Caribbean

King Yellowman

Meeting the Jamaican dancehall legend

by Garnette Cadogan
Photography by Marlon James

This story first appeared in print in Stranger’s Guide Caribbean.

Climbing quiet, verdant hills that lead to a house peeking over a rambunctious Kingston, I visit Winston Foster, popularly known by his stage name Yellowman, to discuss a musical career spent attracting the affection and ire of reggae fans. In the early eighties, after the death of Bob Marley, fans of Jamaican popular music were impatient for a new star that embodied Marley’s rebel style and roots-reggae sound. What they got was Yellowman, an albino who delivered rebelliousness through an irreverent, comic, catchy style over an assertive new sound named dancehall. And although political concerns drove some of his songs, what most steered them was his ribald lyrics—termed “slackness” in Jamaica—which propelled him to global fame, and, perhaps, helped shift how some saw albinos. Often mistreated and made alien—scorned as if they were lepers whose condition were contagious—albinos were now, in Yellowman’s songs, a sex symbol. “Hi, my name is Yellowman. And in the ghetto they call me Mr. Sexy.” So begins one song in which the albino toaster repeats the boast, “Them a mad over me… girl a go crazy over me.” Its bawdy flavor notwithstanding, the song uses humor to push against the borders of listeners’ imagination. “Albinos were never on the forefront of society,” he tells me, as he speaks of using music to “break down that barrier.” In his voice was the defense, not only the pleasure, of many.

“I’m a soldier,” Yellowman declares early in my visit, and repeats shortly before I leave, as if to bookend our conversation with an image he wants to inscribe in my memory. But he need not insist: it was his perseverance, his dogged resistance against obstacle after another, that brought me to his home. In 1984, as he jumped on the global stage, he was diagnosed with cancer and given a few years to live. Corrective surgery took away the tumor and a significant portion of his face, but seemingly none of his wit or fight. He’s still here. Still here: that phrase, said to me with gumption and gratitude, had the ring of a mantra. “I can’t stop. I cannot stop. I don’t see myself stopping because I grow with this in me, music. This talent is not influenced by anybody, this talent handed down to me by the Almighty.” That’s him, assuring me that he’ll never stop performing, reinforcing his belief that music is bound up in his DNA, as if by divine fiat.

In performance, he is boundless energy—running, jumping, dancing,
even doing pushups between songs—reminding us that he has not merely survived,
but that he is here to carry us along in his enthusiasms.

In performance, he is boundless energy—running, jumping, dancing, even doing pushups between songs—reminding us that he has not merely survived, but that he is here to carry us along in his enthusiasms. (“When I tell them to jump, them jump. When I tell them to sing, them sing,” he marvels to me, delighted and amazed that this kid who grew up in an orphanage would go on to exert such influence over crowds in Jamaica, North America, Asia, Africa). And in conversation, he’s funny, generous, warm; his verbal tics—“understand?”; “you know?”—extend a hand to make sure the interaction is a give- and-take, not unlike his call-and-response live performances.

Yet the slackness makes one sometimes ask, “Why listen?” (Yellowman himself would sympathize with my take on his slackness. About his six children, he told me, “I don’t make them listen to those type of songs… them have to focus on the right way.”) I listen to Yellowman not to chant with his “slackness” or even to protest injustice alongside his political fare, but to remind myself what it means to have music challenge our ideas of ourselves and others. I listen to him to get swept up in the exuberance of his singsong voice prancing upon bouncy rhythms, demonstrating that the abandoned can find refuge in music. I listen to him, to experience the joy that comes from the movement of sound, of bodies, of ambitions that announce: still here.

GARNETTE CADOGAN: How were you raised?

YELLOWMAN: Me did find myself in… an orphanage. Before the orphan days, the childhood days, in the baby days, the people who found me, found [me] in a shopping bag in a trash can. Garbage bin. The garbage collector found me. Took me to that orphanage, Maxfield Park Children’s Home. That’s where I find myself as a little child growing up.

