“South Africa needs a lot of love at the moment…”
It is easy to react to Lucky Dube’s murder with outrage and grief. It is right to do so. I would also wish to celebrate the life of a friend. It is appropriate to do so in this blog, because Lucky Dube was an unheralded pioneer in the world of interactive digital content that pre-dated Web 2.0 by many years.
His 1996 10th-anniversary album, Serious Reggae Business, was the first South African CD to use the CD Extra format to include written and visual content on a music CD. Although CD Extra was also being used in 1996 to include MWeb’s new starter software on music CDs, Lucky’s album was the first to go fully multimedia with content that tied in with the music.
Gallo record company had commissioned Andre Venter, a pioneer in multimedia production, to handle the production, and myself, as a music journalist and long-time friend of Lucky’s, to conduct the interviews, and write the script and album liner notes. The interview turned out to be one of the most intensely personal I have yet conducted.
The songs on the album represented the greatest hits of his first 10 years as a reggae artist. He refused to call it a greatest-hits album because, he said, a greatest-hits compilation is for dead artists.
The liner notes combined my interview with an overview of the songs to give context to his music and life story. Today, it is my tribute to a complete human being.
Serious Reggae Business, liner notes by Arthur Goldstuck, Johannesburg, 1996, based on an interview at Downtown Studios, Johannesburg
This is the unedited version of the liner notes. Some of it was removed from the printed liner notes. Clips from the interview can be viewed on the CD itself.
Lucky Dube was born on August 3 1964, with almost nothing in his favour: alcohol led to the break-up of his family, he lived with a succession of uncles and aunts, and he grew up amid hunger and poverty. More than three decades later, he is the most successful recording artist in Africa, but he has never forgotten his origins. In fact, it is his understanding of suffering that enables him to create the songs that have the power to move the world.
Serious Reggae Business marks the 10th anniversary of Lucky’s career as a reggae artist, and a year in which he was named the world’s best-selling African recording artist at the World Music Awards. The album also sends a signal to the world that Lucky Dube does not want to rest on his laurels, but rather wants to move forward by adding new influences and new technologies to his music. So, while this is largely a compilation album, it is not a greatest-hits album.
“Greatest hits are done when people are dead or when they cannot make music any more, when they don’t have any more ideas,” says Lucky. “This is not the end of everything — there’s still more to come.” He adds, with typical modestly: “Maybe I’m still going to have some hits in the future.”
Although Mr DJ sounds like a classic example of kind of songs many artists produce to get radio airplay, it was part of Lucky’s live act for many years before he recorded it. “This is how we open our show; it was going to be an intro to the album as if we are in a live show. We were not necessarily asking DJs that they must play this song.”
Lucky is best known for his stirring reggae anthems, but many of his songs explore the personal demons — in reality often senseless fears — that haunt many people and have as much impact on their lives as do the political events around them.
“The idea behind my music is I write the music about people’s fears, people’s joys, people’s dreams and everything. Feel Irie talks more about people’s fears and my fears as well, because it says there that no man can hide from his fears. Since they’re part of him, they’ll always know where to find him.”
Together as One
This is the song that Lucky acknowledges broke the “political virginity” of the state-run South African Broadcasting Corporation. The title track includes the line: “Too many people hate apartheid, why do you like it”. The first instincts at the SABC were to ban the album, but it was persuaded to reconsider its decision, and an anti-apartheid song received airplay for the first time.
“Together As One was a difficult one. Dave Segal was there and Richard Siluma was there, and when I mentioned the word apartheid — because they didn’t know the song before we did it here so they just heard me singing in the song, “Too many people hate apartheid” — they immediately stopped the tape and they said you can’t say that, you can’t say apartheid. That was what was happening at that time; you couldn’t mention that word in a song, and so we stopped and talked for a while. But eventually we thought, yes, this is what I wanted to say and this is it.
“That was at a time when South Africa was changing, and we did not have as much trouble as we expected. The SABC wanted books and things, wanting to know where I come from, how I think, and things like that, just checking me out basically. And after that they played the song.”
Lucky’s third reggae album, Slave, was one of the great success stories of South African music, going triple gold in three months, and having sold more than half-a-million copies to date. Although the theme of Slave is the impact that alcohol has on people’s lives, the refrain “I’m just a slave, a legal slave” caught the imagination of the music-buying public.
“I’ve seen a lot of families breaking up because of drinking; I’m a victim of that. So it was just my way of trying to warn people against it, but then people read into songs, which is why maybe we write songs for people and not for ourselves. So they read that ‘legal slave’ part into the song, which I didn’t have a problem with because a song is meant for the people. That is cool, I’m happy with it, because it means that they are listening to the song, they are not just dancing to the song.”
Steel Bars always plays two roles in Lucky Dube’s live show: to introduce the next song, Prisoner, but also to give the backing vocalists a chance to shine.
“I allow everyone to have some sort of a contribution to the whole show. When doing shows everyone must contribute something to make it a success. I’m not saying it’s a Lucky Dube thing so it’s only Lucky Dube that’s got to do things here, but everybody can do what they want to make the show work better.
“As long as it’s all working to make the show better and not working against the show. If I believe it’s good, then we can do it to make the show better. That’s the reason why the girls have got their intro where they sing without me. That helps them as well to improve and know they mean something to the band.”
