A session with Black Uhuru’s Andrew Bees
October 17, 2017
Anyone familiar with legendary, Grammy Award-winning reggae band Black Uhuru knows what reggae historian Rogger Steffen means when he writes that “[t]o wail in Jamaican terms, mean[s] to cry out for justice, to beseech the Almighty and the powers that be for a better life.” Steffens aptly describes how “[i]t [is] not just a crying [but an] imploring from the depth of your soul, stripped of all pretense and inhibition” (“So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley,” Norton 2017, p. 14).
Founded in the hardscrabble but artistically rich “Waterhouse” district of Kingston, Jamaica, Black Uhuru (“Uhuru” is the Swahili word for “freedom”) has been wailing “in Jamaican terms” for over fifty years now. The band’s dazzling discography delivers edgy roots reggae music with timeless lyrics as militant as they are deeply spiritual (rooted in the teachings and adoration of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930-1974). Black Uhuru’s unique, plaintive sound – characterized by bewitching instrumentals, blistering bass lines, gratifying guitar riffs, sharp keyboard play, dub echo effects, and kinky, must-skank, must-sway, must-head-bob-to-the-beat riddims – is hypnotic and addicting.
On October 14, I interviewed Andrew Bees (born Oneil Norman Beckford),lead singer of Black Uhuru, for approximately twenty-five minutes; the interview took place following the band’s vibrant and soul-stirring two-hour performance at the Moto Beach Classic at Bolsa Chica State Beach, in Orange County, California. The many topics we discussed included: Black Uhuru’s 2017 U.S. Tour and increased racial tension in the country as compared with previous years; how, as a result, Black Uhuru’s music is arguably more relevant, insightful, and prescient than ever before with iconic songs such as “Bull In The Pen,” “General Penitentiary,” “Whole World Is Africa,” “Solidarity,” “Sinsemilla,” and more; the legalization of marijuana in Jamaica and the United States and its influence on reggae music; Bees’s contribution to Black Uhuru over the years and his solo career; describing the “Waterhouse style” of reggae music; and finally, whether dancehall music can have the same positive influence as roots reggae music – and be a force for good. What follows is a transcription of the interview modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.
Q: Give thanks for a great show, Mr. Bees. It’s a pleasure to meet you.
Bees: Yes I. Give thanks.
Q: With this show, Black Uhuru finished up its U.S. tour for the year. I believe this was the 25th time the band performed in the last month; you’ve played just about every night –
Bees: Every night.
Q: How did the tour go?
Bees: The tour was nice. Everywhere we went, the audience came out; the fans were really supportive, you know? They’ve grown to love Black Uhuru over the years. We put out good energy and everything worked out.
Q: What’s the best place to play in the United States?
Bees: Well, Steve, in life, everywhere you go and perform is a different kind of feel. So far, everywhere we go, the people them always welcome us with open arms. It feels good. So, every time we have to put out this same amount of energy, just for the people them. So we come like there is no place better than some other place. Yes I.
Q: Black Uhuru has been touring in the U.S. for decades now –
Q: But this year, because we’ve had so many black men shot and killed by the police with impunity, and frankly, because of President Trump’s divisive actions and deplorable rhetoric, do you feel there is a greater racial tension in the country than in previous years when Black Uhuru has toured the United States?
Bees: Well, Steve, you know, “the fence can’t hold too much bull inna pen. The mark of the beast is on the president.” You know? And, over the years, leaders make mistakes. And leaders bring down the people. But everything is light within the people still. As much as things look confusing, we the people can make it better. Let’s come together and make it work. So we can’t even think about a president or a leader – a false leader. We have to think as people and know that, we the people have the power to move creation as the world turns.
Video clip of Black Uhuru performing “Bull In The Pen” at the Moto Beach Classic, Orange County, California | Courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper
Q: Yes. But do you think reggae artists and bands have a greater responsibility to spread consciousness in their lyrics because of all this racism, hatred, and xenophobia sown by President Trump?
Bees: Rasta always spread consciousness. Rasta speak for the conscious of the world. Rasta has always had this responsibility. It doesn’t matter who is in charge. Because Rasta speak for the east, north, west, and south. Not only for America. But for Africa. For Europe. Asia. All over the world, Rasta speak for solidarity.
