Q&A: Sean Paul Opens Up About Living With Asthma and Isolating for Five Months

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Grammy-winning dancehall and reggae artist Sean Paul has suffered from asthma since age 14.

The disease — which affects roughly 300 million worldwide, and increases its prevalence by 50% every decade — is a respiratory disease that affects your lungs, causing such symptoms as wheezing, coughing and chest tightness.

The 49-year-old musician, known for such hits as “Temperature,” “She Doesn’t Mind,” and “I’m Still In Love With You,” tells Samaritan he was frightened when the global pandemic hit in March of 2020 because a coronavirus is a respiratory illness and people with asthmatic conditions are more at risk.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “People with moderate-to-severe or uncontrolled asthma are more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19.”

This fear caused Paul to make a major decision: Isolating for five months, without leaving home even once. His wife ran errands while he remained housebound, all the while performing virtual concerts.

“May is Asthma Awareness Month — a time to educate friends, family, and patients about asthma and promote awareness about how this serious, sometimes life-threatening, chronic respiratory disease can be controlled,” according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Samaritan spoke to Paul for Asthma Awareness Month to gain more insight into what it’s like to live with asthma. His new album, Scorcha, drops May 27.

Were you born with asthma or did you develop this condition later in life?
I don’t think I had asthma at birth. My aunt and mom’s sister had it as kids. At first, of course, I didn’t know what it was, and when my aunt was younger, they didn’t have the inhaler in Jamaica yet. I don’t know if it had even been developed. My mom basically stuffed garlic and lemon juice down my throat with honey to try to cut the mucus out. But it isn’t really about that: The lungs lock down. We did try that for a minute and when my asthma got a little worse, the doctor introduced me to the inhaler — a little asthma inhaler. I don’t remember what they call it, but there were no steroids in them at the time.

Did you discover a natural remedy that helped?
When I first started to smoke ganja, I would only take one or two draws off a spliff for the entire day and that would have me going for a while. I did notice that after smoking and the initial choking — because your lungs ain’t used to the smoke — I would open up, like, “Woah: I can finally breathe good again.” And that felt great. This became a double reason to smoke. A few tokes helped my asthma and gave me euphoria, putting me in a good mood, you know what I mean? It’s a win-win situation.

You participated in swimming competitions at an early age. Did the inhaler help you during these years?
Here in Jamaica, we use a little blue container with medicine inside. That has done the job for me ever since. At age 14, the doctor told me that my asthma is sport-induced. When I started to do a lot of sports, my lungs started locking up. He suggested taking two puffs before swimming, playing a football game or whatever. As a kid, I suffered with these symptoms until the inhaler came in and then I realized that before I’d swim or exercise, I just had to take a puff.

Are there any stereotypes about asthmatics?
I don’t know. When I say that I have asthma, people just say, ‘Oh.’ Sometimes they don’t know much about the symptoms, while some people ask, “Woah, how do you manage?” The thing is, asthma doesn’t affect my vocal cords, only the air in my lungs. But when I sing, I’m breathing deeply and expressing a lot. That helps me develop stronger lungs, much like swimming has done.  People didn’t understand. “How could you swim? How do you sing? It doesn’t make sense?” When I’m having a bad asthma attack, I can’t do anything like that. However, I haven’t had a real bad attack since I was about 15-years-old.

I do get very congested when I smoke too much weed, though.  At around age 17, I started to experiment with marijuana. I remember when I stopped smoking for five years once and only ingested homemade edibles that I made with cannaoil and weed. I couldn’t keep smoking so much with my asthmatic condition. But I started smoking again around December 2020 [lifts blunt up and laughs].

What is "So much?"
Like seven blunts a day; and the chalice, chain, smoking on and on. My weed tolerance is crazy. When I started to ingest it, people who came to bring me pot were like, “That’s insane how much you’re using, bro, that’s nuts!” So smoking did raise my tolerance. But the euphoria and feeling of creativity is really dope. Especially when I ingest it rather than smoke, then there’s no problem with my lungs at all.