And from there, I move to another orphanage home, Swift-Purcell. After a few years there, I move to Alpha Boys’ Home. And from Alpha Boys’ Home, I move to Eventide Home; not really an orphanage home, it’s a home for people who are neglected. While I’m in Eventide Home, I start to develop the music thing.

After that, I say, “Make me try the studios.” I start to go to studios, and then I get turn way from all the studios. From Joe Gibbs, Channel One, Music Works, Aquarius. Sonic Sounds, Dynamic Sounds. All of them. Me get turned out. People run me away. Because back in the day, the skin color—it was very difficult, discrimination me did face. Even now, I still face it. Growing up in that way, I put all of them things together and make it strength.

The way how me come up in the music business, the way how people discriminate and disrespect, rip off, turn me away from studios—All of those things, I put together as strength.

Photo credit: Marlon James

GC: What did people say when they turned you away?

Y: Them say, “Come outta the studio, boy.” And sometimes me get abuse physically. A man would kick me out, use him foot and kick me out. And push me out. That’s how it go.

GC: Because of your complexion?

Y: Yeah, them never like me. In my days, they called us dundus. Internationally, they call us albino. Mulatto, dundus, all sort of names. And yellowman was one of the discrimination names, so that becomes national. So everybody pick up the name and say, “It’s a very catchy name.” From that till now, them call me Yellowman and King Yellowman.

GC: When did you start calling yourself Yellowman in a way that reclaimed the name?

Y: The late ’70s going into the early ’80s. People used to discriminate and call me all type of names, but Yellowman caught on. Me just leave the name.

“Hi, my name is Yellowman. And in the ghetto they call me Mr. Sexy.” So begins one song in which the albino toaster repeats the boast.

GC: When did you first get interested in music? You said Eventide Home, but you were at Alpha Boys’ Home, known for its music program. Were you involved in music at Alpha Boys’ Home?

Y: Right, right, because Sister Ignatius used to have a sound system. And she was one of the head sisters at Alpha Boys’. So I used to deejay on the sound system.

GC: Did you learn any instruments while there?
Y: No, no, because the instrument was the sound system.

GC: What was the experience like at Alpha, interacting with other musicians and learning to use the sound system?

Y: To tell you the truth, I never knew that other musicians used to be at Alpha until I leave. But it was good. While I was at Alpha, all those musicians, like Leroy Smart, they wasn’t there. I was the only musician who was at Alpha at that time.

GC: Later on, you start going to the studios…

Y: While I was at Eventide, I start go to the studios and then they start turn me out. And then I heard about this competition called Tastee Talent Contest and I go there and they give me a try and I come out to be great and that year was ’79, with me and Nadine Sutherland and Paul Blake—that’s the guy from Blood Fire Posse from back in the days. Paul Blake come first, and Nadine come second.

GC: You didn’t win in 1979?

Y: No, no, I come fourth. I come fourth with a song called “Barnabas Killing.” From after Tastee, I start DJ on [the sound systems] Black Scorpio and Gemini, and then after that Aces International. Because back in the days every DJ have a sound system that they are assigned to. You have Lone Ranger with Soul to Soul. You have Johnny Ringo with Gemini. You have Brigadier Jerry with Jah Love, and on King Stur Grav you have Josey Wales, Charlie Chaplin and Daddy U-Roy. On Killamanjaro you have Super Cat, Ninja Man. Black Star with Tiger. So every sound system used to have its own DJ.

GC: Your performance in the talent contest brought you wider attention?

Y: Yeah, because I was the crowd favorite. It’s the first the people seeing a man like me, with this color, coming on stage and singing. So it surprise and it stun a lot of people. So everything at that time come from my mouth causes… RAAEEEE, everybody make noise.

GC: You came in fourth, but you believe you were the favorite? Y: Yeah, I was the crowd favorite, but I don’t know why [I didn’t win]. I think it was prejudice and discrimination why I never win. Because even when I come off of the stage the people start talk, “A you shoulda get it, a you shoulda win, a through them don’t like you, yute. A you shoulda win.”

