Steel Pulse founder David Hinds.
Steel Pulse founder David Hinds.
Photo by Cecile Maurel

Steel Pulse's David Hinds Talks Reggae, Racism, and Barack Obama

In the run-up to massive reggae fest Bayside Rocks, Crossfade's already spoken with Frederick "Toots" Hibbert about the birth of reggae. We've also convened with Puerto Rican crew Cultura Profética. (Not to mention, we've spent the week revisiting our cache of Marley albums, Marcus Garvey manifestos, and hydroponic ganja.) But now we've got Steel Pulse founder, David Hinds, on the line and he's ready to reel off some wisdom.

The topics: Rock 'n' roll, racism, Rastafarianism, British punk, politics, anarchy, marijuana, and Barack Obama.

New Times: As a kid in England, did you start out by collecting reggae records?

David Hinds: Well, the records I was collecting was what was happening locally in Britain, like the Searchers and Freddie and the Dreamers, which were affordable for people my age. The Jamaican music wasn't accessible at that time. It was mostly accessible through us bringing the records over to our siblings or our family members in suitcases and stuff.

Did you continue listening to stuff like the Dreamers? Or did you grow out of it when you dug deeper into reggae?

I obviously grew out of it because those times faded and reggae became a stronger entity. It wasn't only music, but it had a political and social aspect as far as what was going on in Jamaica and also in the UK. By the time it got to the '70s during my teens, there were undertones of racism throughout Britain. There was high unemployment in black communities. And the reggae music was about hope of existence and songs that were very spirit-altering.

So you were drawn to the social and political aspects of the music?

Yes, that's the part I gravitated toward the most at the time. By 1968, for example, reggae became a household name in England when Desmond Dekker came with "Israelites" and "It Miek." But it was still a novelty type of music. It used to be referred to nationally as a gimmicky type of music.

But then came the roots part of it, which wasn't accessible on the radio or the shops because the statements that were uttered. So you had specialized record shops that were set up in Caribbean communities. And that was the side of the music that we decided to gravitate toward, not what Radio One and Two would play, which was a Desmond Dekker type of reggae. We were going to the grassroots and the political statements made in the music.

Steel Pulse's touring opportunities were limited in the beginning by the political bent of the music. Were people genuinely afraid that the music was powerful enough to creat social change?

They were scared for all kinds of reasons. Previously, in regard to black communities, we had what were called "speakeasies" in America. But we actually called them "blues dances." And anybody in the black community who had aspirations of owning a club had reservations about the kind of people that would be attracted to that style of music. You know, the Rastafarian contingency like the Abyssinians, Burning Spear, and Bob Marley and the Wailers. It's about Rastafarianism and it's also about the use of marijuana. And club owners at the time were skeptical of having their clubs closed down because of the people we attracted to listen to the music and smoke marijuana. So there was that side of it.

As far as the radio stations, they thought it was threatening because "I don't know what he's saying. But he sounds angry." And when it came to recording studios, there was antagonism because the studios were white-owned. They weren't black-owned. And they always thought that the way the bass lines were registered was kind of off the Richter scale when it comes to destroying their equipment, i.e. the speakers or the mixing desk.

Those were the kind of problems we had. We called them "teething pains."

Later, you toured alongside British punk bands. Did punk and reggae have the same goals?

Not necessarily. We [reggae musicians] became very much isolated in black communities. Because of racism, unemployment, police harassment, we isolated ourselves and the music was our source of energy and power. It gave us a brand-new lease on life after all these setbacks.

When punk rock came into play, it was the punks acknowledging what we were about as opposed to the other way around. Anything that Britain had a problem with, the punks were going to support it. And anything that Britain was supporting, they were going to be antagonistic toward it. So they said: "What doesn't Britain like? They don't like black music. You know what we're gonna do? We're gonna get all the reggae acts that have established themselves and have them be opening acts for us."

That was the connection really. And the other connection was that the music was anarchy. As far as the styles of music were concerned, there weren't many similarities at all. Punk was about noise and being totally disorganized, even when it came to the way they wore their clothes. They'd go to shops that were top-of-the-line fashion stores and paying $200 or $300 for a pair of trousers or a shirt and then put holes in them to make a statement about the status quo. Whereas we were about order in the music and we had a mindset more geared toward Pan-Africanism.

A lot of Steel Pulse's material has dealt with racism. Has there been any advancement? In the U.S., for example, since Obama's been elected, there's an idea floating around that we're moving toward some kind of post-racial period?

Racism has never gone away for America. That's what it has always been about. Now America found itself with a president previous to Obama who was probably the worst president that the counntry's ever had. In my opinion, Barack Obama got selected simply because George Bush was so bad as a president that they had to look in the direction of a black man. And that's the way I see it, with no disrespect.

It just happened that Barack Obama was pulling all the right strings at the same time. He's eloquent, handsome, and whatever words he uttered contained emotions that convinced us all. Never in the history of America have we heard words uttered with such conviction since Dr. Martin Luther King. And it was King's prophecy being fulfilled, when he said within the next 40 years we'll see the first black president.

But having said that, with Obama at the helm and America suffering from amnesia, people have forgotten what he inherited despite his color: a country in a really bad situation when it comes to the financial aspect, several wars around the world, and the threat of terrorist attacks, and everything else. There are also those who can't come to terms with America growing out of racism, because it definitely has when you compare it to 100 years ago. There's been a lot of progress, thanks to activists like Martin Luther King, Washington Carver when it comes to invention, and others like Ella Fitzgerald and Thelonius Monk when it comes to music. It's through the prowess of these people that the world's become more accepting when it comes to race. Yet it's still obvious and evident that a lot of Obama's opponents have racism at the root of their complaints.

Like I was in America a couple of days ago and the media was talking about Obama's trip to India costing $200 million a day. And I'm asking myself: "There are so many issues that are pressing and so much that needs to be sorted. Why are they spending so much time on news that's not true?" It's ridiculous. He's making his visits as every other president does throughout the history of America. It's, like, damned if you do, double-damned if you don't. And this is where I know that racism has not gone away. You know, the Ku Klux Klan isn't up to it like it was back in the day. It takes on another form sometimes.

Since we sort of stumbled upon it, let's talk about "Barack Obama Song." How did you end up writing it?

A few years ago, I first came across the likes of Barack Obama during a campaign he was doing while John Kerry was running for presidency. He made a speech. And after he finished speaking, Hilary Clinton put her hand up to her mouth like someone who had witnessed a miracle birth or something. She was gobsmacked, dumbstruck, and flabbergasted by the words this man had uttered. I'm no lip-reader, but she seemed to form the words, "Oh, my god." And I said to myself: "That guy's president material."

A lot of people, even in the Rastafarian community, were opposed to us writing the song. But I was looking at it, like, [a black man's] going to hold a post, which I never thought I'd witness. It showed me that, when it comes to the mass of blacks in the United States, there are other options than being a janitor or a bank clerk.

Will "Barack Obama Song" be on the new Steel Pulse album?

Actually, we wrote another song about him. But the "Barack Obama Song" will not be on the album. We've written something that we think will be more potent and provocative. It could probably create a lot more controversy. Who knows? We just write what we see.

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