The first-ever recipients of a Grammy Award in the Reggae Music category which was introduced in 1985, Black Uhuru has always been one of the most progressive reggae or “reggae-rock” bands, managing to stay true to its fierce Rastafarian politics and haunting vocal harmonies in spite of many challenges over its 35-year history. And, WOW, what a history!
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 around Jamaica but did not attract much local attention despite their Top Cat-produced singles “Folk Songs”, “Slow Coach” and “Time is on Our Side”. In the ’70s, as today, young black men in Kingston had few opportunities to break away from the poverty of the city’s slums. Reggae was certainly one escape route, but it was packed with talented hopefuls, so the chances of succeeding 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 the 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 re-mixed and re-released as “Black Sounds of Freedom”).
Nelson departed soon after the release, leaving Simpson and Rose to work as a duo for a while. But it wasn’t until the hottest rhythm section in reggae, Sly Dunbar on drums and Robbie Shakespeare on bass (who were friends of Michael Rose), graced the stage alongside them that they created their most unique sound and became the Black Uhuru with which we are most familiar. At this 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 spot was taken over by African-American Columbia-graduate harmony singer Sandra “Puma” Jones. Led by the distinctive prowl-n-scowl tenor of Rose, 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 to Zion”, “Plastic Smile”, “Shine Eye Gal” and “General Penitentiary”. All of these singles were assembled on 1979’s “Showcase” album, later reissued on CD as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”.
The release 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 captured the attention of Chris Blackwell, president of Island Records, and Black Uhuru’s first major-label contract soon followed with Island’s subsidiary, Mango.
The band made their American album debut in 1980 with “Sensimilla”, which established the group’s heavy-hitting sound blending traditional roots with modern digital effects on its sizzling tracks, all written by Michael Rose, like “Happiness”, “Push Push”, “World is Africa” and, of course, the title cut. As front man for Black Uhuru, singer-songwriter Rose was approaching the international reggae stardom of the likes of Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. His vocals and his deeply conscious Rastafarian lyrics helped to bring forth an exciting era in reggae music.
The release of “Red” launched the band into the top 30 on UK charts and many considered it the group’s masterpiece, illustrating their commitment to social change. “Youth of Eglington”, written by Rose, became Uhuru’s manifesto and a reggae classic, linking Jamaican youth with African youth worldwide from Eglington (the West Indian enclave in Toronto), to Brixton (where riots paralyzed London), to Utica Avenue and Brooklyn. The album tour encountered some violence; a show in Miami was reportedly stopped because the audience brought weapons. “Red” would end up being 24th in Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Albums of the 1980s with its rootsy classics like “Rockstone”, “Sponji Reggae” and the joyous “Utterance”. Black Uhuru now found itself among the most influential reggae groups on the planet in the aftermath of Bob Marley’s 1981 death.
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 in the mid-1980s. Some critics felt this was Uhuru’s weakest album while others marked it as their finest album of all. Some classics from this album include the title track, “Wicked Act”, and “Mondays”, which spoke to all of us working folk who see Monday as “the day slavery begins”.
The group reached its peak in 1983 with the release of “Anthem”. Island Records tried to build on “Chill Out’s” success by remixing “Anthem” in 1984 for US and European audiences (but original versions can be found on “Liberation: The Island Anthology”, a superb two-disc anthology). And, in 1985, Black Uhuru garnered the first-ever Grammy Award for Reggae Music, beating out Bob Marley and the Wailers, Steel Pulse, and Yellowman. “What is Life” was a huge hit 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 their earlier stuff, these lyrics were largely written by Duckie Simpson. With this release, Black Uhuru blended a touch of pop/R&B with reggae without sacrificing quality and was able to gain more mainstream attention.
As so often happens though, success can destroy a group. In 1985, after the band’s rise to success began to slow, Michael Rose decided to try his hand at a solo career and at establishing a coffee farm in the Jamaican hills. Delroy “Junior” Reid came in to replace him, appearing first on “Brutal” on the RAS label in 1986. Reid, a devout Bobo Shanti Rastafarian, was a talented singer as evidenced by “Let Us Pray” and “Fit You Haffe Fit”, but the U.S. government denied Reid a visa to perform on tour in America, causing him to return to his solo career and Uhuru to tour without him. And, then, Puma Jones was compelled 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 age 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 play together. A European tour followed, and by 1990, the original trio was recording once again as Black Uhuru. “Now” (1990) got critical praise and rose to number two on “Billboard’s” world music chart. It also garnered another Grammy nomination for Best Reggae Album. From “Iron Storm’s” (1992) single, “Tip of the Iceberg”, an award-winning video was made featuring controversial rap star Ice-T and was filmed on the burned-out streets of South Central Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King police brutality trial verdict. “Mystical Truth” (1993) and “Strongg” (1994) continued Black Uhuru’s commitment to the eradication of oppression, offering hope in spite of injustice, and received critical acclaim.
By 1995, old animosities (mostly over money) resurfaced and Uhuru split up again. But Dennis and Carlos continued to tour using the Black Uhuru name and in 1997 were taken 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, producing “Unification” (1998). Some high points were “System”, “Real Thing”, “Hail Tafari” and “Lullaby Love”. Andrew Bees and Pam Hall, rejoined by Sly and Robbie, were featured 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 featuring Michael Rose”. Together with a female backing singer named Kay Starr, they released a single, “Dollars”, and performed at several concerts.
Over the years Black Uhuru has headlined many music festivals worldwide as well as touring with groups like 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 best reggae groups ever and is firmly rooted in the heart of reggae fans everywhere. And they were voted the #1 reggae band in the “Rolling Stone’s” critics’ poll. Listen and delight in this still-evolving legend of reggae music!
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