GC: And a producer, Henry “Junjo” Laws, approached you shortly after because of that performance?

Y: Yeah, because him hear people start talk. Popular word start go round and say, “Hey! Little dundus boy come on stage and him mash it up!” So the word start go round, and go round, and go round, and Joe Gibbs send call me. And me say “No!” me remember when him turned me out. Remember when Channel One turned me out. But Channel One did have some rhythm what me like. So me go to Channel One before me go to Junjo. And me do two album with Channel One. One album “Mad Over Me” and one album name “One Yellowman Inna the World.”

GC: Albums? Or songs? Y: No, man!

GC: I’ve never heard of them.

Y: Full album. Full album before me go to Junjo. Them never release that album. Nobody never know that me do record. No record never come out in Jamaica at that time. Because, remember, back inna those days, most of the producer them, them hustler, them hustle the music. Them do the record with the artist, and they release it in America or Europe or Africa. So we as the artists never know the music release. So back in the day it’s only the producers that the record showed as owners. The record distributors, they are the only one who used to have house and drive Benz. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, just like at [Coxsone Dodd’s] Studio One, nobody never know.

GC: So you did two albums and thought they weren’t released, but they were being sold abroad.

Y: Yes, it’s after I start tour and fans start come up to me with records and say, “Sign this,” and I sign and say, “Wait, I remember I do this, do these songs.” Even now, I don’t even get a penny off the music.

GC: How about your experience with Junjo?

Y: Junjo was good. Junjo was the only one who used to give me royalties.

GC: What was it like working with Junjo?

Y: Junjo used to produce Barrington Levy before me. It was Barrington Levy, and other people, who told Junjo, “Yeah man, Yellowman, that dundus boy—wicked! You have to record him.” And then Junjo send call me. Because Junjo don’t have a studio. Him only used to rent studio time and do him music. Not like Joe Gibbs and [Joseph] “Jo Jo” [Hoo Kim] from Channel One and Neville Lee from Sonic Sounds. Those guys used to have them studio. When I come to Junjo, him never have anything. Junjo don’t even have a car. So I say, Wait, it’s a little normal man like me. So we have the connection, in that kind of way. Me and him connected and understand each other in that type of life. Little man like me, me in Eventide Home, poor house. And him live in a ghetto. So me do all of the hit music with him. And him used to know the hit. If me say something, him say, “No, don’t say that, say this. This is more it.” A song like “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt,” it was a mistake. It was a mistake. And him say, “No, that good.”

GC: How was it a mistake?

Y: Because me never say, “Nobody move, nobody get hurt.” Me used to say, “Nobody move, nobody get jerk.” That a the song me did tell him me gonna do when me go a the studio: “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Jerk.” And then me reach the studio me say, “Nobody move, nobody get hurt.” And him say, “Yeah, man! That one deh!” And me say. “No, man, is a mistake we make.” And him say, “No, man, no mistake, it’s the right thing, that.” And we just do it and we make up the lyrics round it.

GC: You make up the lyrics? Do you do the chorus first?

Y: Right. We do the chorus first. And then we do the reverse. Make up lyrics and—

GC: You make them up with Junjo, or do it alone?

Y: Him used to guide me. Like if me say something what he knows not going play on the radio.

GC: Like something slack?

Y: Right. Him say, “Don’t say that, say this.” But him never used to like give me the lyrics. Him used to say, “Say something near it.” Like if me say, “fuck,” him say, “No, say sex or say love.”

GC: You’re creating lyrics on the spot? Y: Yeah, man, me just do it on the spot. GC: When did you start writing songs?

Y: To tell you the truth, I don’t write songs. I just make them. When I went to the studio back in the 80s, Junjo would play a rhythm and I find a punchline like a chorus. And when I get the chorus, the melody, I start build the words around it.

GC: Do you start thinking of the words before—

Y: No, I just hear the rhythm and start think the words. And I come up with an idea and I come up with a melody. When I’m gonna do a music, I always go in the studio and listen the rhythm, find a melody. Like “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng.” With “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng,” I just find the melody and then I build the words round it. “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng” was the chorus. The words come and I put them together and it becomes a story.