Q: Everyone who knows anything about reggae music knows – and loves – the classic Black Uhuru song, “Solidarity.” The crowd loved it when you played that today! But, going back to “Bull In The Pen” – the other Black Uhuru mainstay you just mentioned – I’ve been thinking a lot about its particular verse, “the mark of the beast is on the president.”
Bees: All the time.
Q: Are the people who are attending Black Uhuru shows singing that verse with a greater verve this year than in the past?
Bees: Yes. But the people also see that the past is the present and the present is the future. It’s no real difference, you know? Leaders always make promises. And they’re false leaders, directors, and dictators, you know?
Bees: In life, we always see this happening over and over. It never changes. It’s just the system – it’s very diabolical.
Q: Another “diabolical” part of the system here in the U.S. – and that Black Uhuru’s music references – is we have over two million people who are incarcerated. Another couple of million people are under some form of criminal justice supervision – on parole or probation. Overwhelmingly, these are poor people. Disproportionately, they’re people of color. And so, even though many of Black Uhuru’s most famous songs – songs like “General Penitentiary” which the band played today – were written in the 1970s and 1980s, Black Uhuru’s music speaks the truth even stronger than ever before. Do you agree?
Bees: Yes. Over the years Black Uhuru has always let the people know that the “Whole World Is Africa.” There is no place that has been mistreated and suffered genocide like Africa. Those are black people, you know? And over the years, no matter where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African. That’s what Peter Tosh said. So, in this time, black people are going through the same depression and struggles. And it’s not just we who need to come together as people – it’s not black people alone, you know – but all people. Because anywhere you go, you have black, white, Chinese, Japanese – every kind of nation [and nationality] has evil in them. So far still, black people are going through a struggle where we need to uplift our soul and our mind and be more courageous. And have more tolerance with each other as people. And come together and make it work. Because who is going to make it work for us?
Q: One subject Black Uhuru has been singing about since its start – and even today, as you ended your show singing “Sinsemilla” – is marijuana. Do you think we’ll ever reach a point in Jamaica and in the United States when we’ll see the full legalization of marijuana?
Bees: Well, in Colorado now, marijuana is helping the economy. Marijuana has helped America’s economy from, I think, many years ago. You know one of the presidents used marijuana for industrial use: making rope, medicine, hemp, all those things. Marijuana [has always been] a very important material for the world to use. There are so many positive uses of marijuana.
Q: So you think at some point we’ll get to a point where the profit-making potential will overcome any resistance?
Bees: It’s happening, you know? In Colorado, they are planting football fields of marijuana . . . which no one has seen happening in America before, you know? It’s happening right now. This is no “fake news.” This is the real thing! (Laughing).
Q: Reggae stars like Damian Marley and Raging Fyah – who have even launched their own personalized strain of marijuana (called “Everlasting Kush”) – are increasingly getting into the business of marijuana. Do you think Black Uhuru will, at some point, seeing as the band has been singing positively about marijuana longer than just about anybody, also get into the business of marijuana?
Bees: Yes, we will. It’s coming together. Many people come to us [with proposals], but we have to research and make sure we go with the right ones. Eventually, we will do it because we are farmers from long time. We are Rasta. When you come to Rasta, Rasta always promote marijuana. For special reasons. For religious purposes.
Q: Like for use in a Nyabinghi drum circle?
Bees: Drum circles all over. Rasta always chanting about the need to free marijuana. We have always known marijuana is great – that it’s a medicine and can be put to all types of positive use. Marijuana is one of the biggest products in Jamaica. But people are still scared of it. With no knowledge of it even.
Q: You’re saying citizens in Jamaica have an unreasonable fear of marijuana and Rastafarians who smoke it?
Bees: Yes. Yes. That’s why it’s not legal there. But it’s getting legal in California. In Holland. In Colorado. All over the place.
Q: Andrew, I want to switch gears and ask you a few questions about yourself and your career. One of the reasons Black Uhuru has remained a great band over such a long period of time has been Duckie’s (Derrick “Duckie” Simpson, Black Uhuru’s founding member) constant ability to recruit virtuosos – velvety-voiced lead singers such as yourself from the Waterhouse district of Kingston – to come and sing with him in Black Uhuru. And so, over the years, a litany of great singers have been part of the band: Don Carlos, Garth Dennis, Junior Reid, Puma Jones, Michael Rose, and more. Personally, I think you are right there, holding your own with all of them. Having seen Black Uhuru perform live several times in recent years, and having done the research, I don’t think that you, Andrew Bees, have been given nearly enough credit and attention for your outstanding contributions – both to Black Uhuru, and also, to reggae music generally – over many, many years. Hasn’t it been over ten years all together that you’ve been the lead singer of Black Uhuru?
