Gregory Isaacs – “The Cool Ruler”

Gregory Isaacs is one of reggae music’s most distinguished singers. Famous as the “Cool Ruler” for his outstandingly smooth and moving voice, Isaacs recorded many successes during the 1970s and 80s, including the lasting favourite “Night Nurse”, and remained dynamic as a recording artist, live performer and producer in the decades that followed. Even though his best known for romantic ballads, delivered with an insinuation of helplessness, he also excelled at songs of social protest and work that expressed a resolute pride in his African heritage.

Gregory Anthony Isaacs was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on July 15 1951 and grew up in the poor neighbourhood of Denham Town. As a boy, Gregory was inspired by American soul artists such as Sam Cooke and Ben E King, by local acts and, above all, by the singing of his mother (whom his father abandoned when Gregory was a child). Encouraged by his peers at school and his teacher, he entered talent contests and soon became involved in the music industry, making his first (self-produced) recording in 1968; a duet with Winston Sinclair called “Another Heartache”.

 

After a brief period as part of a Motown-style trio named The Concords, who split in 1970, Isaacs launched his solo career. He founded African Museum with the singer Errol Dunkley, and had his first significant success with “My Only Lover”, often labelled the exemplary “lovers’ rock” song.

By the late 1970s, Isaacs was one of Jamaica’s major stars and frequently touring the United States and Britain. His casting as a street hustler in the 1978 movie Rockers aided to create the outlaw persona that would lead him later to claim of having been arrested more than 50 times.

As his songwriting abilities developed, Isaacs shifted attention to address social injustice, in work that expressed longing for his ancestral African homeland, and grew dreadlocks as a sign of his commitment to the Rastafarian faith. At Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio, he completed the anthem-like “Mr Cop” in 1976 and the censorious “Black against Black”, which decried self-destructive ghetto violence, and “Slave Master”, which became something of anti-colonial anthem in the slums of Kingston: “Every time I hear the music and I make a dip, a dip, Slave master comes around and spank I with his whip, the whip, But if I don’t get my desire, Then I’ll set the plantations in fire.”

Mainstream success, however, did not come until the 1982 album Night Nurse. The cheekily suggestive title track reached only number 32 in the UK charts, but it was a huge underground and club hit. But just when Isaacs might have capitalised on his biggest hit, he become caught in drug dealing and consumption, and found himself serving a six-month sentence in a Kingston jail. 

He was said to have both used and dealt crack cocaine. He struggled with addiction to various drugs – most of them far harder than the native ganja, or marijuana – eventually losing most of his teeth and the full range of his once-sweet voice. “Drugs are a debasing weapon,” he once said. “I graduated from the Cocaine High School. It was the greatest college ever, but the most expensive school fee ever paid.”

He returned in 1988 with the digital dance hall-era hit “Rumours”, one result of a fruitful period of collaboration with the producer Gussie Clark, and continued to record up to three albums a year during the last two decades of his life, appearing at festivals such as Jamaica’s Reggae Sunsplash and the Notting Hill Carnival as a respected if somewhat weakened elder statesman of Jamaican music. Nevertheless, he kept a faithful fan base, both at home in Jamaica and overseas.

“When people hear the name Gregory Isaacs, I want dem to think of ‘Night Nurse’ and ‘Red Rose For Gregory’ and ‘The Cool Ruler’,” he said. “I love it when somebody comes up to me and say, ‘I love your songs’. ‘Night Nurse’ is about a man and a woman. Only love can conquer war and it’s good for people to make love. The Gregory Isaacs feel is universal, trying to uplift who I can uplift. I sing music on a worldwide basis. That is made to be accepted in thy sight.”

Dr. Walter Rodney – “The Power of A Story”

Anthony Rodney was born to Edward and Pauline Rodney in Georgetown, Guyana on March 23, 1942. He developed into an intellectual and scholar and is recognized as one of the Caribbean’s most brilliant minds.

