Jamaican roots reggae artist Ras Midas has always walked his own path. And this uniqueness of vision has as much to do with where he came from as where he was going.
Unlike many Jamaican roots reggae singers, who had to leave the Christian tradition for the Rastafari life, Ras Midas was raised in a Pan-African musical and cultural environment. Ras Midas then completed his childhood in England, away from the main Jamaican outpost of London, near Birmingham, and in Manchester. These experiences informed his very international outlook in his music and writing.
Ras Midas would record songs in Swahili and French, sing about global finance, experiment with reggae disco fusions, and update classic American soul hits with Rasta lyrics. Yet his music was always grounded in the deepest roots vibrations. It would be hard to name a more definitive cultural reggae statement than the 1980’s Let The People Go.
Also, in contrast with many of his contemporaries, the young Ras Midas showed a timely interest and aptitude for the legal side of the music business. Having been discovered in his teens by visionary Jamaican producer Harry Johnson, he fought to control the rights to his initial and subsequent recorded output.
After recording a series of highly prized LPs in the 70s and 80s (distributed by Trojan, Island, and French labels Disc’ AZ International and Celluloid) Ras Midas relocated to the United States. There, he started his own JML label and re-recorded much of his Harry J material for a new audience. In 2021, Ras Midas released the single World Block Party and reissued Let The People Go on 12-inch vinyl. A fresh album, his 11th, is in the works…
Angus Taylor spoke with Ras Midas via video call between London and the singer’s home in Florida. This three-part interview spans a career driven by a unique perspective and conducted without compromise. Due to his legal emancipatory struggle, his early Harry J albums, distributed by Trojan, are extremely scarce finds. For reasons he explains, the conversation goes less into detail about the individual songs he sang back then.
Wherever he lived in the world, Midas retained a bond with the Jamaican creative geniuses who helped him rise to international success. Despite his disagreements with Harry J, he praises him as a pioneer who gave a talented youth the chance to work with the era’s finest and most progressive musicians. He is particularly fond of Harry J engineer Sylvan Morris, who he says effectively co-produced and arranged his albums. He also shares memories of his cousin, Wire Lindo of the Wailers, and of his good friend Bunny Wailer, to whom his voice has been compared.
Part one of the discussion traces Ras Midas’ early life – and ends with him first entering Harry J studio, as a 16-year-old, to record…
This Ras Midas interview was made possible by Nan Lewis / Entertainment Works™
Let me go back to the beginning. Where were you born?
I was born in Clarendon, Jamaica. My grandmother is a midwife so she took care of that.
In which part of Clarendon did you grow up? What kind of things did people do for a living round there?
Kellits. I would say it was a farming community. And they have people that do mechanical work. People driving trucks getting out the farm supplies to Kingston or Spanish Town or May Pen. But it was generally a farming community.
And what did your parents do for a living?
Well, my grandmother took care of the farm. And my grandfather worked in Kingston because he had a small motor vehicle garage there. He had a body shop. So he generally worked in Kingston during the week. And came home on the weekends.
So your grandparents were the people that raised you? What about your birth parents, what were they doing?
Yes, yes, yes. Very much so. My birth parents were living in England. My mother left and went to nursing school and she met my father in the UK. And then she got pregnant… because I am a twin. So when she got pregnant she decided to come and have us in Jamaica and then grandparents take care of us from that time.
And are you an identical twin? So you have a twin brother?
Yes. My twin brother died in England in an accident. When we were quite young. When he was 11.
Was your birth father from Jamaica?
No. My birth father is from Ethiopia. Gondar.
Your birth name is Neville Nembhard. Is that your father’s surname?
My father adopted that name. Because his right name is Yusuf Ibrahim. And his parents and family are Falashas. So he adopted my grandparents’ family name.
Where does your family surname Nembhard name come from?
Nembhard? I don’t really know. I never really did any research on it. People told me that it derived from Germany. What I heard is that the name Nembhard derived from the word Nandhart. Which is German. But I don’t know I never really got into it. (laughs)
Was there music on either your mother’s or your father’s side of the family?
