Astonishing, Unforgettable Moments For Retro Reggae Music
(This is Part 1 of the FAUM series - Five Astonishing and Unforgettable Moments - that explores aspects of reggae, dancehall and soca music through the prism of the performers, promoters, producers and other professionals).
By any measure, Roger Steffens is easily one of the most authoritative voices alive today on reggae music. Steffens is a Brooklyn-born California resident who has been passionately committed to the genre for over four decades.
His first trip to Jamaica was in June 1976 to see Big Yute perform, and his most recent trip was a few weeks ago for the opening of the Peter Tosh Museum in Kingston. Steffens was a participant on Bob Marley's Survival Tour in 1979, and over the years, Steffens has become a sort of walking encyclopeadia on reggae music, authoring six books on the genre, with two additional ones, The Family Acid Jamaica (Rock House) and The Oral History of Bob Marley (W.W. Norton) on the way next year.
He has also brought clarity and global exposure to the captivating Jamaican beat by way of several pioneering radio shows as well as through contributions in Time Magazine, The New Yorker, BBC World News, The New York Sunday Times and The Guardian (UK).
I recently caught up with Steffens in Kingston. Not unlike Jamaica's celebrated tour manager Copeland Forbes, Steffens is immediately engaging with a vast body of reggae knowledge at his fingertips. But I still wanted to test him to determine if he's just very good or astonishingly brilliant. So I challenged him to put in context a random unseen black and white photograph with Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh and Rita Marley from the early 1980s. Without blinking, he told me, correctly, that the photograph
was from a New York City Plaza Hotel press conference in 1982 announcing the World Music Festival that was held in Montego Bay later that year. So yes, the man is astonishingly brilliant, and the fact that he owns seven rooms loaded with reggae memorabilia at his California home does not hurt his reputation one bit . And with him having been a witness to the growth and development of reggae for so many years, I then asked him to identify five of his most astonishing, jaw-dropping and defining moments for reggae. Here is what he had to say:
1. The 1972 release of the classic movie The Harder They Come. Perry Henzell's magnificent and unflinching look at the political scene in Jamaica through the lens of the music business captured audiences worldwide in 43 different countries. Henzell rented theatres with his own money to bring reggae music to the outside world. It played in Boston for eight years in Harvard Square, one of the first 'midnight movies' to achieve classic status. Jimmy Cliff, when playing Boston, was known to jump in front of the screen at the Brattle Street Cinema when the scene came on showing him posing with his six guns in the photographer's studio, causing bedlam in the Brattle. Mention must also be made of the film's continuously selling soundtrack that is never out of print and that has become Jamaica's finest anthology.
2. The shooting of Bob Marley and the Smile Jamaica Concert, December 3-5, 1976. The Smile Jamaica events marked the precise moment that Bob Marley went from showman to shaman, surviving a bullet that grazed his heart, performing two nights later in what I believe is the most extraordinary moment in 20th century popular music history. Bob was shot at his Hope Road residence. He was in hiding and was urged by almost everyone not to play the concert, scheduled to take place Sunday, December 5, 1976 in National Heroes Park, outdoors, in plain sight of tens of thousands of people. "The gunmen will come back and finish their task," he was told. In the end, though, he decided to make a brief appearance, arriving in the darkness to a crowd of some 80,000 people. He went on to do a thrilling performance for nearly an hour and a half. His wife was by his side, wearing a hospital gown with a bandaged head dress over a bullet lodged in her skull. Bob bore a bullet in his arm, and carried it to his grave. The venue was overflowing with dignitaries and ordinary Jamaicans who were determined to protect Bob with their own bodies. Bob lifted his sleeve to show where the bullet lay and he then opened his denim jacket to reveal where the other shot had grazed him. He curled his hands into pistols, went "bang, bang," then, turning his thumbs upward as if to say, "But I'm all right," he disappeared offstage and went into a near 15-month exile from Jamaica, becoming a changed man forever after those occurrences. There is nothing even remotely similar in pop music history.
3. SUNSPLASH I, 1978. Sunsplash, the greatest and most influential of all Jamaica's various music festivals, was born in 1978, conceived by an enterprising group of people anxious to provide a forum for visitors to see the best of Jamaica's artists. The first staging was 10 days long, with beach parties, disco nights and jazz alongside some of roots reggae's most interesting performers. The first crop of talent included Dennis Brown, Toots, Beres Hammond, Jacob Miller, The Heptones, Jimmy Cliff and Monty Alexander. It was held in Montego Bay in June, a time when hotels were experiencing cripplingly low occupancies. In 1979 a shorter version was held with huge crowds coming to see Bob Marley headline. The following year some 800 people were killed in the run-up to the general election, so a one-night-only version was held to keep the tradition going at the Ranny Williams Centre in Kingston. Marley's passing in 1981 led to a new staging in Montego Bay at Jarrett Park where visitors from all over the world thronged to pay tribute to the reggae king. Reggae fans began to recognise Sunsplash as the annual international gathering of fans, and Sunsplash gave birth to magazines, radio and TV shows, films, record labels, assorted merchandise and tours that all used the magic name. Lifelong friendships were created at Sunsplash and its influence was powerful all over the world.
4. Yellowman in San Francisco condemning gays in 1982. A significant turning point in the music followed immediately after Marley's passing - the triumph of slackness over Rasta-inspired roots - with the elevation of the salacious rapper Yellowman. During his first appearance in San Francisco, long considered the capital of Gay America, Yellow unleashed an anti-homosexual diatribe against gays and lesbians, encouraging his audience to find them and beat them up. So outraged was the city that the San Francisco Chronicle wrote an editorial excoriating the performer for inciting violence, and in the process, tarring reggae music as an instrument of hate. The echoes of this event had long reverberations as other Jamaican rappers joined him in producing what came to be called 'hate music', leading to cancelled engagements as gay organisations fought to ban performances by many of these artistes as they travelled abroad. The music has never been the same since, and many rootical acts felt unfairly smeared by the 'anti-gay' label, losing gigs and millions of dollars in the process.
5. Reggae Goes Grammy, 1985. Reggae music's struggle for international acceptance took a great leap forward when, after years of petitioning, America's National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) finally created a specific category to award a Grammy for Reggae. I was tapped to be its founding chairman, and served in that capacity for the next 27 years. Black Uhuru won the first award, followed three years later by the posthumous award to Peter Tosh for his final album, No Nuclear War. Since then, a disproportionate number of the annual trophies have been won by Bunny Wailer and members of the Marley family, so much so that many people accused me of personally choosing the award winners. (In fact, I never cast a single vote in all those years, in order to maintain my neutrality). Once I was assaulted verbally by Eek-A-Mouse who claimed that I only gave it to those "white Marley boys - and I'm too black", which led to my reply that if Mouse really wanted to win a Grammy I would tell him the secret, and if he did what I told him to do, he would win the Grammy for his next album. "What?" he snarled. "Change your name," I said, "to Eek-A-Marley."