GC: “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng” is perhaps your most popular song, and it has been sampled endlessly. I read an article [Wayne Marshall’s “Follow Me Now: The Zigzagging Zunguzung Meme”], which I will show you, that traces the melody of “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng” through 52 songs, I believe, from dancehall to hip-hop to reggaeton. How did that song come about? How did you build that song?

Y: Zungguzungguguzungguzeng, it was a political melody back in the ’70s when you had [political adversaries] Michael Manley and [Edward] Seaga. Zungguzungguguzungguzeng was a melody by a rasta guy who was doing a song for the political rally for the PNP. Him would say [he sings the phrase in the Zungguzungguguzungguzeng melody]: “You shouldn’t trouble Mr. Manley, boy.” So me just pick up the idea and say, “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng, Zungguzungguguzungguzeng,” until I start put words behind it. Because politics was so bad in the ’70s in Jamaica, people was so sensitive about the two political parties. Junjo, him never want to do Zungguzungguguzungguzeng, and me say to him, “No, man!” and him say him don’t want nobody have him off as a PNP and have nobody come kill him or anything. And then him make me do the song anyway and then him come back and say, “You know what? I’m going to release the music.” And when him release the music is like “Boom!” Because them did ban it off the air, because it did have a politics melody everybody did know: “You shouldn’t trouble Mr. Manley, boy.” Everybody did know that.

Photo credit: Marlon James

They ban it off the air. So Zungguzungguguzungguzeng become popular by that melody. A lot of people think it’s a chop-up word, but it’s one word: Zung-guzung-gugu-zu- ng-guzeng. But it was so sensitive among the two rival [political parties], the PNP and JLP. Junjo say to me, “How we going do this now?,” because him get a whole heap of threat from the JLP side. Him want to do an album with the Zungguzungguguzungguzeng and him say, “How we going do this, Yellow?” and keep the people, the threat, off of him. Me say, “Me a go go home. Call me the next day.” Him call me the next day, we do the album, nine more songs. Because back in the day, it was ten song is an album. And him say, “How the photo going go, because me get a lot of threat?” Them tell him to stop, to call Sonic Sounds, ’cause they were the ones pressing the record. Call them to stop the order. And me say to Junjo: “The music already established, so you can’t do that.” Him say, “How the album going go?” Me say, “Alright, me and you going go to a school.” And it was a primary school close to Joe Gibbs studio. After the school over, when the children coming out, me say, “Watch this, Junjo. Get your camera man ready.” And because at that time, me was a phenomenon, and the color—You know children, children them always… surprised when they see people like me. So the children start gather round me. And the crowd begin get bigger and bigger. So me say to him, “Take the picture now, tell the camera man to take the picture now.” And when him take the picture with me and the children, me say that a the album picture. And, boom, it’s a hit album.

The photo on the album make everybody start call Junjo and say, “Me like the album. Great work.” Because the children they round me.

GC: The children made it seem apolitical.

Y: Right, it distract everybody from all the bad things about politics and about the song.

GC: Shortly after “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng,” you busted on the international stage, and many declared you were Jamaica’s next musical superstar. What was that like?

Y: It feel like relief, in a way. Even though I still face a lot of prejudice and discrimination. But it’s not hard like back in the ’80s. Now I get more respect.

GC: What was it like in the ’80s?

Y: In the ’80s it was rough, man. Very, very rough.

GC: But it was in 1983 that the album Zungguzungguguzungguzeng was released, and then the following year you got signed to CBS. Out comes the album King Yellowman, with American hip-hop stars like Afrika Baambaataa joining you on it. The following year, you are a guest on Run-DMC’s “Roots Rap Reggae.” What difficulties were you still facing during that period?

