I think reggae fans will agree that Black Uhuru produced their most classic albums during the period in the early 80’s when they were a trio consisting of Michael Rose, Puma Jones and Duckie Simpson. Not to look down on how well they regrouped in later years after Jones passed away, but there was something magic about that particular combination of creative minds. I would say that the secret sauce was always Puma Jones, who left her day job as a social worker in the United States to become a musician, and who drew on her background and experiences to keep the group’s writing pointedly socially conscious. Of course, it was also the harmonies and the grooves that make albums like Red so enduring. It’s the sound of a very tight band who know what they have to say.
I wasn’t really aware that Black Uhuru were still together. I thought they’d split sometime in the 90’s. Strongg was the last Black Uhuru record I listened to, released in 1994. Apparently there have been other records since then, and they’ve been touring regularly in some collective form, although with many lineup changes. That’s something that lowkey demands investigation. Until then, though, in the chronology, Strongg is still the last record I can strongly recommend.
This plea for solidarity came out in 1983 and we’re no closer to it 36 years later. Black Uhuru makes a pretty convincing case, laying out the universal basics of our shared needs. Our underlying common grounds should be self-evident, so evident it shouldn’t take even a reggae song to lay out the obvious. Everyone wants the same things, fundamentally. We just can’t seem to get around the mentality that getting those things needs to come at the expense of other people having those same things. Keeping your children warm and your family protected should not take away from warmth and safety of anyone else, and yet violent tribalism outweighs both empathy and common sense. If people insist on behaving like feral dogs fighting over the last scraps of garbage in a time of plenitude, it’s chilling to think of what will happen when resources become scarce. The concept of solidarity remains an abstraction, an ideal to talk about from the solitude of our individual corners, a hippie pipe dream – anything except a real call to action – when it needs to be a philosophy for day-to-day living. It’s something we should all think deeply about and internalize, but instead we’re spinning out into nihilism and despair.
Black Uhuru is my favorite reggae band. I like being able to say that; it impresses people who really care about reggae. I would hate people to think I’m a basic bitch who only listens to Legend by Bob Marley. I need them to know that I’m the kind of insufferable person who communicates entirely in obscure music references. Anyway, it’s not because I actually really want to impress that one guy or whoever. I can admit that I don’t, in fact, know that much about reggae music. There’s a world of it that I don’t know about. Everything after about 1990 is a blank map to me. And it would be cool if someone offered to educate me about it.
If you’re asking yourself what sinsemilla is, you’ve got no business listening to Reggae music and you should go back to whatever suburb of Salt Lake City you came from. Sinsemilla is a strain of cannabis cultivated in a very specific way so as to result in particularly potent psychoactive properties. So he’s got some really good shit growing in his backyard, is what it’s saying. You really can’t separate Reggae culture from drug culture, although the drug culture we American live with doesn’t have the religious component. Which is unfortunate, as it seems like we’re really missing out on an opportunity to commune with God, while the Rasta get to elevate themselves spiritually as the elevate themselves chemically. Honestly, American marijuana culture is just another primo example of white people ruining everything, which is why I like to stay far away from it and from white dudes who wear Peruvian knits. I take my Reggae straight, or drunk, as it were, but I don’t get high much. It ain’t my culture.
I love how this Black Uhuru song throws you for a little bit of a loop. First you’re lulled by the groove, like you can just zone out to it, then at about halfway, the chorus kicks in with a strong reminder of just where reggae culture came from. It’s not just a groove, it’s a raised fist. Which is what reggae music is all about; it’s a Trojan horse that teaches political lessons under the guise of music you can groove to. I’ve always appreciated Black Uhuru for their songwriting, for striking a balance of making strong points but writing them poetically.
What reggae music really needed in 1982 was more vocoder. So thought the members of Black Uhuru, and it turned out they were right. Black Uhuru really took roots reggae into the 80’s and kept it relevant and stayed abreast of new technology, pretty much singlehandedly. They dabbled with synthesizers and electronic effects and studio trickery, vocoders included – just enough to sound timely, but not so much as to lose their sense of rootedness. It sounds like island music, and it recognizably like 80’s music. That’s a tough balance to strike, but Black Uhuru had an amazing run of classic albums throughout the decade and all the way into the 90’s.