Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos and Video by Martei Korley
Johnny Clarke is a name people tend to forget when naming the great reggae singers. Mention his name to those who know the music’s history, though, and you’ll hear only the greatest reverence and praise for his catalog. Clarke was one of the defining voices of reggae’s definitive decade, delivering hits after hits after hits for producer Bunny Lee in the 1970s. Songs like “None Shall Escape the Judgment” and “Rockers Time Now” exemplified the “flying cymbals” sound Lee became known for, earning Clarke the title of Jamaica’s Artist of the Year in 1975 and 1976.
It was during this period that the singer, who was known for both his reverent cultural material and his tender lover’s rock, recorded “African Roots,” a song that has come to define his career. To this day, each of his shows climaxes with a performance of the song, in which he takes off his tam to reveal his literal African Roots—his dreadlocks.
During a visit to his home off Barbican Road in Uptown Kingston, Clarke gave us a riveting performance of “African Roots.” An out-of-tune piano was no hindrance—in fact, it lent to the performance’s charm—as Clarke belted out the song in the glow of an overcast Kingston afternoon. Just as rich was the history lesson he gave us on his porch and from behind the wheel of his scarlet-red vintage Mercedes SEL, taking us through the birth and growth of dancehall culture—a story which he actively helped define, as he is often regarded as the original dancehall singer.
“Those were the days when the song was not being commercialized,” Clarke tells us, speaking of a time in which Jamaica’s own homegrown sound did not have the support of local radio. Dancehalls were often the only place to hear that pure reggae sound geared to the Jamaican crowd —hence the naming of the genre that grew out of this environment. “You couldn’t hear it every day, or when there is no dance time, or during the week — because dancehall was mainly on a weekend…”
These were also the days, Clarke recalls, when “the DJ played the selector role…. The same man [who] selects the song is the man who is on the mic.”
Today, Clarke can look back on his career accomplishments with pride — specifically when it comes to the spreading of the Rastafari message, through songs like “African Roots” and his version of the Abyssinians’ “Satta Massagana.” He finds his greatest pride, though, in the ways that message has been continued and furthered by those who’ve come after him. “Rasta gets more respect. Rasta is being promoted. The youth dem really play dem part, as far as seeing that Rasta is never ending, continually, non-stop, ‘pon a global basis, too.”
He is particularly encouraged by the response he receives in Africa, a place he doesn’t just sing about, but which he has visited many times to perform.
“I just wanna tell you why Africa is a different place from the rest of the world,” he says. “It is a place where I get the most respect. As I sing, There is a land far, far away. Dem ah treat yuh like I and I come far, far away.”
Watch “African Roots” with Johnny Clarke: