Black Uhuru, who first received a Grammy Award in the reggae music category introduced in 1985, has always been one of the most progressive reggae or “reggae-rock” bands, and has managed to stay true to its fierce politics. Rastafarian and its haunting. vocal harmonies despite many challenges throughout its 35-year history. And, WOW, what a story!
Black Uhuru, whose name comes from the East African Swahili language meaning “freedom” (hence Black Freedom), was originally formed as a trio in 1974 in the Waterhouse district of Kingston, Jamaica by Derrick “Duckie” (now “Gong” ) Simpson, Euvin “Don Carlos” Spencer and Rudolph “Garth” Dennis. They played clubs in Jamaica, but did not attract much local attention despite their singles “Folk Songs”, “Slow Coach” and “Time is on Our Side” produced by Top Cat. In the 70s, like today, young black men Kingston’s had few opportunities to escape the poverty of the city’s slums. Reggae was certainly an escape route, but it was full of talented hopefuls, so the chances of success were very slim.
After a few years, Don Carlos left the band to pursue a solo career, Garth Dennis left for what would be an 8-year stint with Wailing Souls, and Simpson quickly reorganized the band with Errol “Jay” Nelson and Michael Rose. This time, the group’s singles “Natural Mystic” and “I Love King Selassie” attracted the attention of a London distributor named Count Shelley, and Black Uhuru’s first full-length recording, “Love Crisis”, produced by Prince Jammy, was released in England in 1977. (“Love Crisis” was later mixed and re-released as “Black Sounds of Freedom”).
Nelson departed shortly after release, leaving Simpson and Rose working as a duo for a time. But it wasn’t until reggae’s hottest rhythm section, Sly Dunbar on drums and Robbie Shakespeare on bass (who were friends with Michael Rose), appeared on stage alongside them that they created their most unique sound and became the Black Uhuru with whom we are most familiar. At the time, Sly and Robbie were just putting together their Taxi label, and Black Uhuru’s “Observe Life” became Taxi’s first release.
In 1978, lightning finally struck when Nelson’s place was taken by Columbia-graduate African-American harmony singer Sandra “Puma” Jones. Led by Rose’s trademark prowling tenor, and recording for Sly and Robbie’s Taxi label, this third lineup launched the group into its most commercially successful period with the haunting hits “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, “Abortion” (banned in Jamaica), “Leaving Zion”, “Plastic Smile”, “Shine Eye Gal” and “General Penitentiary”. All of these singles were reunited on the 1979 album “Showcase”, later reissued on CD as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”.
The launch of “Showcase” brought an invitation from a New York City radio station, WLIB, which was holding a concert at Hunter College. It was Black Uhuru’s first performance outside of Jamaica, an opportunity most reggae bands never had. “Showcase” also caught the attention of Chris Blackwell, president of Island Records, and the first deal with a major Black Uhuru label soon followed with Island’s subsidiary Mango.
The band made their American album debut in 1980 with “Sensimilla”, which established the group’s hard-hitting sound by mixing traditional roots with modern digital effects in their sizzling songs, all written by Michael Rose, such as “Happiness”, “Push Push”, “The world is Africa” and, of course, the title cut off. As the frontman of Black Uhuru, singer-songwriter Rose was approaching international reggae stardom from artists like Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. His deeply aware Rastafarian voice and lyrics helped usher in an exciting era in reggae music.
The release of “Red” launched the band into the top 30 on the UK charts and was considered by many to be the group’s masterpiece, illustrating their commitment to social change. Rose’s “Youth of Eglington” became Uhuru’s manifesto and reggae classic, linking Jamaican youth with African youth around the world, from Eglington (the West Indian enclave in Toronto) to Brixton (where the riots paralyzed London), to Utica Avenue and Brooklyn. . The album tour encountered some violence; A show in Miami was reportedly stopped because the audience was carrying weapons. “Red” would end up ranking 24th on Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Albums of the 1980s with its entrenched classics such as “Rockstone”, “Sponji Reggae” and the upbeat “Utterance.” Black Uhuru was now among the most influential reggae groups on the planet after Bob Marley’s death in 1981.