Y: That period change a lot of things. A lot of people start respect me as a reggae artist because back in the day they never respect me as a reggae artist. They just have me as a little dundus boy a do him thing. But after those albums, Zungguzungguguzungguzeng and King Yellowman… I remember when long before reggae get a category in the Grammys, hip-hop get a category and Young MC go up to get him Grammy and make him speech. Him say, “Thank god for Yellowman.” And I say, Wow! And it change a lot of things. Because a lot of people see it. They watch the grammys and see it. Then Dennis Brown come to me and say, “Boy, yute, me have to give it to you, because you go through a whole heap of things and you still stand firm.” Same thing with Peter [Tosh] and Bunny [Wailer]. It ease a whole heap of discrimination and prejudice up till now. Because back in the days, me couldn’t even go pon the road. Couldn’t even go pon the road.

Even though I still face a lot of prejudice and discrimination. But it’s not hard like back in the ’80s. Now I get more respect.

GC: What would happen?

Y: Because when me go pon the road people go tease me and call me all sort of name. And even throw things on me, or… GC: They would try to harm you?

Y: [He nods] And spit after me. A lot of things. A whole heap a things I used to go through. Plenty things.

GC: Was the music a way to deal with that?

Y: Yes, is the music change it. Music change everything. GC: Did the music help you get away from the prejudice?

Y: I never knew the music would do that. I never knew. I never expect I would be in the music business. I was just going around and singing to the other children in Alpha Boys School, Maxfield Park. I even used to get flogging for that, too. I used to get beating. I used to get flogging from Sister at Alpha Boys’ School and the staff. Because, even when it’s bedtime, other children used to gather round my bed, and I sing. Because they used to love hear me sing. But me would sing other people song. I used to sing a Bob Marley or a Michael Jackson song. Jackson 5.

GC: When you started coming out with slackness songs, there was a reaction from society and also from other musicians, saying that your songs were too profane. Peter Tosh, for example, was one of the musicians who objected?

Y: A lot of them. Dennis Brown. Peter. Bunny. Third World. A lot of them.

GC: What were Peter’s and Bunny’s reactions?

Y: As a rasta man, they were offended because they were before me and their music is a rebel music. Because their music was rebel music, they were singing about, tribulation, sufferation. And I was singing about man and woman, sex. But when me and Peter became friends, and Bunny, is when they come to me one day and say, “Bredrin, you have to stop singing them songs.” So I say to Peter, “Look, you can’t name me alone, because you listen to R&B songs. R&B sing a lot of X-rated stuff. Look at songs like “Sexual Healing.”” Them start say, “Ah true.” And me and them became friends. Me and Bob [Marley] became friends.

GC: Was Bob one of the people who was critical?

Y: No. Bob never even say a word because Bob mother used to love me. And him children. Bob never was an aggressive guy like Peter Tosh and Bunny. Out of all of the Wailers, Peter and Bunny was the radical guys. They was the guys who was the rough, roughest.

Bob was me friend. Bob was a good friend of mine. Because Bob mother used to love me. I don’t know, maybe it’s because me color. Bob mother love brown high color. Because you know Bob’s father is a white man. So, I used to go to Tuff Gong [Studios] and give them a lot of joke and make them laugh.

GC: Would you talk music with Bob?

Y: No, never music. We just… The mother used to love me. And I don’t know if the influence from the mother makes

everybody else embrace me.

GC: You met his mother at Tuff Gong [Recording Studio]?

Y: Yeah man, Tuff Gong. Me just go up there to see if I can get a break. Them a one of the people who never turn me out or turn me down. And if anyone was there who have the idea or the intention to do it, they couldn’t because Bob did like me, and him mother did love me.

GC: Did anyone ever try, and did Bob or his mother have to intervene?

Y: No, them never show it. Them never show it because the influence round Bob was love. You can’t talk to Bob any bad thing about another man. Bob woulda run you away. That’s the reason why him and the guy name Niney couldn’t agree. Because Niney is a guy who used to love chat. So Bob never like them type of people. You come round him and tell him something bad about somebody, Bob say him no want any of that. So, me pick up that influence from Bob. You can’t come to me and talk bad and talk bullshit about another man. The reason why—I don’t know the man. Who am I if you come tell me bad things about that man? “I don’t want it here”—so Bob used to say. It was the love and the peace round Bob that you can’t talk any bad thing. The discrimination is a bad thing and Bob know that and them know that. So if them did have the intention, them couldn’t say it. Maybe them say it amongst them one another. But not when Bob or Ms. Booker or [Bob Marley and the Wailers bass player] Family Man is there.