Music was on my mother’s side of the family. Because my grandmother was not an established musician but she loved to sing and she loved to play the repeater drum and the congos drum. Because she is a descendant of the Maroons and she did a traditional Kumina and pocomania thing. So in those traditions, they sing and play drums and percussion a lot. Most of what I learned is from her.
It sounds like you had quite a lot of culture coming in very strong? Did you sing at any gatherings that she took part in?
Yeah, there were gatherings that we took part in. Because she used to have her general cultural meetings. And you have people playing drums and people singing and so forth. So when we have the time we would participate in that.
So what was your first experience of music as a child?
Well, my first experience was with my grandmother. But when I was a child I and my brother were very interested in music because we used to entertain our friends! (laughs) And then in the night when grandparents had gone to sleep, we would sneak and steal the radio. They had RJR radio there in Jamaica. And then after that my parents brought a radio from England as a gift to the family so we used to sneak late in the night and listen to songs coming from Miami and New Orleans. (laughs)
Looking at your career you’ve covered some great soul tunes. So I guessed from a young age as well as local music you were definitely listening to American music.
True, yes. Really, really. Because I used to get excited to listen to the music coming from Miami and New Orleans. We used to listen to a lot of Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions and all those people. It was great.
Some artists I’ve interviewed before have said that they had to keep their interest in secular American music on the radio secret because they were coming from a church background. But with this drumming tradition in your family, was it different?
No, no because I didn’t grow up in the traditional church. Because my grandparents are not Christian. My grandmother was more African tradition coming from Ghana and my grandfather is not into religion. So I never grew up with that burden on me that I have to go to church and participate and then hide and do things. The only time we would hide and do things is in the night when we don’t want to disturb them. But other than that we had free will to listen to the radio.
Would you say that the way that you grew up perhaps informed the very international outlook you have in your music?
Yes, because my grandparents told me that Jamaica is only a little dot in the world. Is only a part of the world. And I must learn to respect different cultures around the world because everyone has something to offer. So that this world can progress and evolve. And you mustn’t look down on people and judge people by their complexion or their outside appearance but try to know people from the inside to know where they are coming from. So that we could understand people more. So I never had a problem with people.
Where did you go to school in Jamaica?
We went to a private school.
Well, we used to go to a little private school called Edward’s Private School Primary. And then after we reach the age of 9 then we went to Kingston to a private school called Bognor.
Which subjects did you enjoy at school?
I really enjoyed history and poetry and writing. But my favourite subject was history.
And again you can hear that in a lot of your lyrics.
Yes, I’m a historical person. I’m still a student of history because I like to study things for myself more than hearing what people say. Even if I see something that the person said, I like to go and make research on it because most time, people talk things that they heard and you’ll never hear the natural fact, the reality of things there.
You are a critical thinker. That informs your perspective.
Yes, and up to this day I’m like that because I live the culture of Rastafari but I am not a follower of the organised Rastafarian thing that goes on. I am my own Rastafari. I’m an independent person. So I live my life with what my grandparents brought me up with. And then I evolve by studying other cultures and things like that. To make me the person I am today.
Going back to you growing up in Clarendon, it is a very musical parish in terms of producing a lot of artists through the years. Derrick Morgan, Freddie McGregor, Barrington Levy, you could go on and on. So were there any known artists around you that influenced you when you were young and growing up?
Yes on and on and on! (laughs) Well, living in the country there weren’t lots of artists around where I was. So as I said, my music experience growing up at a tender age was just what I experienced from my grandparents. Or when I went to Kingston I would hear the music over the jukebox or they would have dancers and we would sit up late in the night and listen to the sound system coming over the mountains. We would do a little dance and nod our little head and deep inside of us we would know that music was inside of us already.
Because when I was 9 years old my grandmother discovered that I was very musical. And she said “If you learn to sing from the drums you will be a good singer and you don’t have to strain yourself”. So at the age of 9, she recognised that I was going to be in someplace in the entertainment world whether singing or playing an instrument. And she said to me “You were born with your musical talent and you must remember that first. Anything else, whether you are going to get your education or whatever it is going to be, remember that you have the talent inside which is your music”.
So from that time I took that seriously. I listened to songs and I wrote poetry and I did a lot of composition in school. I understood from an early age how to craft a song. Because a song is like a composition. It’s telling a story. Because when I was young, going into school I was a good composition writer. And so I took that skill and put it right into my music.