With the 1982 release “Chill Out”, Sly and Robbie moved Black Uhuru from the simple sound of traditional reggae to a more electronic sound called “dub”, the new sound that was becoming so popular in reggae by the mid-decade. 1980. Some critics felt this was Uhuru’s weakest album, while others marked it as his best album ever. Some classics on this album include the title track, “Wicked Act” and “Mondays,” which spoke to all of us working people who see Monday as “the day slavery begins.”
The group peaked in 1983 with the release of “Anthem.” Island Records tried to build on the success of “Chill Out” by remixing “Anthem” in 1984 for American and European audiences (but the original versions can be found on “Liberation: The Island Anthology,” a superb two-disc anthology). And, in 1985, Black Uhuru won the first Grammy Award for reggae music, beating Bob Marley and the Wailers, Steel Pulse and Yellowman. “What is Life” was a huge success and the album was full of classic anthems like “Solidarity”, “Elements” (a masterpiece I say), “Botanical Roots”, “Black Uhuru Anthem” and “Bull in the Pen” . While Rose had written most of her previous stuff, these lyrics were largely written by Duckie Simpson. With this release, Black Uhuru mixed a touch of pop / R&B with reggae without sacrificing quality and was able to gain more widespread attention.
However, as is so often the case, success can destroy a group. In 1985, after the band’s success began to slow down, Michael Rose decided to try his hand at a solo career and establish a coffee farm in the hills of Jamaica. Delroy “Junior” Reid came in to replace him, first appearing on “Brutal” on the RAS label in 1986. Reid, a devout Bobo Shanti Rastafari, was a talented singer as evidenced by “Let Us Pray” and “Fit You Haffe Fit”, but the US government denied Reid a visa to tour the US, causing him to return to his solo career and Uhuru to tour without him. And then Puma Jones was forced to leave for health reasons just before completing the recording of “Positive” in 1987: the singer was battling breast cancer and would pass away in 1990 at the age of 36. (She was briefly replaced by Janet Reid.)
In 1987, the “Reggae Times” awards honored Don Carlos as Best Vocalist and Black Uhuru as Best Group and arranged for Simpson, Carlos and Dennis to perform together. A European tour followed, and by 1990, the original trio were recording once again as Black Uhuru. “Now” (1990) received critical acclaim and rose to number two on the “Billboard” World Music Chart. It also earned another Grammy nomination for Best Reggae Album. Beginning with the “Iron Storm” (1992) single, “Tip of the Iceberg,” an award-winning video was made featuring controversial rap star Ice-T and filmed on the burned-out streets of south central Los Angeles in the wake of the Verdict of the Rodney King Police Brutality Trial. “Mystical Truth” (1993) and “Strongg” (1994) continued Black Uhuru’s commitment to eradicating oppression, offering hope despite injustice, and received critical acclaim.
By 1995, the old animosities (mainly about money) resurfaced and Uhuru broke up again. But Dennis and Carlos continued to tour using the Black Uhuru name and in 1997 they were brought to court in Los Angeles by Simpson, who claimed the exclusive right to the Black Uhuru name. Simpson won; Carlos and Dennis were out and lead vocalist Andrew “Bees” Beckford and harmony vocalist Jennifer “Jenifah Nyah” Connally were in attendance, producing “Unification” (1998). Some high points were “System”, “Real Thing”, “Hail Tafari” and “Lullaby Love”. Andrew Bees and Pam Hall, reunited by Sly and Robbie, appeared on “Dynasty” (2001) on the RAS label and toured in support of the album. (“Bees” soon left to pursue a solo career). The wonderful greatest hits collection “20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection: The Best of Black Uhuru” was released in 2002.
In February 2004, Simpson and Michael Rose reunited under the name “Black Uhuru with Michael Rose”. Along with a backing singer named Kay Starr, they released a single, “Dollars,” and performed at various concerts.
Over the years, Black Uhuru has headlined many music festivals around the world and toured with groups such as the Rolling Stones, The Clash, Talking Heads, and The Police. Duckie Simpson has continued to tour, with and without Michael Rose, and there is even talk of a new album!
Black Uhuru remains one of the greatest reggae groups of all time and is firmly ingrained in the hearts of reggae fans everywhere. And they were voted the number one reggae band in the “Rolling Stone” critics poll. Listen and revel in this ever-evolving reggae music legend!