Natty Dread Marches on Washington

David Hinds of Steel Pulse talks Trayvon Martin, Martin Luther King, and a new album and documentary with WORLD-A-REGGAE.

When you consider the great reggae poets of the past forty years, names like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mutabaruka, Benjamin Zephaniah come to mind for most.  However, there is another name that deserves mention among the greats, and that is David Hinds, lead singer of the world’s most popular and successful reggae band,  Steel Pulse.

David’s name doesn’t immediately come to mind because the band is so good at producing the type of danceable, feel good reggae that many fans love to hear.  But if you dig deeper into these danceable reggae hits, you find some of the most eloquent lyrics ever written about the black experience, racism, the horrors of the slave trade, and the diaspora.  Take their first release for the Island label titled “Ku Klux Clan,” a tune about the evils of racism, a song often performed as a visual parody of the sect on stage.  You cannot come with a more danceable reggae rhythm.  However, take a read of the second verse:

“To be taught a lesson not to walk alone
I was waiting for the Good Samaritan
But waiting was hopeless
It was all in vain
The Ku Klux Klan back again
I holla and I bawl (Ku Klux Klan)
Dem naw let me go now
Dem seh one nigger the less
The better the show
Stand strong blackskin and take your blow
The Ku, Ku Klux Klan”

There is no doubt that David Hinds writes some of the hardest lyrics you will ever hear in a reggae tune. Take one of my favorites, “Unseen Guest,” which opens my favorite album, Tribute To The Martyrs:

“Down in the dungeon
I heard them constructing, the scaffold

Where . . . I’ll be lynched aloft high
The thoughts of me to die
Rocking like a pendulum,
Anyway it does’nt matter cause
I’ll be swinging to the rhythms of heh
Jah Jah watch over I”

Formed in 1975 in the working class Handsworth area of Birmingham, England , their debut 7″ single “Kibudu, Mansetta And Abuku” (Dip) linked the plight of urban black youth with the image of a greater African homeland. They followed suit in  1977 with the single “Nyah Luv,” which was released on the Anchor label. They were initially refused live dates in Caribbean venues in Birmingham due to their Rastafarian beliefs. Aligning themselves closely with the Rock Against Racism organization and featuring in its first music festival in early 1978, they chose to tour with sympathetic elements of the punk movement, including the Stranglers and XTC.  Eventually they found a more natural home in support slots for Burning Spear, which brought them to the attention of Island Records.

In 1978 they released their first LP for Island titled Handsworth Revolution.  Executive produced by Pete King and engineered by Karl Pitterson from Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong studio, the album still stands as one of the major landmarks in the evolution of British reggae, and one of the best-produced roots reggae albums of the 1970s.

After their fourth album for Island/Mango Reggae Fever, the band signed with Elektra and released perhaps their three most popular and financially successful albums True Democracy, Earth Crisis, and 1985’s Babylon The  Bandit, which brings the band a Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album in 1986.  The band received Grammy nominations for Victims (1991) and Rastafari Centennial (1992).

1997’s Rage and Fury included a cover version of Van Morrisson’s massive hit “Brown-Eyed Girl.”  In 2004, Steel Pulse released African Holocaust on RAS/Sanctuary.  The album included the track “Door Of No Return” a brutal look at the trans-atlantic slave trade through the eyes of a man leaving the Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves) on Gorée Island to board a slave ship to America.  The album also featured an appearance by Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley on the track “No More Weapons.”

MIDNIGHT RAVER recently caught up with David in Washington, DC where he was participating in the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March On Washington.

Steel Pulse has an interesting history with Washington, DC.  On May 11th, 1981, Bob Marley passed.  On the 21st of May a funeral was held in Kingston, JA for the international hero and reggae king.  That same night the band, with help from Washington, DC radio personality (and future manager of Steel Pulse) Tom Terrell, masterminded a concert which was broadcast live around the world from the legendary punk outpost the 930 Club at 930 F Street, N.W., Washington, D.C..  In 1992, during the first Presidential Inaugural for Bill Clinton, Steel Pulse was the first reggae band ever to be invited to perform at the international event (give thanks Rootsman!).  Again, just last month, David Hinds performed at the Kennedy Center for the Legacy of Bob Marley Tribute Concert sponsored by the Grammy Museum and hosted by Sirius/XM’s Dermot Hussey.

Here is our interview:

So tell me a little bit about today. Heavy day here in the US with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington?

“Well, yes, I came here to the east coast specifically for this. I’ve got some dates lined up in California but I came here just to go to the march. Security was very tough and it really slowed things down, but when we got down on the National Mall we gathered ourselves around the Refelecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial and listened to the speeches.”

It’s a really unique and historic opportunity that I was blessed to speak with you on this very day. In my opinion, you have spoken as eloquently as anyone with regard to the black experience and the horrors of slavery. You should be mentioned among the great Rasta poets really…Mutabaruka, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah. Just look at songs like “Unseen Guest,” “Tribute To The Martyrs,” “Ku Klux Klan,” “George Jackson,” Biko.”

“Really? (Laughs) Thanks man, I appreciate that.”

You were recently given an award from the United Nations for your activism right?