You said you didn’t struggle with your family to make music and you had this culture and knowledge of your roots in Africa. So your experience was different from most Jamaican artists who I have interviewed, where many were almost having to fight their way back to their cultural roots as they got older.
Yes, because I grew up culturally. The first thing was I was never brought up to think that I am a victim of colonialism. Because my grandmother said that her people and her family fought and struggled for their freedom already.
Hundreds of years ago.
Yes, and they were free in their own way, doing their own thing. And my grandfather is the same type of person also. So we were educated at a young age on how important we are culturally and historically. So I didn’t have to struggle with religion or anything. Because what I remember when we were growing up, people used to talk to our grandparents and say “Why aren’t you letting the boys them go to church?” And she used to say “The church is right here in the home. I don’t have to send them to a building or anything. Let them grow free. And when they become an adult they can make decisions for their own self but for the time being I want them to grow up free”.
You said you started spending time in Kingston for school. Where did you stay in Kingston before you left for the UK?
We used to stay up in Liguanea. We would go home at weekends because my grandfather would go home on the weekends. Even if he didn’t come, if he had work to do, he would send us home because he didn’t want us to get mixed up in Kingston life. And when we’d go there we had to help him in the garage and things like that! (laughs)
In those years before you went to the UK, did you have any music experiences? Did you follow the noise of the sound system or did you sneak under the fence to look at anybody rehearsing?
Well, we used to sneak and go and watch the Skatalites practise. Because they used to practise in a place down Bournemouth Beach. And my grandfather’s little garage was like three-quarters of a mile from where the Skatalites used to practise there.
That must have been quite something!
Yes! We got an experience of the Skatalites and those kinds of people. It was very nice. We used to watch Don Drummond and Lloyd Knibbs the drummer.
If I was there I would probably be watching those two the most!
Yes, that has a good impact because I saw the scale in which the drummer was playing and in different patterns, you know? And even when I came up experiencing my own music I said to myself “Most drummers in Jamaica don’t have any pattern. Just play one way. Everything is just one drop and people are comfortable with that” and I was saying to myself “When the Skatalites and those people were playing it was more than one drop”.
I’ve heard Sly Dunbar, who you would later work with, saying that as well!
So how is it that you moved to the UK?
Alright, first my parents died. And then after that my grandmother and my grandfather couldn’t take the loss because my mother was their only child. And so I had to move to the UK to live with my aunt and uncle.
And you and your brother both went over at the same time?
No, my brother died when he was 11.
Wow. Before you went. So a really tough few years of change. In that time.
Yes, yes. It was really tough but through the strength that I got from my grandparents I had an understanding that “OK they are gone, my brother is gone, they’re not coming back so I have to learn to apply myself to my situation that I’m going to face”.
Did you fly on your own to the UK?
No, I didn’t fly on my own. My auntie came out and I went over with them.
And where was the first place you settled?
We settled in Birmingham. Walsall.
And what was your first experience like? It must have been very different I guess?
It was different! It was cold. I went over there during the winter time and it was really cold and it took me a good while to get into the environment and to understand the cultural livity of England and so forth.
Walsall was quite a rough place.
Yes, yes it was a rough place. (laughs)
When you were going to school did you have to be careful which way you walked? Did you experience racism?
You know at that time I don’t think about racism. You know when you are at that age you don’t even know what racism is. But after I reached into 15 and 16 I got an understanding of what it is. But at the same time I was saying to myself “But racism seems like it’s all over the world, man” you know? It is one thing my auntie and my uncle were telling me that “Racism is fear. It’s something that teaches you to fear other people. So if you can overcome that fear and realise that everyone is not the same person, you must always find companions, even if they don’t really 100-percent think like you, they have something similar to you that you can communicate with them with”. So that’s how I really deal with it.
What outlets did you find for music as a young teenager in England?
It was more music. There was a lot of Caribbean music and African music down in Birmingham. You have reggae, you have ska, you have rocksteady, you have African highlife music, you have calypso and at the same time you have the English musicians that are playing rock music and punk music.
The West Midlands is very big for rock music, it’s where heavy metal came from. Tell me a bit about the reggae scene in Birmingham. Did you go to sound system parties?
