Reggae, along with blues, jazz and country, is one of the few genres in which aging actually benefits your appeal as an artist. Burning Spear is a legend. Had he played pop music, he'd be little more than a trivia question. February being Black History Month and Bob Marley's birth month, U.K. reggae icons Steel Pulse return to one of their favorite destinations-San Diego. We spoke with original member Selwyn Brown about Bob Marley, black America and the music he loves.
CityBeat: Our local radio station will basically only play one reggae artist-Bob Marley. Why do you think their scope of reggae is limited to him when there are so many great artists?
Selwyn Brown: Partly because he still remains the most widely known reggae artist even though he left us physically 24 years ago. Also, many mainstream stations are governed by the wishes of the station producers who will not step outside of the "safe" formats. Even in England, reggae music still gets a fight when it comes to mainstream exposure, which has led to the growth of the pirate stations. These are illegal stations but they provide an invaluable service for reggae music, especially in the inner cities.
No matter who I talk to, most people I know consider True Democracy to be your finest album. Why do you think that the album resonates with people?
I think True Democracy gains its popularity partly because of the simple, direct messages and also because there is a certain urgency in the music which we managed to achieve. Certain songs have become Steel Pulse/reggae anthems which audiences always call for, especially "Rally Round," "Chant A Psalm" and "Blues Dance Raid."
Is Black History Month important to you guys? Do you think it has an impact?
Black History Month has always been important to us as it provides a time in the calendar where people can focus on the achievements of African-Americans in all fields and also makes people of all races realize the enormous contribution that black people have made to the world and society. In the U.S.A. especially, where racism is still a major problem, it helps to reduce the ignorance, which still exists toward the Black Diaspora. We have always strived to educate as well as entertain, and Black History Month provides the perfect forum for us to express our message.
As international stars, you guys are likely treated with less racism than the "average" black man. Have you noticed that? If so, how much does class status dilute racism? And is that satisfying, or not?
Even though we have achieved a certain amount of celebrity, we still come face to face with racism. For example, as mentioned earlier, reggae music still gets a fight, partly due to institutionalized racism from certain record companies, media institutions, etc. I still get stopped by English cops asking me if I actually bought the car that I drive. There have been very few situations where I can recall us getting preferential treatment racially because of our celebrity. Also it is not something that would provide me with any pride as racism is one of the ills that we have always tackled head on and will continue to do so.
Now, how the hell have you managed to remain a band for 30 years? Most people in America switch jobs every three.
We initially made a conscious decision to try and create music that would inspire people in the same way that we felt inspired by the roots music that we listened to coming out of Jamaica. Also we have always worked very hard in the studio... on our live shows... and we've strived to maintain the comradeship that we nurtured throughout our high-school days and beyond. We try also to stay as healthy as we can, and we're fully aware that many things can slow down with the onset of ill health. Finally, our faith in the Almighty remains undiminished, and we never forget that everything could end tomorrow if we take our position for granted.
Steel Pulse plays "Bob Marley Day" with Alpha Blondy, Jimmy Cliff, Israel Vibration, Barrington Levy, Don Carlos, Misty in Roots, Martin Campbell, Gentlemen, Tanya Stephens, Tribo de Jah and Kush & Blood Fiyah Angels at the San Diego Sports Arena, 1 p.m. on Feb. 21. $30-$50. 619-220-8497.