A Q and A with Duckie Simpson of Black Uhuru
September 13, 2016
Award winning reggae group Black Uhuru will perform live at the Lampost in Oak Bluffs on Thursday, Sept. 22. The band, named after the Swahili word for freedom, was formed in Jamaica in 1972. They hail from the Waterhouse district of Kingston, a tough neighborhood that is home to many great musicians, including some of the original Wailers. While the band has gone through many incarnations over the years, founding member Derrick “Duckie” Simpson remains at the helm, steering the group toward international success. The 1985 album “Anthem” was the first to win a Grammy for best reggae album. During the ’80s, Black Uhuru toured with arena rock bands, including the Rolling Stones and the Police. Keith Richards made a cameo playing guitar on their song “Shine Eye Gal.” As the group tours the U.S., The Times caught up with Simpson on the phone and talked musical influences, leadership, and the importance of leather outfits.
What was the first music you remember listening to?
Our music was coming from America in the ’50s. My music history starts with the Teenagers, Fats Domino, the Impressions, The O’Jays, Motown, dem guys. Also, my father was a musician — although not a professional one. He played the rumba box. Every Saturday I would go and watch him play with his friends. He sang a bit too.
I remember listening to Radio Fusion, Jamaica’s first radio station. I would go to the dances, and I played a little drum in school.
What was your upbringing like in Jamaica?
I was born in the Rema neighborhood [Kingston], which borders Jonestown and Trenchtown. I lived on Thompson Street, right across from the Ambassador Theatre. Big American artists like Fats Domino would come there to perform, and I’d see them come and go. When I got a little older, I moved to Waterhouse.
Where do you get your inspiration to write music?
I used to write poems. I realized that poems were music, you just needed verses, a bridge, and choruses. I dropped out of school at age 11. I grew up on the streets. My father was in America, and my mother had died. I would just do whatever I wanted. I started smoking marijuana at a very young age, running from the police, getting beaten by the police. I just barely missed going to prison. I was arrested with marijuana with a bunch of guys, and I was the only one who didn’t go to prison. I was lucky. At that time in Jamaica, if you got caught with marijuana, pack your bags because you are going away for a long time.
Black Uhuru has performed with some legendary rock bands like, the Rolling Stones and the Police. Did you pick anything up from them?
Yeah, we played some shows with them, Wimbledon I think, and some others. Keith Richards played guitar on “Shine Eye Gal.” As far as picking things up, I’ve been performing all my life, and from a very early age I was fashion-conscious. Even in the ghetto I was very put together. Before I was a singer I was dressed up in leather and stuff. By the time we were touring, we already knew how to put ourselves together. We had the bad-boy image going on already.
You’ve managed to persevere through many lineup changes. What drives you to keep making music and performing?
I was born a leader, ya know? There are leaders and followers. Throughout my history a lot of different guys have come and gone as singers. They are all from the same corner, you know what I mean? All guys from the neighborhood, and it’s like they wait their turn. One comes and one goes, from Michael Rose to Junior Reid. I’m a role model for the community. I know how to get things done, and I’m respected for it.
Is there any new reggae music that is exciting you these days?
Honestly, I don’t listen to a whole lot of music, but when I do, I like some Shaggy songs, Shabba Ranks, and Sizzla. Some of the new guys like Protoje, Jesse Royal, Chronixx … and I love Jr. Gong. Everybody loves the Marleys. I like some hip-hop and some rock. I love all kinds of music, even Chinese and Vietnamese music.
What do you like about performing on the Vineyard?
It’s funny, before you called we were just talking about the Vineyard. Everybody wants to go back. It’s nice that it’s secluded, you have to take a boat to get there. Last year we did a massive cookout there. I like the Vineyard. It reminds me of Negril.