Rodney combined his scholarship with activism and became a voice for the under-represented and disenfranchised – this distinguished him from his academic colleagues. His interest in the struggles of the working class began at a young age with an introduction to politics by his father, and continued with his involvement in debating and study groups throughout his student years. His PhD thesis illustrated his duality as an intellectual and activist as he challenged the prevailing assumptions about African history and put forth his own ideas and models for analyzing the history of oppressed peoples. Influenced by the Black Power Movement in the U.S., third world revolutionaries and Marxist theory, Rodney began to actively challenge the status quo.

In 1968, while a UWI professor in Jamaica, he joined others to object to the socio-economic and political direction of the government. Unlike his counterparts, however, Rodney involved the working class, including the Rastafarians (one of Jamaica’s most marginalized groups) in this dialogue. His speeches and lectures to these groups were published as Grounding with My Brothers, and became central to the Caribbean Black Power Movement. Rodney’s activities attracted the Jamaican government’s attention and after attending the 1968 Black Writers’ Conference in Montreal, Canada he was banned from re-entering the country. This decision was to have profound repercussions, sparking widespread unrest in Kingston.

In 1974, Walter returned to Guyana to take up an appointment as Professor of History at the University of Guyana, but the government rescinded the appointment. But Rodney remained in Guyana, joined the newly formed political group, the Working People’s Alliance. Between 1974 and 1979, he emerged as the leading figure in the resistance movement against the increasingly authoritarian PNC government. He gave public and private talks all over the country that served to engender a new political consciousness in the country. During this period he developed his ideas on the self-emancipation of the working people, People’s Power, and multiracial democracy.

As the WPA gained popularity and momentum, the PNC began a campaign of harassment including police raids, house searches, and beatings. On July 11, 1979, Walter, together with seven others, was arrested following the burning down of two government offices. Rodney and four others (known as the “Referendum Five”) faced trumped-up charges of arson, but without proof and scrutiny from international supporters, the government was forced to drop these charges.

 

Rodney’s voice was not confined to Africa and the Caribbean but was also heard in the U.S. and Europe. In the early-mid 1970s, he participated in discussions and lectures with the African Heritage Studies Association at Howard University; the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, GA; the African Studies and Research Center at Cornell University; and the State University of New York at Binghamton.

The persecution, however, continued: two party members were killed, and the government denied Rodney and others permission to travel. Despite this, Rodney continued his political work and attended Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations in May 1980.

On Friday, June 13, 1980, Walter Anthony Rodney was assassinated by a bomb in Georgetown, Guyana. He was 38 years old.

 

 

Marcus Garvey – “One God, One Aim, One Destiny”

Garvey was born in Jamaica and immigrated to Harlem in 1916 at the age of 28. In his homeland he had been an admirer of Booker T. Washington‘s philosophy of self-improvement for people of African descent and had formed the Jamaica Improvement Association. When he arrived in America his ideas expanded and he became a Black Nationalist. For him, Africa was the ancestral home and spiritual base for all people of African descent. His political goal was to take Africa back from European domination and build a free and United Black Africa. He advocated the Back-to-Africa Movement and organized a shipping company called the Black Star Line which was part of his program to conduct international trade between black Africans and the rest of the world in order to “uplift the race” and eventually return to Africa.

Garvey studied all of the literature he could find on African history and culture and decided to launch the Universal Negro Improvement Association with the goal of unifying “all the Negro peoples of the world into one great body and to establish a country and government absolutely on their own”. The motto of the U.N.I.A. was “One God! One Aim! One Destiny.” The Negro World was the U.N.I.A. weekly newspaper founded in 1918. It was published in French and Spanish as well as English. In it African history and heroes were glorified.