Q: It’s been even longer than that, hasn’t it?
Bees: It’s longer. It’s from 1998 that I’ve been singing with the band.
Q: I think it may be even earlier, Andrew. Wasn’t it in 1996 that you first toured with Black Uhuru in Brazil?
Bees: (Laughing). Yeah, Brazil. Yes, yes, yes. And then, in 1997, that is when I joined the band officially until 2003. And then the whole thing was put on pause until [rejoining the band in] 2011.
Andrew Bees performing at the Moto Beach Classic, Orange County, California
Q: And so, compared to all of those famous former Black Uhuru lead singers I mentioned earlier, you’ve been singing Black Uhuru’s songs longer than any person other than Duckie. Isn’t that true?
Bees: (Laughing). Yeah.
Q: Because you’ve been such a big part of Black Uhuru, and as Duckie’s gotten older, you’ve increasingly taken on the role of being the band’s frontman; do you ever feel that you personally have not received enough attention or respect for that?
Bees: Well, what I can say is, I give all the love to the people. The voice of the people is the voice of The Almighty. If it’s credit or big portion you want, the people will give it. So, soon, you know? (Laughing).
Q: You’re still waiting for that credit to be paid – for some respect? But, you have open arms?
Bees: Yes I. And we are not doing anything wrong. Everything lies with the people. The people make you high, and the people make you low. If you connect with the people, you will get your fair share in life. So, I’m just going to keep connecting with the people.
Q: You’re not in any way bitter or upset about the fact that you haven’t received the type of attention and respect – that I think you deserve – in the music industry?
Bees: Well, in fact, Duckie Simpson is the founder of Black Uhuru. I’m a lead singer for the group. I’m not Black Uhuru. Duckie is Black Uhuru. I’m Andrew Bees. I’m still looking for that full [career] as Andrew Bees, you know?
Q: I watched an interview where Duckie said that he “doesn’t trust anybody.” And it’s easy to understand why he feels that way having been ripped off and double-crossed by as many people as he has during his career. But, he must trust you. Because you’ve been with the band longer than anyone with the exception of him. He obviously trusts you with the Black Uhuru brand. You must have a great friendship with Duckie?
Bees: Duckie and I have always been brethren over the years. Me and him never really have a problem. If anything, we work together. And I get what I’m supposed to get, and he gets what he’s supposed to get.
Q: You’ve always maintained a solo career at the same time that you’ve performed with Black Uhuru?
Bees: Always. Yes I.
Q: And you had some very high points in your solo career, when your music seemed to be getting a lot of attention. Correct me if I’m wrong, but your solo career really seemed to peak in 2012 with the covers that you did of the famous Delroy Wilson Songs “Better Must Come,” and then, a bit later with “Cool Operator.” Would you agree?
Bees: Well, differently Steve, back in 1995, I came out with an album called “Militant.” And that album was produced and distributed by RAS Records. And with that album I was touring with The Itals and Israel Vibration, you know? So that album from 1995, it gave me my first international exposure. It allowed me to go to Switzerland. To Japan. To America. I was doing a lot in Jamaica, too. So I was working both locally and internationally.
Q: You have a friend, Fitzroy Francis, who I believe also goes by the name “Mightyful13.” He’s the one who produced those irie Delroy Wilson covers I mentioned, right?
Bees: Yeah, me and him work together. Because Fitzroy is like a brother to me. We grew up together.
Q: I understand you and him would hustle records together in Montego Bay?
Bees: (Laughing). Yeah. On the bus to Montego Bay from Kingston. We were all over the place. As youth in Jamaica, we walked with records on our back from Kingston to Negril. Hustling records all over the place. Selling records, you know.
Q: Were you selling your own music?
Bees: Some was ours, some was [Earl] “Chinna” Smith. I don’t know if you know this guy who usually played with Bob Marley, Stephen Marley, Ziggy Marley – his name is Chinna Smith.
Q: Other than making money, how did that help your career? Did it help you get in good with the other musicians and the various sound systems in Jamaica?
Bees: Yes I. It connect I with all the people, the record shops – everyone in music at that time.