How were you impacted when the pandemic hit? Having asthma can be more detrimental if you get covid.
I didn’t go anywhere for the first five months. I was locked down. I was like a hermit crab. My family was here with me, but I wouldn’t go on the road. My wife went and did grocery shopping and such. I just stayed at home. When people have asthma or have had an asthma attack, they know that feeling of starving for breath and the anxiety that it gives you. You can't sleep, and there’s a lot of things that it does to you mentally as well. When I heard this [that people with asthma are more at-risk], I was in shock, afraid. Having asthma, I never want that to be the case. I never want there to be something that restricts my lungs so much that I can’t even breathe. If you have mild asthma, which I’ve had since about 15 years old, you learn to cope. There's been times when I’ve been on stage and congested. But the warmer I got on stage, my lungs opened up, so I felt good. I felt like I could handle it. But when I hear what this virus is doing to people, especially people like myself, it leaves me in a state of fear.

Is that why you went into seclusion?
Yes. That was the main reason. I also didn’t want the virus spreading to my kids; I have two young children, a grandmother who lives next door and my mom. You see, my grandma is 97 and my mom is 70. For all of these reasons, I stayed inside.  You kind of have to tell yourself in your head, yo, it’s okay — you know what I mean? Because if you don’t face the anxiety, that’s going to restrict your breathing even more. It’s all been crazy. I’ve gotten used to the mask, which is annoying because you get less oxygen [ed. note: there is no scientific evidence to suggest masks restrict oxygen] and feel out of breath all the time. But I’m familiar with that feeling and have been for a long time since I suffer from mild asthma. 

Did remaining indoors for almost half a year negatively impact your state of mind?
I told myself that people are in worse positions than me. There are people in prison that can’t even go out into the yard. And I have a nice yard. I can go outside and feel good. I spent many days and nights outside. I took walks around my yard and tried to stay fit by doing aerobics or whatever; because as someone with asthma, you need to continue physical activity to an extent. It’s a good thing for asthmatics to be involved in some sort of sport that incorporates cardio activity. Doing push-ups and sit-ups in the middle of the night and talking to friends on WhatsApp who couldn’t sleep during the lockdown helped me out mentally.

But then eventually I realized, “I have to get out and do something.” My family and I went to the beach. I was all masked up, and everybody on the beach was like what’s wrong with this guy — the sun, the scorching heat, his mask. There were a few, gradual months before feeling more comfortable. And every now and then I catch myself like, “Yo, you’re being too comfortable, let’s get this back in focus.” The reason being, covid ain’t no joke. Whatever it is out there, it is something scary and with asthma, there’s a double threat for me. I need to be vigilant. I walk everywhere with my [sanitizing] spray, and spray my hands after I touch anything while always wearing a mask. We got to survive so I just put my mind towards doing so.

Did you create your two new albums (2021’s Live N Livin, and forthcoming Scorcha) during isolation?
I did some work before, but most of it was done during those five months at home. When I was secluded, I was building riddims at home, and, honestly, I didn’t feel like writing anything or recording anything, but I did feel like creating music so I built rhythms. It was a thing for me, in terms of not feeling like recording but wanting to make music.

Were you able to find anything else positive about being housebound for so long?
Just refocusing was something that happened. Every day I told myself, “You’re going to be alright. And the people you know tell you that you’re going to be okay, so just stay focused.” 

Then I was like, what am I focusing on? Health and levity, yeah, but also music. That’s why more conscious, potent lyrics came out. “Guns of Navarone'' is one of the songs on the album that dropped in March 2021 [Live N Livin] and also the track “Danger Zone.” In the second song I mentioned, I wanted to be saying things about that topic forever. But usually when I’m on tour — when I’m on a plane or stage — I don’t have the time to always be like, “Hold up, let me dig deeper into my thoughts on what I want to say.” I’ll hear the riddim on the track, know what’s hot to say and I’ll do that. Those five months gave me the time to say, “No, I got time now. I want to write lyrics with more depth and meaning. I want to focus in that direction more.”

So to answer your question: Music gave me positivity during uncertain and scary times.

What advice would you share with fellow asthma sufferers?
Remember that with asthma, or so I was taught, there’s a part of it that’s in your mind. When you feel your chest getting tighter, try to relax your mind. When you start feeling the chest tightening up and anxiety makes you feel worse, your breathing worsens. You got to get used to that feeling, which is awful to tell people, but you get used to that a little bit. And you should feel relief from your inhaler, too. But the main thing for me is sports. It is important: Physical activity helps develop the muscles which helps the lungs open and close with fresh air more and more. That’s the best thing for your lungs, to tell you the honest truth: Clean oxygen.

*The views in this article are Sean Paul’s personal experience. Please consult with a physician with any specific questions about inhalers, marijuana, or exercise.

Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.