The ranks of the U.N.I.A. were comprised of African “nobility” – knights of the Nile, dukes of the Niger and Uganda; knights of Ethiopia, duchesses, etc. Garvey himself was the “Provisional President of Africa” and he and the members of his empire paraded in elaborate military uniforms. Harlem loved parades and street ceremonies, and the U.N.I.A. gave the grandest. During their annual conventions, thousands of delegates from all over the United States, the Caribbean, Central America and Africa marched up and down the streets of Harlem with their banners, uniforms and colorfully decorated cars. Garvey travelled throughout the United States speaking and meeting with African-American leaders. In the post World War I economic crisis and with racial discrimination, lynching and poor housing, the masses of Black people were ready for a leader who was aggressive and had a plan to “uplift the race”. The U.N.I.A. grew quickly. By 1919 there were over 30 branches throughout the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa. Garvey claimed over a million people had .joined his organization in 3 years.

In nine years Garvey built the largest mass movement of people of African descent in this country’s history. It began to fail after he was convicted of mail fraud and was deported from the U.S. The Black Star Line failed because of purported mismanagement and lack of sufficient funds. However, the U.N.I.A. still survives today and Garvey left a legacy of racial pride and identification with a glorious African heritage for African Americans.

 

The Harder They Come -“Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail in shanty town “

Premiering one year after the release of Shaft and one year before Bob Marley and the Wailers’Catch a Fire dropped, Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972) combined blaxploitation fantasies with developing-world realities and in the process, brought reggae music to the world. The first feature-length film from Jamaica—which at the time of THTC‘s release had been an independent country for only 10 years after three centuries of British rule—Henzell’s debut, being shown in a restored 35mm print at the IFC Center, is the definitive postcolonial cult-movie musical. Raw and rough, The Harder They Come mixes vérité footage of Kingston privation (shacks, shanties) and exultation (rapt moviegoers taking in a western, swaying-to-the-spirit church attendees) with a rude-boy bildungsroman.

Henzell, who was born to a plantocratic white family in Jamaica’s north coast in 1936, and his co-writer, Trevor Rhone, a playwright instrumental in shaping the island’s indigenous theater, based the story on an actual cult hero: Ivanhoe “Rhygin” Martin, a prison escapee known as the “Jamaican Dillinger” who was shot dead by the police in 1948. Played by Jimmy Cliff, who had released four albums by the time of his acting debut in THTC, Ivan is introduced as a naif on a bus headed to his mother’s house in Kingston with a mango and news of a death in the family. Although the bumpkin—often addressed as “Country Boy”—is robbed of everything within his first hours in the capital, he still holds out hope he can make it big as a singer. He soon finds work doing odd jobs for a preacher—and acquires a new nickname. Peacocking in apple caps, skintight tees, elaborately patterned rayon shirts, and snug, pinstriped trousers (Cliff’s sartorial style in the film is almost as iconic as its soundtrack, electrifying nuggets made by various artists between 1967 and 1972), Ivan now answers to “Pretty Boy,” and he can’t help but wear down the resistance of the minister’s chaste ward, Elsa (Janet Bartley).

 

Ivan takes off with Elsa and finally persuades the corrupt music tycoon Hilton (Bob Charlton) to give him some time in the recording studio. His single—the film’s infectious, mercenary title track (“So as sure as the sun will shine/I’m gonna get my share now of what’s mine”)—becomes a smash, for which Ivan receives only $20. “Who’s makin’ all the money?” he asks after being stiffed once again during his short career as a pot dealer. Gunning down some cops—many involved in the ganja trade—Ivan lams it, his record in constant rotation, and his legend sealed.

There are almost no white faces in THTC, yet the dysfunctional legacy of 300-plus years of colonial rule is present in every frame. “I AM HERE I AM EVERYWHERE” reads the graffiti Ivan has sprayed to torment his pursuers—a tag that endears him to those powerless to fight against endemic corruption. The Harder They Come debuted the same year that Jamaicans had just voted out the conservative Jamaica Labour Party, but civil war between the JLP and the left-leaning People’s National Party would erupt shortly after. Henzell would make only one other film: the tourist-board-friendly No Place Like Home (2006), which premiered in Jamaica the day after his death. That project’s softness reflected the dilution of the music that his first film had been so instrumental in exporting.