Nkulee Dube: ‘Lioness On The Rise’

It was the winter of 1990 – probably November or December – when I first saw him perform.  I had obtained a bootleg VHS copy of the 1990 Reggae Sunsplash, which was held in Montego Bay.

The first thing I notice are the green army fatigues, camouflaged, and tucked into his heavy work boots.  I then noticed the horn section.  Burning Spear was the only reggae musician who used horns anymore, right?  The three ladies dressed in the finest obeah dresses, singing and swaying in unison – a heartfelt tribute to the I-Three.  Then bass, then drum, then voice:

“I’m going baaaaaaaccck to my roots yeah yeah,
Reggae music is all that I need”

I sat there stunned.  I had not seen anything on stage this electric, this inspiring, since Bob Marley, who sadly passed away 9 years earlier.  But this – THIS – was all that mattered to me now.  I could not make out the name of this man to save my life.  This bootleg tape was awful.  There was only one man who would know who I was watching – Ras Idren.  In the tourist-trap beach town I lived in, reggae was hard to come by.  There was one urban record shop in the shadiest area of the neighboring city called D.J.’s Records and Tapes.  Ras Idren worked there and he was a walking reggae library, and I knew him well.  The next morning I found myself at the store singing:

“I’m going baaaaaaaccck to my roots yeah yeah,
Reggae music is all that I need”

“Lucky Dube,” was all he said.

I left that day with a copy of “Slave” in one hand and “Prisoner” in the other.  I would be a Lucky Dube fan for the rest of my life.

What was impossible to know then, was that 22 years later I would be sitting in my living room speaking over Skype with his beautiful and multi-talented daughter, reggae/ethno-soul/afro-ragga musician and singer, Nkulee Dube.  It was just 5 short years ago, on October 18, 2007, that Nkulee witnessed the brutal killing of her father at the hands of murderous thugs who were attempting to steal his car.  I chose not to bring this up during the interview because it must be extremely difficult, even to this day, to process something like this.  No.  Today’s interview is all about Nkulee, an artist who has done it all on her own.  The hard work.  The touring.  The performing (sometimes more than once per day).

Today, Nkulee is in Würzberg, Germany to perform at the Reggae Jam Festival.

“So, this is your second European summer festival tour, is that right?” I ask Nkulee.

“Yeah, we did a tour last year during this time, yeah.  It’s more calm, I guess.  Because as an artist as well I’ve grown vocally.  Performance wise, I’m not freaking out as much.  Last year was cool because that was my first experience looking at the world from a different angle so that was pretty cool.”

“How scary was that?”

“That was SCARY!  That was the scariest thing I’ve ever done like I just wanted to get off-stage as fast as possible.  I was like ‘just give me thirteen minutes.’  But now I can do 2 hours on stage because I’m more confident and more comfortable with myself, so yeah, it’s been a great journey.”

It wasn’t always preordained that Nkulee would follow in her father’s footsteps and become a reggae recording artist.  Her passion was dance and her life as a youth was filled with dance lessons, dance practice, and dance recitals.  This talent, that was refined over many years, is still very apparent during her performances.

“Growing up I was more of a dancer, I was more obsessed with dancing.  Singing was just something I can do, but I wasn’t necessarily obsessed with it – like going to classes, no it was just there.  But I was more obsessed with dancing until I was, like, 16 years old.  That’s when I met Lebo Mathosa who actually helped me get into singing.  I’ve actually always wanted to be a great dancer, like, I’m going to be the greatest dancer in the world.  That’s how I looked at life, and then, life looked at me differently and told me this is where I’m supposed to be.”

For several years following the death of her father, she performed tribute tours all over the world with her father’s backing band ‘One People,‘ the same accomplished band that she tours and records with now.  The same band who entered Native Rhythm Studios with Nkulee last year to record her debut album “My Way,” which has been described as ‘ethno-ragga’ fused with ‘ethno-soul’ and hints of jazz.  Nkulee Dube penned post of the album’s tracks herself.

Nkulee has been blessed with a strong, soulful voice with incredible range, which she dearly needs when covering her father’s songs.

“I do about three songs from my Dad, I do “Feel Irie,” “Prisoner,” and “Ding Ding (Licky Licky Licky  Bong)” because those are my favorite songs.  It also depends on the show.  Because on different shows I might sing different songs we’ll just choose randomly, and rehearse with the band.  It’s to keep him alive.  It makes me feel calmer on stage and makes me relax knowing he is there when I sing his songs.  So then I don’t get too intimidated.”

Every bit the natural performer, her shows have been described as “electric,” “upbeat,” and some have made comparisons to the boundless energy and confidence exhibited by her father while performing.  She’s backed by the ever solid ‘One People’ band, and her album tracks translate all too well in a live atmosphere.  She even brings fans on-stage to dance with her during her performance of “Who Dem,” a funky, danceable, reggae track from “My Way.”

“My favorite song to perform right now is “Who Dem.”  Yeah, because I get to involve the crowd in it.  They get to sing it.  It’s just a nice interactive song.”

Nkulee Dube is very conscious of her place in reggae and the importance of living up to her famous name.  The daughter of the most heralded reggae performer to ever emerge from the African continent also has some very insightful thoughts on the present state of reggae – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

“I’m an obsessed fan of Tanya Stephens.  That’s a crazy woman!  I’m so obsessed with Tanya.  She is one of the women that – lyrically, her delivery – she delivers, like, crazy!  And her lyrics are on point.  If I could even write , like, a fraction of how she writes I think I’ll be a very happy woman.” 

“I think reggae should give more opportunity for the female performers.  There is a shortage of us and those that are here are not being used or put out there like the male artists are.  This is a male dominated industry, which we know, but just open doors for us as well because we have to represent for girls.  Also, just don’t have us there to be pretty but have us as equals to these guys.  Send us to work.  Book us.  I would love to see an all-female reggae festival.  Just female artists.  I think that would be an awesome, awesome festival.”

With her stunning good looks, vibrant personality, and positive energy, it’s all too easy to write Nkulee Dube off as just another prop thrown on stage between the male acts to keep the crowd engaged.  This could not be farther from the truth.  What we as fans have in this young woman is the next ‘princess of reggae.’  An artist who comes along once in a decade.  A fiery performer with the talent, charisma, drive  – and name – to be the biggest export from South Africa since her father.  She’s exactly what reggae needs right now.

I’m rooting for Nkulee Dube, the lioness is on the rise.

For more on Nkulee Dube click HERE.

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