Q: When you were 14 years old you began singing on Radio Jamaica as part of the “Colgate Cavity Fighters.” What was that?
Bees: Well, everyone knows Colgate.
Q: You brush your teeth with it?
Bees: (Laughing). Yeah. You brush your teeth with it. In Jamaica, they have the youth advertise Colgate, and promote that, you know, you’ve got to brush your teeth. And so, there was a program that recruited kids to promote Colgate –
Q: And sing?
Bees: And sing. And recite poems. And do all these things. So that’s how I got connected with that program. And got on the radio. Telling people, “Saturday, look out for me on the R.J.R. giving regards to Neville Willoughby,” you know? (Laughing).
Q: And how did you come by the stage name “Andrew Bees”?
A: As a youth, because I go around and I’m always singing, singing every day, the people say, get out of here, you sound like some bees buzzing . . . . (Laughing).
Q: Returning to your solo career, do you have any new projects you’re working on?
Bees: I have a Dennis Brown [cover], “Writing on the Wall,” coming out soon as a single.
Q: Cool. Who is producing that for you?
Bees: It’s me producing that song. I’m going to be doing a lot of producing this year because I’m going to do some work with [world-famous musicians and producers] Sly and Robbie, recording. They’re going to make some beats for me, you know?
Q: Awesome. Are you going to Jamaica to do that?
Bees: Yes. In January.
Q: Reggae aficionados speak of the “Waterhouse style” from where you grew up in Jamaica. They say it’s passionate singing involving the use of skat. And, one thing I’ve read about it – that I deeply disagree with, because it sounds like an insult – is that it’s “nasally.” To me, it’s not “nasally.” It’s just more plaintive. Perhaps there’s a greater sufferation and wailing in the sound. But you’re one of the people on Earth who knows the Waterhouse style of reggae best. How would you describe it to someone?
Bees: Waterhouse style is, you know, the freedom sound of the music. It’s the sound of love. And togetherness. Compassion. And roots. Because, you see, the music was in Trenchtown. And it leave Trenchtown and come to Waterhouse. Because a lot of [reggae] singers who was in Trenchtown come to Waterhouse. And Waterhouse then really took over Jamaican music. From King Tubby’s to King Jammy’s [sound systems]. King Jammy’s really rule the ‘80s in music. So Waterhouse’s legacy in music is one everyone can be proud of, you know?
Q: Mr. Bees, one last topic I want to ask you about concerns dancehall music. Legendary sound engineer and Grammy Award-winner Errol Brown, who toured with Bob Marley and the Wailers and is still in the business today [touring with Rebelution and involved in many diverse projects] has said: “dancehall music was stifling the good music,” but also that roots reggae music “is coming alive again.” By the same token, you have also been quoted saying about dancehall music that “the drum machines take away the melodies.” And you have also said, “it’s not really reggae.” What did you mean by that? And, do you still feel that way?
Bees: Well, reggae music is Rasta music. Dancehall is just for the youth them. Dancehall is mostly sex, money, and violence. That’s it.
Q: Recently, in The New York Times, there was a piece that concluded that Chronixx other young reggae musicians in the so-called “reggae revival movement” – artists like Raging Fyah, Jah 9, Kabaka Pyramid, Protoje, Jesse Royal – have “sought to integrate modern dancehall with the foundation of Jamaican roots music sonically . . . highlight[ing] cultural themes in their lyrics.” Do you agree with that?
Bees: Words are very essential in life. And it’s mostly the words nowadays that are causing the problem, you understand me? Which probably they say is not a problem, because in America you have guys calling ladies “bitch” or whatever in their rapping. So, it’s an uneducated street slang that people just use some times. But, if you put the right meaning and the right message, even in the dancehall, it can be touching. It can be educating.
Q: So dancehall music can be a positive force if it wants to be?
Bees: Yes. If it wants to be.
Q: But it doesn’t always want to be because of money?
Bees: Exactly. That’s how the world is. Some people are always about the money. They are not about the love or humanity. Most people involved in music – they are not even humanitarian. They’ve got no love! They are just all for themselves and what they can gain. And what they can show off with. It’s all about a show-off game. They are not teaching the love and the spirituality. They are not looking pon the youth who are out there suffering all over the world and struggling. You understand?
Q: Sadly, yes. I do.
Interview By: Stephen Cooper
Writer Stephen Cooper and Andrew Bees at the Moto Beach Classic, Orange County, California