Yeah! Well, I’d sneak and go to those things. Because hear the difference now: I came out of a tradition where religion wasn’t a serious part of my life but my auntie and my uncle, they were deep in religion. They were Jehovah Witness people. They were always teaching you how the world is this and the world is that and I am saying to myself “But that is not what my grandmother brought me up with. She taught me that good people are everywhere and I must find good people to be my companions. So at one aspect, you are telling I that racism is fear and things like this? And then in a next aspect, you were telling me “God don’t like certain kind of people who do certain things?”” And I said, “I didn’t grow up with that God business “God no like this” because I never get into those things”.
So there was a conflict of interest between my auntie and my uncle. And that caused me to get a little rebellious against them because they want me to go out and knock at people’s doors and do the Jehovah thing and I said “No, no, I am not really doing that” you know? And then they used to say “Oh, your grandparents spoiled you!” And I am saying to myself “I am coming from where I was just free to do things as long as I am not doing the wrong thing or disrespecting people. Not being disrespectful to the elders or anything like that. But now you are putting the burden of religion on me and I am not going to deal with it.”
At what point did Rasta come into your life?
I came up in Rasta from my grandparents. Because what my grandmother would also deal with, she was a Garveyite. And she dealt with Leonard Howell too. She knew things like that. But the way she brought me up about Rasta was she never brought me up and told me that Selassie is God and is somebody to worship. She never brought me up that way. She just brought me up and let me know that he was a King from Ethiopia and really inspiring African people and Africans around the world to look into themselves and to see which way to evolve themselves out of colonialism. And she told me that Marcus Garvey was struggling for those things, Haile Selassie was struggling for those things.
But she never brought me up into a situation that Rasta is a religion and that I must get down in. She never brought me up that way. She just told me the importance. What she told me is that the word Rastafari is more important than worshipping the flesh of a human being or the structure of the next human being. She said the word is the most important thing. But people are not dealing with the word. They are dealing with the image. She said the word Rastafari means “head creator”. So [it is] anyone who wants to be part of the head creator. She said that was what Marcus Garvey was teaching and that was what Leonard Howell was teaching also. Be independent, be progressive, be cultivating your industry within yourself. Because if you don’t cultivate your own industry and cultivate your own knowledge in education and economics you cannot be free. So I was brought up with that concept.
So I never had to really go follow anyone. I mean I went around with Rastas and heard them talking and I only listened and observed. Sometimes they would ask “Why?” and I would say “I am here to listen, you know?” Because I realised that people have different ways of dealing with things. And I have my own way and my way is a progressive way. I look at it that my Rasta way, my Rastafari way is progressive, because of being independent and being creative. Let your words manifest into works. But if you don’t let your words manifest into works it means nothing. Because words without works are vain imagination. And so I built myself to be an independent Rastafari and I am not against what other Rastas want to do or anything. I will just let them know say I am myself and I’m happy with myself and I’m free with myself. I don’t have to follow an organisation or anything to be who I am. I am what I am and I will always be free. To be what I am.
Later you moved from Midlands to Manchester. How did that happen?
Well, they had a race riot down there at the time. Before I came over my auntie, my uncle, they used to have a little grocery store. And it got burnt down. That’s why they decided, not I because I was a child in my early teens, to move to Manchester City.
And what was the change like moving there? In terms of what was happening musically? Was there more? Or less?
There was less music but at the same time, I felt more comfortable. People were different. There wasn’t much hanging around. There wasn’t much Caribbean or African hanging around. So I just tried to blend in myself with the situation.
What were you doing musically at the time? Did you do any recordings when you were a teenager? Did you perform at any concerts? Did you get together with people and jam? Were you learning any instruments?
What I discovered with myself is that I had a natural sound. Even writing lyrics I never get up one morning and say “Oh I’m going to write a song”. The melody and the lyrics and the ideas come to me naturally and then I work on it until I get it right. But when I was 14 I met Harry J. A family friend of mine, he’s still living today, introduced me to him and he said that I must sing him a few songs. So I sang a few songs and he said “Ok I don’t think you are ready yet. In two years I think you will be ready. So I’m going to give you some things that you must work on for the next two years. And then you can check me again and I’ll give you an audition and see if you worked on what I told you”. And so that’s what I did.
