It’s been a minute since I’ve caught a live reggae band performance.
Man, I had forgotten how distinctively attired some of reggae’s devotees dress to show their cultural pride and their passion for the music and its attendant philosophies of equality and spirituality.
While attending a 90-minute set by the legendary reggae band Steel Pulse on March 18 at UNC-Wilmington’s Kenan Auditorium, I was happily reminded of my own undying passion for the music, as I observed people sporting oversize knitted hats that covered their flowing spray of dreadlocks and wearing the ubiquitous Pan African red black and green colors. One bespectacled brother walked by with a sturdy, gleaming wooden staff that looked like it came from a chapter of the Bible’s Old Testament.
The rootical gathering at the 51-year-old Kenan Auditorium also prompted memories of Ntozake Shange’s description of Black people attending a performance by the Fania All-Stars at Madison Square Garden from her 1984 album, I Live In Music.
“How the gold in their braids is new in this world of hard hats and men with the grace of wounded buffalo, how these folks in silk and satin—these pretty motherfuckers—turn this insult to good taste into a foray into paradise….with our Latino chic, our Rastafarian outer space jumpsuits,” Shange wrote.
About Steel Pulse: One knows they’re in the presence of a superband when members of a near-capacity audience at the 1,000-seat Kenan Auditorium sang along word-for-word with David Hinds and Selwyn Brown, who offered up a heaping slice of the band’s impressive legacy of songs.
A tip of the chalice also to opening band Mystic Vibrations, particularly their covers of Bob Marley’s stirring “Roots,” along with Earth Wind and Fire’s near-immortal tune, “Keep Your Head To The Sky.” Mystical Vibrations, with lead vocalist Ric Williams, more than held their own with music that foreshadowed Steel Pulse’s uplifting songs of affirmation and liberation.
From the onset, Steel Pulse evoked the old reggae music axioms, “word, sound have power,” and “who feels it knows it,” with their song “Rally Round The Flag,” which pays homage to early Pan Africanist colors of red, black, and green championed by Rastafarian patron saint Marcus Garvey. (“Rally Round also pays tribute to the gold-yellow color included in the Ethiopian flag.)
Hundreds of people at Kenan Auditorium sang along with Hinds:
“Marcus say sir Marcus say / Red for the blood / That flowed like the river / Marcus say sir Marcus say / Green for the land Africa / Marcus say / Yellow for the gold / That they stole / Marcus say / Black for the people / It was looted from.”
The place was jumping to a conscious party. A sharp, tight five-member band featuring Brown, one of the group’s founding musicians on keyboards, Wayne C# Clarke on drums, Amlak Tafari on bass, and David Ellecirri Jr., on lead guitar. They superbly augmented Hinds, the band’s legendary lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist. From the band’s first note, I didn’t write another sentence. I was too busy groovin’ in the aisles.
Some of the band’s songs that night, like “Soldiers,” from their 1978 Handsworth Revolution album, may even be more relevant today with the growing threat of global autocracies, than when it was first released.
We all sang together in righteous defiance:
“Give I back I witch doctor / Give I back I black ruler / Me no want no dictator / Me no want no tyrant on yah.”
Steel Pulse’s appearance at UNC-Wilmington was in part of the university’s annual Lumina Festival of the Arts. The event was started in 2017 with a focus on opera.
As previously reported by the INDY, the event took a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic. Lumina Festival organizers said the time off gave them an opportunity to rethink the event in order to attract more students and make it more inclusive, particularly after the police killing of George Floyd.
Steel Pulse was the festival’s marquee act during a 13-day event that spotlighted 10 reggae bands and also included bluegrass, jazz, salsa, and classical music performances. The festival drew to a close on March 29.
Hinds, during an interview last month on social media, spoke about how the politics of his formative years informed Steel Pulse’s music. Now in his 60s, he was nine in 1965 when Malcolm X was assassinated. The politics of the day still informs the band’s music, with the goal of using positive messages to draw order out of disorder.
“Committed to bettering mankind through music, Steel Pulse continues to be revolutionary in engaging controversial topics of injustice and human rights on a global scale,” the program ushers handed out to concert-goer’s reads.
There were so many songs the band could have shared during their riveting performance in Wilmington this month. The band did not perform two of my favorites: “Biko’s Kindred Lament,” about the South African anti-apartheid martyr Steve Biko, or “Uncle George,” which details the life, court trial, and prison murder of the revolutionary George Jackson on August 21,1971, one month short of his 30th birthday.
“Hands up! Don’t shoot. I can’t breathe,” Hinds sang on the Kenan Auditorium stage about Michael Brown and Eric Garner dying at the hands of the police during the Obama presidency.
But no matter the playlist at work, Steel Pulse’s songs hit hard and resonate. Theirs continues to be a music of redemption and resistance that offers a helluva contrast to their well-celebrated contemporaries who are well-paid for creating music that glorifies the murder of Black people at the hands of other Black people. Consider Snoop Dogg: In February, during a time of near-unprecedented Black youth gang violence, the rap megastar decided to Crip walk during the Super Bowl LVI halftime show.
In a just world Steel Pulse would be multi-millionaires.
“I and I know the truth of it all,” Selwyn Brown sang. “Cause we’ve smashed our heads ‘gainst that wall / And now I say we must create a scene / We must recapture our culture / By any means…”
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