half the album and I just sat down with the producer and we talked about the different concepts of what we wanted to make the song about - and we kind of talked about the scenario of liking a girl and just the whole scenario of the song. We kind of made up the scenario just to kind of bring the feeling of what we’re trying to portray...the funny thing was that after the song was recorded the actual scenario that we made up started playing out in my real life.
NBC: How did Shaggy get on the song?
We were in the studio and I laid down my vocals on the part and then we came back in and we were sitting down listening and I heard Shaggy’s voice [in the studio] and I was like wow, I really think Shaggy would sound great on the song…so the producer just reached out to him and sent him the track and he really loved the track and he just happened to be in Miami the same day I was in Miami and the next day he just came over and laid the track down in like thirty minutes.
NBC: Was this your first time meeting Shaggy?
Yea it was my first time ever meeting him. The funny thing is I recorded the other half of my album at his studio in Jamaica but I never met him.
NBC: Going back a little earlier in your career, I know you probably get asked this question a lot, but when did you discover your love for reggae music and music in general?
When I was in high school [in Samoa]...after lunch we would beat on the lunch table and make a drum beat with our hands and we would all freestyle and sing...and one day one of my classmates was like…”my uncle is the band leader for the band in this club where they play the top 40 music of whatever people like on the radio”...and it just evolved into me singing with them every weekend...we were performing pop music in a reggae style so I got introduced to the style and the vibe of it…so that’s how I started performing reggae and identifying with it.
NBC: Did you always know that you would be an artist/performer?
I was playing music a little bit but it wasn’t my passion until I was about I would say 11 or 12 [years old], that’s when I really consciously knew I had a deep passion for it. At that point, that’s all I wanted to do...a very true thing about it too was I was going through a hard time as a child ... I had difficulties and stuff with family ... so I think it had always been from the beginning an escape for me.
NBC: What was it like going from that Mormon lifestyle and then going to Samoa and having to adapt to a new culture? What was that like for you?
I always remember feeling from a child that I always felt that I wasn’t loved ... before I left for Samoa I remember my parents would sit with the (school) principal and they’d ask me what I wanted to be as a child and I told them that I wanted to be a rock star… and they sat me down with the principal in school ... my birth dad and the principal sat me down and said [to] come up with another plan for my life ... and it was a one in a million chance that I would ever make it and that I needed to figure out something else that I could do with my life.
NBC: How did you wind up in Samoa?
I was asleep at 3 o’clock in the morning and like... three, four men came in my room, woke me up and took me out of my bed, carried my shoes, hog tied me and took me in the back of their car and drove me to St. George, Utah ... all through the desert ... and they locked me in this room for two weeks and they told me 'You’re going to Samoa' I had no idea where I was going ...I was locked in a room…I didn't know what was going on, I was scared out of my mind ... They got me to American Samoa ... and they held me there for a week and a half...laying on a dirt floor in a locked room ... then they smuggled me on a small Cessna from Pago Pago, American Samoa, to Upolu, Western Samoa ... that whole process was very scary ... then I got to Samoa and they drove me way out in the middle of the jungle ...[to] a completely isolated and uninhabited area ... to where they call Paradise Cove ... and I lived for a year ... they did behavior modification stuff on me ... on all the kids down there ... brainwashing techniques on us children and stuff like that for a year ... I was there for a year and I was taken out of that program by one of the ladies that used to come ... she was like a counselor who would come and check on the kids to see if they needed medical care and she would report back to the parents once a month ... so the parents basically signed over parental control to these people ... She [Charity, the counselor] brought me into the village life of Samoa and that’s when I started going to high school ... and I started living in the culture ... that’s when it became much more of a healthier living situation for me ... I bloomed because all of a sudden I had people who loved me and who were excited that I was around ... the family loved that I played music which was opposite from my Mormon family ... the Samoan people ... they are very open-minded ... they are very loving ... I felt like I really thrived around people that were just going with the energy ... they loved the fact that I played music and they weren’t putting me down about whether I believed the same things that they did or that I was doing the same things that they did.
NBC: It sounds like your music is something that helped you heal from that process?
It definitely did...as my life continued to unfold, my music did also.
NBC: Do you feel like there is this extra pressure on you to prove yourself to people as a white reggae artist?
In some ways yes ... I do feel a sense of obligation ... since I am white ... [and a] reggae artist [that is] not from Jamaica — and I’m going into mainstream ... in some ways I feel like, yes, I gotta make sure that I got to do it justice ... for me it’s just like music is music and what it stands for and what it represents is the energy and the roots of where it comes from.
NBC: What do you want people to get from your music?
It’s always been kind of an underlying thing with me ... I want to make people just feel good ... the people that like the music, I just want them to feel good and enjoy it ... I think to me that’s the most important thing.
NBC: You spoke earlier about how music played a significant role in your life...which artists have influenced your music career so far?
I’ll try to pick a couple ... there’s probably been so many that have influenced me consciously and unconsciously ... John Lennon as a child, his music, just the way he writes and where he was writing from, the space ... that was very influential for me. Kurt Cobain...his writing style was extremely abstract ... Tupac, the way that he wrote and the way that he talked about the troubled situations and things that were going on in his life. I used to listen to that too, so all the stuff that I listened to I had to be inspired it...as far as singing style I would say it would have to be Ali Campbell who is the lead singer for UB40 ... I would definitely say that’s probably the closest as far as direct influence on singing style ... of course Bob Marley...I just think he was such a great leader, musician, singer...he was just so much more than a musician ... and then dancehall music like Vybz Kartel, Mavado ... that’s what I listen to on my time ... I listen to so much music, but those are probably the key musicians.
NBC: You’ve had international success. Now you’re embarking upon your U.S. career. What are your goals for establishing yourself as an artist here?
I came here to debut ... and to share my music and to do the most with it. I definitely want to take it all the way. This song is just hitting the top 100 last week and we’re going to take “Touchdown” as far as it can go ... and once it starts falling off the charts then we’ll hit them with the next one and hopefully we’ll take that one further.