For the roots reggae superband Steel Pulse, it’s all about putting the politics of the Black experience to music.
David Hinds, the group’s guitarist, and lead vocalist remembers seeing the lifeless body of Malcolm X on the floor of Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom on a television screen nearly 60 years ago.
Late last month, Hinds appeared on a social media website, Night Nurse Reggae Redemption Radio, which is cosponsoring UNC-Wilmington’s Lumina Festival for the Arts. Steel Pulse is headlining Lumina and will perform Saturday night at Kenan Auditorium on the UNC-Wilmington campus.
Hinds, during an hour-long appearance on the social media site, acknowledged that the legendary band’s music is part of a continuum of the Black experience that pays tribute to the Pan-Africanist philosophies of freedom fighters like Alexander Crummell, Marcus Garvey, Paul Bogle, Malcolm X, George Jackson, and Martin Luther King. Steel Pulse’s music, with its unrelenting global view, made plain to Black people struggling all over the world that our struggle is one and the same.
“Malcolm X’s assassination date passed just a few days ago and I remember it,” Hinds said. “I was nine years old when I saw him lying there in a pool of blood on a black-and-white TV in England. I can just remember my father saying to me, ‘I knew they would kill him! I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!’ And that stayed in my mind.”
“So with those kinds of sound bites, those kinds of images, and I fast-forward to George Jackson, watching him walk in chains,” he added. “And all those things that were happening in my teens, with George Jackson’s experience and Martin Luther King’s assassination. So, the story, the landscape of what Steel Pulse is about [happened] before the music came into play. I would say politics came first.”
The Lumina Festival, first mounted in 2017, is returning after a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic shutdown. The festival organizers last month told the Port City Call newspaper that the time off gave them an opportunity to rethink the event in order to attract more students and make it more inclusive. In years past, the Lumina Festival largely featured operatic performances during the summer months while most of the students were on break.
The first order of business was scheduling the event four months earlier to attract students already on campus.
And in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests, Lumina organizers wanted to create an event that emphasized inclusiveness, community, and awareness. The result is a 13-day music, theater, and arts festival that begins today and ends March 29. The festival will spotlight 10 reggae bands and also include bluegrass, jazz, salsa, and classical music performances.
Still, reggae roots music is the festival’s crown jewel. And bringing Steel Pulse is the event’s pièce de résistance. Even with gas prices higher than a weather balloon and Wilmington more than two hours and some change away, the chance for the Triangle’s roots reggae music lovers to luxuriate in Steel Pulse’s songs of resistance might be worth the price of the ticket.
The group is one of the few remaining bands still around from the 1970s and early 1980s, unquestionably the Golden Age of Reggae. It was the music’s most creative period with the emergence of reggae icons Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru, Third World, and Dennis Brown from Jamaica; Aswad, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Steel Pulse from the UK; and Alpha Blondy from South Africa (with a tip of consciousness to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s “Afrobeat” in Nigeria, and Thomas Mafumo’s Chimurenga music in Zimbabwe).
The music and culture landed in fertile ground and minds in Durham’s West End during the late 1970s and early 1980s. I was part of a vibrant, multinational Rastafarian community whose activism included demanding justice for Mumia Abu Jamal, protesting after the Philadelphia police bombing of MOVE, visiting the Know Bookstore on Fayetteville Street to hear Pan-Africanist lectures, raising fists while listening to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and exploring music from all over Africa and the diaspora.
And yes, we raised hell while participating in anti-apartheid rallies and demanding the release of Nelson Mandela from prison.
Reggae music—not ganja—was the connective substance whose righteous indignation transmitted messages from Jamaica, England, Africa, and even America throughout the diaspora and the Motherland. The British poet Linton Kwesi Johnson (and not the UK press) chronicled the discontent of Black urban youth and predicted the 1981 Brixton riots with his 1978 album Dread Beat an’ Blood.
Everything changed when crack cocaine arrived, followed by music that denigrated life and celebrated violence. “Revolutionary words have become entertainment!” the great Jamaican poet Mutabaruka spat out in disgust.
Steel Pulse came from Handsworth, a multicultural area of Birmingham, England. They were the first non-Jamaican reggae band to win a Grammy for Best Reggae Album for their 1985 album Babylon the Bandit.
Hinds, last month, says the band got its start in 1975 when they were inspired by Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Catch a Fire album, noting that he loved poetry while a student and that “Bob stimulated me to put words to music.”
“We said, ‘You know what? I think we can utilize the whole experience to become a force and an entity to be reckoned with.’ So that’s how Steel Pulse came to me.”
And, oh, what a force the group has been. The band’s first five albums—Handsworth Revolution in 1978, Tribute to the Martyrs in 1979, and Reggae Fever in 1980, followed by True Democracy in 1982 and Earth Crisis in 1984—are all masterpieces.
By the time members of the Recording Academy finally got around to selecting Babylon the Bandit in 1986 as the reggae album of the year, the only question for discerning listeners was “What took you so damn long?”
Reggae Redemption’s host Kimberly Smith-McLaughlin, in addition to working at UNC-Wilmington and producing and promoting reggae concerts, has hosted weekly radio shows for 30 years, including Coastal Carolinas Modern Rock 98.7 FM. She asked Hinds what it is about reggae music that enables it to transcend ethnic, race, and class barriers all over the world.
“Ninety-nine percent of the [people of the] world are sufferers,” the easygoing and unfailingly pleasant music legend replied. “It’s an organic and natural gravitation to the music that stimulates them. We are sufferers. Another thing is the frequency of the music. The bass. The sound of the foot drum, the kick drum. The frequency of those instruments are a lot lower, that has more to do with the sound of the heart.”
For more information about the Lumina Festival visit uncarts.universitytickets.com
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