(parts of this story first appeared in Mshale newspaper)
I’m sitting on a barstool sipping lemon water. Before me on an oversized screen, bigger than a pair of king-sized beds, a Tom & Jerry cartoon plays. We are waiting for the warm-up musicians to start their set. As usual Tom is chasing Jerry and Jerry’s sidekick, Tuffy. The two mice are scrounging for food. The camera pans to a dinner table ladened with a feast, entering on the left side of the scene, comes a maid. In cartoon fashion, she’s dressed as a stereotypical Blackie, billowy bosom, ruffled apron, massive paws instead of hands and dark as the inker can make her. Of course she has no face.I’m sitting at music venue, First Avenue, in Minneapolis on August 20th waiting along with over 1000 people, the majority of them of African descent, for Reggae sensation, Lucky Dube. I wonder who else noticed the shocking disrespect splashed upon the screen. It was brief, but unforgivable.
Or was it unforgivable? When Lucky finally takes the stage an hour later I see a big man with a big smile. I hear him deliver a powerful message. “We can disagree on a lot of things, but as long as we have respect, it is good,” he tells the audience. Something tells me this man has a big heart that’s willing to forgive the arrogant ignorance portrayed in a 1940s cartoon.
Born in South Africa in 1964 to a single mother, living in poverty under Apartheid, restrained by Group Area Acts and Pass Laws of the day, Lucky faced many obstacles. At the age of 18, though not yet graduated from high school or fluent in English, he ventured into the world of professional music. In the beginning, Lucky’s music followed traditional Zulu music known as Mbaqanga. This influential genre of music blends uptempo rhythms with social commentary, making it a likely lead into the reggae that Lucky eventually embraced.
Reggae song lyrics, as is true of most music, explore topics such as faith, love, & relationships. However Lucky, a socially aware advocate, also sings of poverty, and injustice. According to Lucky’s website, his songs emphasize three main tenets “political issues, social issues and personal issues.” Reggae music provided a natural platform for Lucky to espouse his views, based on his tumultuous childhood as well as his optimistic vision for the future.
Lucky’s appearance at First Avenue was the grand finale of a weekend-long African showcase of music, craft, food, and culture–Afrifest. The First Avenue show, presented by D.E.M.O., a local non-profit that stands for Diverse Emerging Music Organization, was, according to Rachel Lee Joyce, Afrifest Executive Committee member and D.E.M.O. board member, “the crown jewel of Afrifest.” Joyce continues, “He is the top-selling artist in South Africa and it is rare for a first-year festival to attract that level of talent.” Afropop.org dubs Lucky the “shining star of African reggae.”
On the dance floor, Monday night, we are crowded together like subway passengers. The center of the mass undulates as one with the effect lessening as one moves to the edges of the circle. Despite the lack of personal space, everyone is happy. Lucky sings number after number, his trio of dancers, who look as though they were pulled straight out of the Soweto Gospel Choir’s line-up, are shaking their hips and chorusing his words. His band of two guitarists and two sets of keyboards and an expansive drum set backs him. The ecstatic crowd stands, several rows deep; their illuminated cell phones waving like beacons. Flashing cameras punctuate the darkness in the audience.
The evening is a long one. Two warm up bands take stage before Lucky begins at 10:30. KFAI radio, one of the event sponsors has a banner on the railing and D.E.M.O. has a table next to a Ghanaian caterer, Asaseyaa. A lone woman serves up plates of jerk chicken, BBQ ribs, jollof rice, and other ethnic treats. Koreen Valdovinos, public relations coordinator for First Avenue reports that the place is packed and very busy.
When Lucky sings one of his hits, Respect, he tells the story of how the song was snatched up by pirates and hocked over the internet before he had a chance to release his album. But instead of pirates, Lucky called them slave drivers. “One does the work (his band), the other reaps the profits (the pirates),” Lucky explains. But he’s not bitter about this. The lyrics of the song inform the audience of the true nature of Lucky’s heart. “Give love to those who give me war, I love those who hate me, I bless even those who curse me” he sings.
“Lucky’s commitment to justice, liberation, and unity amongst all world citizens has inspired people around the globe while uplifting the spirits of his countrymen,” says Afrifest organizer, Joyce. “The joy that radiates from his spirit when he performs is exactly what we wanted to share through Afrifest,” Joyce concludes.