And this is because you were going to Jamaica on vacation?
Yes. But I met him in England first. I went to London and he was in London to deal with Trojan. And so my friend was living there too. He was in music too, he plays keyboards. So he said, “I’m going to introduce you to one of the best producers in Jamaica”. He said to me “He’s different from Downbeat and Treasure Isle man. He’s more making music that the world can deal with”.
And what kind of time was this – early 70s?
So we’re talking Bob and Marcia kind of time. That’s the kind of stuff he was coming over to deal with in England.
What did he give you to work on?
He said I must work on timing. And more expression. “Express yourself more when you’re singing and work on some timing”. And he said to me “I love your lyrics that you are writing and they relate to human beings, relate to people around the world, everyday people”. And he said “You must always express yourself in that way”. And he said “I don’t want you to be a pop artist, I don’t want you to be a roots artist, I just want you to be yourself. And what comes naturally, just do it and work on it”.
And then two years after that I went to Jamaica on holiday and my friend Smitty said “hey you remember that Harry said you must come back in two years time? It’s two years time now you know?” And I said “yeah it’s two years?” And he said, “yes man come we go down to the studio man”. And we went down to the studio and he wasn’t there at the time. So we left a message that I’m in Jamaica now and I would like to do an audition for him. So in about two days’ time, I see Smitty and this heavy structured man coming. I was over at a mango tree with some friends talking and then some people called and said “There is a man looking for you” so I said “Tell him to come so” because I didn’t know who it was. So I see Smitty and Harry J turn up.
And he said, “I want to hear what you have. I want to give you an audition right now. But I don’t want your friends there”. So I said, “We can go a little distance up there and do what we are doing”. So we went up there and he let me sing.” I sang 13 songs that day. And he said to me “Which one of these songs do your friends love?” And I started to tell him. He said, “I am not going to record any songs your friends love. Because that is only relating to you and your friends! I’m going to record the songs that your friends do not love”. (laughs) He said “In two weeks time or probably less I’m going to get some of the best musicians in Jamaica to accompany you in the recording studio”. And then it didn’t reach two weeks, in two days time he came back and said “Are you ready?” And I said, “Yes I’m ready, I’m always ready”. So he brought me down to his studio with Sly and Robbie, Ansell Collins, Geoffrey Chung, Winston Wright. Sticky and Scully were there also. Bubbler was there also. A musician by the name of Dirty Harry was there. Horsemouth was there too. So I remember Harry said to Horsemouth “We’re not going to use you today, we’re going to start out with Sly and Robbie first”. Ernest Ranglin was there too. So that is how I got started.
So how many of the 13 songs did you do that day?
I did seven songs. And then he said, “Take a rest until next week”. And then the other week he brought in Horsemouth as the drummer, and he brought in Ranchie McLean as the bass player. And then he brought in the Inner Circle bass player Ian Lewis. And then he brought in… what was his name again? What was the name of the keyboard player for the Inner Circle at that time?
Touter, yes. He brought in Touter and he was there also. And he brought in a next drummer too… I think it was… I can’t remember his name now?
Did he play with Geoffrey Chung?
Mikey Boo Richards.
Mikey Boo! Yes Mikey Boo Richards. (laughs) And we did eight more songs that day.
So these were top musicians, very progressive people who were really pushing the music forward with a very international outlook. And this is quite early on for some of them. They hadn’t fully established themselves either. So did you feel intimidated?
No, I was happy! (laughs) I was saying to myself “This is it!” My friend Smitty was saying “Yes Midey, you remember what I’m telling you, man? They have the full package man! Just do what you’re doing man!” Harry J said “I really love your melody”. Because he said, “For you at 16 years old, every song has a different melody, different lyrics and different meaning. I really like that and you’re expressing yourself real good”. And he said, “I like the way you relate to the musicians because you take instruction”. Sylvan [Morris] was there also and he said “Work carefully with Sylvan and anything he tells you, you just do what he says. Because he understands these musicians and he understands the sound”.
Read part 2 of this Ras Midas interview here, where Ras Midas talks about working with Sylvan Morris on his run of albums for Harry J.