On November 19, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) declared reggae music a “cultural entity worthy protection and preservation”.
It made the music genre one of the 300 cultural items given that status by the world body.
In a citation read at the New York UN Headquarters, reggae music was celebrated for raising discourse on “issues of injustice … a vehicle for social commentary, a cathartic practice, and means of praising God”.
As the band played to solemnise the occasion, one easily remembered the line in Lucky Dube charts buster song: “Nobody can stop Reggae!”
Watching the event on television sent me down memory lane to the day, 20 years ago, when the South African reggae maestro came to town and staged a concert at the Ngong Race Course, leaving the crowd high as if on the famous substance associated with reggae music.
GREATER LOVER OF REGGAE
I was in the crowd not as a journalist but as great lover of reggae. I, too, found myself “airie, though I was only imbibing from a Tusker Malt can.
The event, on December 4, 1998, was sponsored by the East African Breweries and dubbed: “Guinness Sunbeat Reggae Extravaganza”. Lucky Dube had been invited as the star attraction alongside London-based Jamaican reggae icon, Maxi Priest.
Touted as the most spectacular music show ever staged in Kenya, the event was also graced by other reggae notables from Jamaica, including Levi Roots, Johnny Clark, and Jah Shakah. The Big 5 of reggae were separately airlifted to Ngong Race Course in choppers that landed next to the main stage. An estimated 20,000 crowd jammed the space meant for three-quarters the number, and made the place look like a riot of reggae colours – red, yellow, and green – and a display of dreadlocks, some which reached below the waist.
The Jamaicans, perhaps on the misplaced belief that they own reggae, were the first on the stage, and Lucky Dube called in last to close the show. He didn’t disappoint, and literally snatched the crown from the brothers from the Caribbean.
It was Lucky Dube at his best give-it-all stage gymnastics, and belting out melodies in three octaves to send the crowd into a stampede that had bouncers called in.
As if in a premeditated arrangement to strike cord with Kenyans, he opened the show by playing a succession of the four hits: “I am a Prisoner”, followed by “Going Back to my Roots”, then “Together as One”, and “Different Colours, One People”. The frenzied crowd interpreted it that he was sending a message he had just come from a prison in the formerly apartheid South Africa, and was back to his roots in Kenya, the land of Mau Mau rebellion, and now we were together as one, different colours but one people. It couldn’t get better.
LUCKY TO LIVE
Born in 1964, the baby who grew up to be world star was named “Lucky” because he was a sickly child who only his single-parent mother, Sarah, believed he would survive and live to adulthood.
It is his cousin who would discover the talent in him when he was 18, and encouraged him to record his first album during a school holiday.
In later years, the cousin would recall: “When he was a boy I would hear him sing in the bathroom and think I was listening on stage, Jamaican mega stars, Bob Marley or Jimmy Cliff. At once I knew we had a new hero in the making. I made it my business to make sure he began to think of music as a career.”
It is a gamble that paid off. At the time of his death aged 43, Lucky Dube had 22 albums to his name, sold in millions, and amassed a fortune that would have made his mother, had she lived long, be proud that she believed in the dying boy and refused to give up on him even when everybody else – including his father – ran away. Like a good son, Lucky Dube would immortalise the father he never saw with the song: “Dad Wherever You Are Remember Me”.
SANG OWN DEATH
A year after the show in Nairobi, Lucky Dube would record the song: “Crime and Corruption”. As if in a premonition, a stanza in the song had the following lines: “Do you ever worry about your car taken away from you in broad daylight down Highway 54?"
Do you ever worry about your wife becoming the woman in black?
Do you ever worry about leaving home and coming back in a coffin with a bullet through your head?”
On the evening of October 19, 2007, Lucky Dube drove out from his home in southern Johannesburg. With him in the grey Chrysler Sedan were his two teenage children who he was to drop at his brother’s home for a sleep-over.
As he stopped at the junction and signalled to join the highway, carjackers pounced from nowhere, pulled out the boy in the front seat, and aimed the gun at the musician. He slumped dead on the steering wheel as he crashed into a tree trying to escape with bullet wounds.
Highway robbers finally stopped him. But they couldn’t stop reggae. And they couldn’t kill his legacy.