Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Martei Korley

I was born and raised in the ghetto/With the blood of African Roots/So you can always call me, Call me African Roots. —Johnny Clarke, “African Roots” (1976)

Here at LargeUp, we like to tell every story in the most vivid, visual way that we can. Whether that means traveling a few extra miles (or across the ocean) to shoot someone at home, or pairing an interview with evocative, unexpected supporting images, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to illustrate the stories people have entrusted us to tell.

Such was the case with our recent “African Roots” LargeUp TV webisode with singer Johnny Clarke.

Some years back, creative director and co-founder Martei Korley visited Clarke at his home in uptown Kingston, reasoning with the foundation singer on topics ranging from the early days of Jamaican soundsystems, to his travels abroad in Africa, and beyond. As we reviewed this “lost” footage recently, the jewel that emerged was an intimate performance of Clarke’s 1976 single “African Roots,” from his Bunny Lee-produced Rockers Time Now album.

Clarke, who grew up in Kingston’s Whitfield Town community, paints a simple but stirring portrait of ghetto life on “African Roots,” illustrating how the dreadlocks on his head symbolize the long and painful journey from Africa to Kingston, a symbol that he now wears with pride. “African Roots” has become something of a theme for Clarke over the years; he ends every live show with it, removing his tam to reveal his dreads. Accompanied by the warm, creaky sound of an out-of-tune old piano that day in Kingston, his lyrics seemed to take on an even richer hue.

To fully bring this performance to life, Martei tapped into the deep pool of photographs he has accumulated during his many years documenting Kingston (for magazines, album cover shoots, LargeUp —and his own personal projects). Specifically, vibrant images showing everyday, regular life in the sort of ghetto communities Clarke eloquently sings of on “African Roots.”

“I was trying to work out the first line, where he says, I was born and raised in the ghetto with the blood of African Roots,” Martei says. “I wanted to show images of the African experience as transported to a ghetto in the Western world.”

The photos were not chosen at random: Each is deliberately ordered, underscoring the broader story told in the song. These bright, complex shots of communities like Tower Hill and Waterhouse offer a contrast to the stark, menacing images often used to illustrate Kingston garrison life in magazines and music videos.

“A garrison community is a community like any other, with people who love and live, and experience,” Martei says. “People want their community to be better, they want peace, they want better socioeconomic conditions. If you take the time to accept people in their situation, you get a chance to share more of what the communities are like. Instead of the facade of how tough this community is, it can be more personal.”

Blink and you might miss the photos in “African Roots.” So we thought we would present them here, as a photo series.

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This is Sandy Gully, a big gully in Kingston. This shows some of the environmental problems that people in the communities have to live with. They have to deal with an extreme amount of garbage, and rats, when the rainwater comes down from the hill.

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He is keeping an eye on things in Waterhouse, observing a peace march. I was photographing the march for a magazine. There had been some unrest and some gang-related crime, and people were needing peace. There was an organized march that took place through the community with Nadine Willis and Beenie Man, both of whom have roots in Balcomb Drive in Waterhouse.

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These kids are in a community in Red Hills Road, where I was shooting for an album cover. They are playing with a handcart, debating about style and technique, and who did what.

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A ‘welcoming’ sign on a random gate, off Balcombe Drive in Waterhouse.

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This is a standpipe, off of Verene Avenue—If you were to turn around, you would see that same gully with all of the garbage. A woman in the corner is preparing a soup, and a dog is waiting for somebody to come by and give it something. As you can see, the water keeps trickling. It reminds you that some people don’t have available water. This is not a well-maintained public facility. This is part of a struggling community’s not-too-polished water supply.

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When you live in a community where you can’t afford to finish a wall or put in a new bedroom for your children, you’re limited in the resources that you have for beautification. Art is not a high priority in a barely-surviving community. A mural is one way to counter that, and a way to communicate an idea and a thought.

This is from 2006 in Tower Hill. I was shooting in the community for an album cover. Haile Selassie is a champion of the poor, and has always been a symbol of the freedom both for Rasta, and for African people, around the world. In Jamaica, the Rastafari message has always been stronger among the less affluent classes of people. Religion in general is stronger among the less affluent. The lower socio-economic groups in Jamaica have a more direct communication with their African roots now and traditionally, through things like kumina, nyabinghi, pocomania.

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Two ladies in Tower Hill just chilling… They were full of life and energy. The day was a bit bleak, but they seemed to radiate energy.

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This is Donovan McLeod, known as Danny Coxsone. He is from Matthews Lane, but he lives at Sugar Minott’s Youthman Promotion yard. He painted all of the murals there. He is a very active muralist, with artwork all over Kingston. This mural symbolizes Black nationalism and the divinity of the throne of King David, and its Ethiopian seed. It shows Psalm 87, and it shows Haile Selassie, and it shows two quotes from Marcus Garvey, and one quote from the Wailers — all prophetic, uplifting narrative about the history of African people.

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This is outside of a bar, on Olympic Drive. A daddy walked up with his young son while somebody was preparing to take his speakers away for servicing.

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This is from the same Peace Walk in Waterhouse. The person in the white shirt is attempting to appeal to the people walking away, who don’t want to appear on camera, which is common in volatile communities. People often don’t want to be identified on camera. It depends on what is going on with the community, and sometimes what people have been involved in.

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A fisherman shows off some freshly caught parrot fish in Old Harbor Fishing Village, just after daybreak. The type of canoe is very similar to the ones you will see in Ghana — just like the people are similar to the people you will see in Ghana. This is a place where traditions are much the same as in Africa. It is a definite remnant of African culture.

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That is a perpetual thing you will always see in the ghetto. People will try to add rooms or floors to buildings without having the funds to finish them, but want to make a start. It is an ambitious undertaking. This building is a symbol of the will to transform one’s surroundings, and striving for better in a garrison community.

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