“Yeah, it was an award for [bringing awareness to] slavery. For bringing awareness to the whole trans-atlantic slave trade. It was March 22, 2013 to be exact. “

And a few years ago you did a great documentary on the slave trade called “Door Of No Return” (named after a track from the stellar African Holocaust album).

“Yes, we are actually working on a documentary now which encompasses the Door Of No Return. Its in the works and we hope to have it wrapped by December.”

Why was it important for you to be here today?

“Its a milestone in our history. In the history of the struggle and of the diaspora and for the world recognizing such an incredible feat. I had to be there. I had to experience a part of history that I missed. But we must also remember that there were many others who supported Martin Luther King and helped bring the people together around his message. I’m talking the Bob Dylans, the Joan Baezs, Phil Ochs, and then you had Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X. If you look at the times through America’s eyes it was evident that something had to break. With Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X, and the Black Panther movement it was very difficult so Martin Luther King was the obvious choice to present the message because his thing was about peace, non-violence. I say this with no disrespect to King, but without those others pushing forward I don’t know that he would have been as successful as he was. One man could not do it alone, you know.”

Talk a little bit about your thoughts on the murder of Trayvon Martin. You guys wrote a song speaking to what many still view as a case where a murderer was set free.

“Well, really I am appalled, not as much as I was when I heard the verdict but it is appalling that the jury was selected in such a way that nobody on that jury was representative of that boy’s community. I’m appalled by the way African-Americans [failed] to represent the situation. How did they allow a jury to be selected having nobody who was representative of this boy’s race, financial or economic background, social status. All of the coverage that I saw on the television involved mostly white women commenting about the case and putting the case in a certain light and supporting the assailant as if he had a right to do what he did. The whole case…a message was sent based on how a white female might few a black boy wearing a hood, or kids walking around with their pants hanging down, which is a fashionable thing among alot of the youths out there. Here in America you don’t have a monarchy with a Prince Charles or William to look to, you have celebrities who sort of command the same attention. What I saw was a failure of the celebrities and the musicians to respond and bring the assailant to justice as far as airing their views about the situation. I mean Stevie Wonder boycotted the state after the verdict! If you check my blogs, one of the things I said in the early stages of this whole thing is that America’s justice system will be on the balance during this trial. And I also said that I hope this is not decided based on the slickness of lawyers but based on truth and rights. Think about it. Michael Vick, which is a name I never heard before until I saw that he was on trial for fighting and killing dogs, he got like a 24 month sentence for killing dogs. I think he only served like 16 months. Then there’s a man who killed a 17 year old unarmed youth and he gets off. So the dog received more justice than the 17 year old boy.”

Let me jump over for a minute and talk about what the people want to know about Steel Pulse. Are you working on a new album?

“Yes. We’ve been working on an album for about 3 years now to be honest with you but, like I said, tour commitments and such. We are also working on the documentary that will look at the entire 35 year career of this band. The hardest part is getting hold of people who helped shape the history of the band to tell their story for the film. Stevie Wonder for example used to have us around his studio all the time in the early 1980s but he’s got his people you know and maybe he doesn’t even know that we been trying to get at him. But we have a bunch of people who have been interviewed over the 2.5 years with many more to come. It won’t be like the Marley film which was very Jamaica-focused. This film you will see police and riots and punks, you know, we come from a concrete jungle.”

When can we expect to see the documentary and album, do you have a release date in mind?

“I think we should have it ready by December. Once we get to a certain point we just have to cut it and put it out. Our last album African Holocaust came out ten years ago. So it’s been ten years since we put out a proper studio album.”

Speaking of Marley, Tuff Gong just released the Kaya Deluxe Edition which has on it the Rotterdam 1978 show. You guys opened for Marley on that tour and opened with four incredible songs that night in Rotterdam. What did you learn touring with Marley?

“We learned it all. This man performed every show like it was his last. He treated every show as if he would never perform again. Very disciplined. His energy and drive in doing what he did was relentless. So that is what we tried to do after that. If we had 2 hours of rehearsal time booked in studio, we got the best from that 2 hours. That is what we took home with us. A level of discipline that we never had before. I mean we had some, but learning from the master we stepped it up. It really had a profound effect on us as a band.”

You guys tour incessantly. You are always on the road. What kind of difficulties does this bring about with the family life and your life, being gone all the time?

“With record sales falling off and the fact that we haven’t released an album in ten years, we aren’t in the position we were twenty years ago with Earth Crisis or True Democracy where every day with SoundScan you wake up and hey you sold 1000 copies here and 400 copies there. So we have to stay on the road. The amazing thing is that our audience keeps building regardless of the fact that we haven’t put out an album. We played the Del Mar Fair which we play every year and there were at least 4,000 more followers there this year than last year. I would like to come off the road because it does cause problems with family and girlfriends and spouses you know. Like right now I’m here in Washington, and they’re not here. It’s tough too because they think that as soon as you get on a plane its vacation time and you are having a great time. Like on a Caribbean tour or something. The real reason you are there is to keep a roof over your head. There are nights when you play a late show and you have an early flight and you’re just shattered but you are still high on the fact that you are doing something you love.”

David, I thank you my friend. I know you don’t do a lot of interviews and it was a real pleasure to talk with you, especially on an historic day like today.

“Thank you very much man. I hope I made some sense.”

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