Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Martei Korley
It hasn’t been an easy road for Winston Foster, better known as dancehall star Yellowman. Born with albinism, as a baby he was left for dead in a trash heap, raised in various orphanages before finding himself at Alpha Boys School, the Kingston institute considered to be the birthplace of ska and modern Jamaican music.
Surmounting great odds — odds made even greater by the stigmas against people with his condition that existed in Jamaica at the time — he rose to become dancehall’s first international star in the early 1980s, signing to Columbia Records after gaining fame in Jamaica with his colorful, humorous and often X-rated (or slack) lyrics. But just as his career was taking flight, Yellow was diagnosed with skin cancer, told by doctors he had just a few years to live. That prognosis proved to be inaccurate, but a surgery to remove a malignant abscess from his jaw left his face partially disfigured.
In spite of the obstacles he’s encountered in his 59 years, Yellow takes great pride in his appearance. He is a dancehall performer and a Jamaican, after all. For Yellowman, fitness, like his lyrics, is a way to control how he’s seen by the world. For a cancer survivor who’s pushing 60, he keeps himself in impeccable shape, something made immediately clear if you’ve ever caught him in a live setting.
Witnessing Yellow in action outside Jamaica’s National Stadium at the concert following Jamaica’s 50th Anniversary Gala in 2012 was an unforgettable moment. Wearing over-sized athletic shorts with tennis-ball green sneakers and matching socks, he high-kicked his way onto the stage, looking more like an ’80s tennis star who’d just wandered off court than your typical, suit-and-jewelry clad dancehall showman. He flexed and kissed his muscles as he made his way through his classics (“Zungguzungguguzungguzeng,” “Mad Over Me”), dropping down to the ground to give the crowd 20 push-ups. He might have even done some jumping jacks. It was a demanding physical performance delivered with minimal sweat by a (then) 57-year-old cancer survivor.
Given the opportunity to speak with Yellow not long thereafter at his home in Uptown Kingston, we had to inquire about his fitness regimen, and how he keeps in shape. As he told us that day, it’s not about fancy machines or gym memberships, and it’s definitely not about pills and supplements. His daily routine at home is simple: push ups, free weights, some time with the punching bag, and a run through the hills near his home. He keeps a mostly Ital diet (he does eat chicken), preferring local bounties like soursop and mango to processed foods. His constant touring schedule doesn’t always leave room to follow his regimen out on the road, but no worry. On tour, Yellowman’s live show becomes part of his personal fitness routine, he says, a place to sharpen his muscles while giving his fans what they paid for, and then some.
In Yellowman’s own words, here’s how to stay in shape like a true King of Dancehall.
I do a lot of things [to stay in shape]. First of all, I live in the mountains. I run up and down the mountain every day. I do my push ups, I pump some iron and then I do my routine on the punching bag I have at home.
My mind is a good mind. When any bad thing happens, I don’t think about it, I forget about it and move on. I understand every part of life. I expect all the good and the bad so all of that comes together and it makes me strong. I have the mindset that whatever comes, good and bad, I’m gonna accept it and move on.
I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t take drugs, I don’t eat meat—only fish and chicken. I try to eat the right type of food. I drink a lot of fruit juice and eat a lot of fruits. If I eat fast food, it’s the last resort. If I’m in certain parts of the world where you can’t get anything healthy, I will take it. But I’m not gonna live on it for no period of time. I balance my life.
I don’t take vitamins. Everything is natural. We Rastaman call it Ital. No preservatives, nothing. Even when I have a pain, I don’t take any pills. Not Viagra. I don’t take that 5-hour vitamin they have now. Nothing. Just me, and God.
Sometimes I dress like a soccer player [onstage], sometimes like a basketball player. I do every sport. When I was in Barbados, I dressed like an American football player with the helmet. I wear the muscle tee and the people love it.
One day after I did a concert, a person came up to me and [said] I’m a liad, I am not this amount of age. So I take that person to my hotel room and I showed them my passport and my age and then they believed. They can’t believe where I get this young body from because it can’t be, but it’s me.