GC: Do you feel a greater responsibility when you tour in places where there is prejudice toward albinos to—?

Y: I don’t see it while touring. But when I’m in Jamaica, I see it. But I don’t see it America, I don’t see it in Africa. I don’t see it in Asia. I don’t see it in South America, Europe. I don’t see it anywhere, but I see it in Jamaica.

GC: But you do believe it’s elsewhere?

Y: Yes, it is in other places, but not like Jamaica.

GC: So, you still encounter a fair amount of prejudice here?

Y: Yeah, man. Yeah, man. Even when I’m in concert. A lot of artists don’t want to do concerts with me, even now. The reason I know is promoters tell me. A lot of promoters tell me. The reason why they don’t put me on concerts like Sting, Rebel Salute, that one they have in James Bond Beach. They told me.

GC: Not because they think you’re from an older generation?

Y: No, no, because they still have artists from the old school at those concerts.

GC: When you used to perform with musicians, such as Tanto Metro and Fat Head—

Y: Those guys don’t show prejudice. I do songs with people like Sizzla, Mighty Diamonds, Third World. I do songs with people like Super Cat, people like Josey Wales. I’m talking about nowadays artists.

GC: When you regularly performed in duets, you usually did them with other guys. In Jamaican popular music, duets are usually a guy-girl pairing, but you seemed to prefer guy-guy duets. You’d sing about a girl or sing about a current issue. For example, you and Tanto Metro singing, “The Girl is Mine.” What was it about that kind of duo—?

Y: You have Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney. You have Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. You have Ronald Isley with Rod Stewart. You have George Michael with Sir Elton John. So, it’s just music. Music is music. You know? Is not a guy thing or a girl thing. A duet is a duet. Because Bob Marley sang with Peter Tosh. Jimmy Cliff sang with other artists. Me do some with Run-DMC, and it’s all guys.

GC: What about the duet form attracts you musically?

Y: No, I know what you mean. It feel good, just the same. Because as I was saying at first, a duet is a duet. It just like you wouldn’t find Yellowman singing about a gay guy or a straight guy, because a man is a man and everybody have a right to have them own life, you understand? And have them own destiny.

If I going to sing about a gay person, it’s not going to be against. I have a lot of gay fans, my biggest fan base is San Francisco and Provincetown, you understand? The whole California. I have people come up to me and tell me that they are gay. And I tell them, Me and you is the same. You are my fan. If you are in danger of losing your life and I can help you, I will help you same way. Not because you are gay or you straight. Who am I to be judging another man and telling him how to live him life? Who is King Yellowman? I’m just a human being, just like them. You do your thing, I do my thing. We are human beings. So I will never ever sing a song telling people to kill gay people or telling people to kill another man who’s not gay. If a guy is gay, and him is in that audience, he come to see me, he come to enjoy himself, so I entertain him just the same like the other people. Girl, man, woman, boy, children, everybody—I entertain everybody. So you won’t find Yellowman discriminate against nobody in society whether you rich, poor, politician, lawyer, doctor, Indian, white, black, Chinese, Japanese.

GC: You see yourself, then, as belonging to the world?

Y: Yeah man, everybody own me. To me, everybody own me. People—a person in society, a person who not in society. Everybody own Yellowman. Everybody. I belong to everybody.

 

CONTRIBUTOR

Garnette Cadogan

Garnette Cadogan is an essayist.

Marlon James

Marlon James was born in Kingston, Jamaica. His work has been exhibited at the National Gallery of Jamaica, the IDB Cultural Center (DC), Art Museum of Americas (DC), Bargehouse (London), and Aliceyard (Trinidad).

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