When Bob Marley & the Wailers emerged onto the reggae scene, millions of listeners were transformed by his songs of cultural pride, the struggles of Jamaica's downtrodden, while addressing faith and life issues through the music. In the 1980's, Black Uhuru continued this "roots and culture" reggae music tradition, reaching mainstream audiences around the world. With such popular albums as "I Love King Selassie" and "Tear It Up," the band helped to pave the way for current reggae musicians, becoming the first reggae band to win a Grammy for the "Anthem" album in 1984.
After going solo in the mid-'90s, former lead singer Michael Rose is still turning out compelling, hard-hitting music with the "Uhuru" flavor. He continues to be the voice of Jamaica's unsung ghetto youth with his music, revealing the biting realities of young people living in poverty. Recently, Beliefnet producer Jenny Kinscy caught up with Michael to discuss his career, reggae music, and his new album, "Never Give It Up."
So many people have been touched by your music your music with Black Uhuru, as well as by your solo contributions. Did you set out to be a renowned, Grammy-winning band?
No. We were just singing for poor people, people who go through a lot of struggle, and people who can't reach out to express themselves, so that the world can know, "Hey, we're down here and we're suffering." You know, that's the music's appeal.
Do you think your message has changed, or will change?
No, the messages can't change, regardless how much love I have within my heart and even with mankind. It can't change. After every 25 years, a new generation comes, and they have to know what the message was before they came along. The reggae industry, as it is, is there to expose suffering in the world today. I know people suffer everywhere, but that's why we send a message like "Never Give It Up." The people know where we're coming from.
What is your take on what's going on with reggae music now? A lot of it doesn't have a particular message or a conscious message.
The way I look at it, if the music doesn't have a message, it doesn't even pull me towards it. It has to have something someone can relate to, so that people can say, Oh yeah, there's another brother out there who's trying to uplift the whole struggle.
Some new artists are getting there. Buju Banton, with his album "Til' Shiloh," went from doing dancehall music to the more message-based stuff.
It's like 360 degrees, the cycle keeps going on and on, and it will continue. It's just that sometimes the cycle gets quiet, like now, and then it'll pick up again.
One of the songs on your new album is called, "Draw the Weed." It's reminiscent of your earlier song "Sensimilia," in the sense that it deals with marijuana. Do you think people understand the role of marijuana in the Rastafarian religion?
In the song you say, "juggle it/smuggle it, and them run and tell you fi lef it." What does that mean?
Yes, that means the whole system comes with the juggling and the smuggling [of marijuana], which is from the old pirate days. A long time ago, pirates used to smuggle weed. Nowadays, now that the poor man is juggling the weed, they want to send him to jail for it. Herb is natural. It's the healing of the nation. There are a lot of things that herb can cure. Whereas, cocaine is a danger, and a threat to one's life. It kills. There is no feeling that comes of it. Herb has life, and herb is life. Herb can save people's lives. A lot of people who are healthcare people cannot. People who smoke herb feel better than how they feel normally because they are healed. Certain places in America, people [feel] free [to use] herbs. Other places they don't. I don't understand. One way, people fight it, and other ways they don't.
People know that it's part of the religion, and your religion is definitely a prevalent part of your songs. How do people receive that?
Well, people like to hear songs about herb. [But] Rastafari is a way of life. One should first understand what Rastas are all about. Because sometimes people smoke herb and then get up and do the wrong things.
How has your own spirituality grown and changed through the music?
Your spiritual vibes are not something that you can touch. You just have to keep doing positive things and always leave a positive vibration at all times. You don't lose yourself. For example, I'm a person who drinks my urine.
Right. For cleansing purposes, yes?
Yes, and that puts me on a different level more of the time. I'm not telling someone to do that, because that's my experience. That's what keeps me well.
A lot the new album is quite inspirational, like "Big Ting," which talks about things that are going on now.
Yes, the gangbanging that the song talks about relates to what is going on in Jamaica. The youth get involved with crack and guns, and they shoot one another. It's almost like people want ratings [praise] for killing one another. Every day, people do songs like, "put down the gun" and "let's unite" and nobody wants to do that. So I say, "Big Ting! Hooray! You kill one another!" because that's what they want.
You seem to be looking for solutions in the track called "Grandma"?
In Jamaica, most kids who grow with their grandma, they're different. They've grown up in a different way. Kids who don't grow up with "grandma" don't have any respect. They want to shoot you in the face. So, that song is a special song for the kids that are coming up in the world today. They need to seek and to look for grandma because grandma knows everything. If there's danger out there, grandma is there for you. Later on in life you can look back and say that you're glad grandma was there to tell you things. Although at the time when grandma tells you these things, it's kind of painful.
I remember reading about you having to make a decision between cutting off your dreadlocks or cutting off your family. I found that intriguing.
It was at an early stage. Today it's easy to wear dreads. But in those times, it was quite different. [My parents] said, "Boy, you're starting to grow an Afro and no one can believe you! Why do you have to grow your hair like this?" My parents said that they never grew their hair like this, not even in an Afro, much less dreads. So my dad would be very upset, and say, "As long as we feed you, you have to cut that hair." So I chose then to leave home and face the world.
What was it like in Jamaica to have dreadlocks at that time?
They'd see you and walk on the other side of the road. People used to say that we're dirty people and they called us all kinds of names. Now that they realize the truth behind everything, they finally accept it. Rasta people are all about truth and what's right, and no garbage. If you follow the natural way of life, we don't get garbage in our midst. Everything you do comes right back to you, you know. It's 360 degrees, and comes right back around.
I have locks, too, and I find that they collect energy from everywhere.
It's true. They're like antennae. They collect vibes, and they allow you to know a lot.
Did people in Jamaica at that time not have an understanding of dreadlocks being connected to Rastafarianism?
That's how it began. In ancient time, a rastaman would maybe walk through a village, and people would say, "Oh! A rasta man is coming," and they would run and hide under their beds.
What do you do now, when you're not recording?
Back home in Jamaica I have a farm where youth from the neighborhood work. They pay themselves by dealing with the coffee crop. I don't make anything from it, and I leave them to run it on their own. I can't do everything, but I try to do something.