If Slave changed Lucky’s life, Prisoner changed the South African recording industry. In five days, the album sold no less than 100 000 copies, and another 120 000 in the next three weeks. Ironically, in the week of its release, eight of South Africa’s longest-serving political prisoners were released from jail, a major step in South Africa’s slow road to democracy. As so many times before, Lucky had unintentionally tapped into the national spirit of freedom hungry South Africans. Yet, he has never regarded his songs as political messages.
“They are all dealing with true and real-life experiences in our day-to-day lives. That’s what they deal with: social issues, even though some people see them as political things.”
Reggae Strong for Peace
In 1991, with South Africa in the grips of political violence, the country’s top reggae acts, led by Lucky Dube, decided to play for peace. The result was the Reggae Strong for Peace concert on May 2 1991, with 14 acts performing at an all-day festival, and coming together at the end to perform a theme song written by Lucky.
“It was kind of difficult to write a song like that which was going to be sung by a lot of different people. I don’t just write a song from nowhere; I mean there’s got to be something that triggers it off. That’s maybe why I have a problem writing a song for some other guy, because I write a song about something that has happened to me or to someone next to me, something that I know about, something that I’ve seen, something that I’ve experienced.
“With the Reggae Strong for Peace song, that was like maybe all my experiences in life and so I had to take it and give my experiences to other people to sing. It was a difficult one, but it was cool.”
We’ve reached that time of the album where, just as in his live shows, Lucky has slowed down the tempo and introduced a mellow atmosphere. This is the time when he shows off his astonishing vocal range — no less than four octaves, which would almost qualify him as an opera singer — as well as the depth of his musical skills. We listen to him slip easily from a reggae backbeat into the quiet piano moments of his ballads and love songs.
“The music must go with the message. Even though I’m a reggae singer, it doesn’t mean that I understand or write only reggae and nothing else. I do write other forms of music, and so thought if I did Remember Me or My Son I’m Sorry in a very groovy type of thing, maybe the message wouldn’t go to the people as it did in a ballad. It’s slow and it’s an easy-listening type of thing, so people can listen to it very easily and get the message. The music goes with the lyrics. It’s got to balance.”
My Son I’m Sorry
A few months before he put together this album, Lucky was reunited with his son, whom he had barely seen in 10 years. His former wife had refused to let him see the boy, but as strenuously as Lucky worked to push his career to new heights, so hard did he work at trying to earn the love of his son. One of the results was this song:
“I was maybe, what, about 21 or 22. I had a son at that time but we had problems between me and the mother, and so eventually I was not allowed even to go near this guy and we would see each other, like, from a distance. I didn’t want to stay away, because I have experienced that, being without a father. I didn’t want him to be without me. But the only way I thought I could talk to him in a way was through my song. I was trying to reach this guy and say, ‘I’m sorry, I wish you could understand, I wish I could talk to you, I wish I could tell you what happened.'”
Lucky never knew his own father, but in the same way he reached forward to make contact with his son, he reached back to “talk” to his father — as well as to other children in his situation — in yet another intensely personal song.
“My music is about me, my music is me. It talks about my fears, my joys and everything. Remember Me talks about my father. I don’t know him, I’ve never seen him, maybe I saw him for two or three seconds one year, I can’t remember, but I basically don’t know him. I wrote that song not necessarily for me, but for all the children that would be in the same situation as me, because I know there are a lot of children out there who don’t know their fathers, who have never seen their fathers.”
I Want to Know What Love Is
This is a song that the whole world came to know through the work of other artists, but Lucky has breathed new life into it with his unique vocal treatment. But why this song? How does it fit into Lucky’s reggae showcase?
“I’ve always liked Foreigner. I’ve been listening to their music for a long time, and I think it was last year when we started doing I Want to Know What Love Is, but I wasn’t doing the whole song. Live on stage I would just do the chorus, but I would fuse the chorus with Together as One. The band loved it, and people loved it, and everybody was just singing along, which was a great thing, because it’s also important that people should sing these songs so that they do get the message.
“South Africa needs a lot of love at the moment, and so we put that song in there just to make people aware that there is something we need here that we don’t have — we need love, and there are a lot of question marks as to what love is.”
House of Exile
On the House of Exile album, Lucky once again tapped into the national mood of the time as political prisoners were emerging from the jails and South Africa’s exiles began returning home. But there was one “exile” in particular who inspired the song.
“We all have suffered as black people or whatever, oppressed and all that, but no one has suffered like Nelson Mandela. Even though we were oppressed and everything was happening to us, at the end of the day we would all go back home to our children, wives, and everything, all our loved ones there. But he did not have that. He was just locked up there somewhere.
“It doesn’t matter whether you are poor or suffering or whatever, as long as you’ve got people around you that love you, people that care for you, it’s OK, but he didn’t have that. He was in that house of exile. And as the song says, in the night we dream of Romeo and Juliet; all he dreams about is the freedom of the nation.
Peace Perfect Peace
The Reggae Strong for Peace concert did not only mark Lucky’s first attempt to write a song for a large group of acts, but also one of the few occasions on which he performed other artists’ songs. Once again, though, it was the right song at the right time.
“It was also at the time when South Africa needed peace and the people needed to hear peace. We did Peace Perfect Peace. It’s a Toots Hibbert song, but I thought it’s a song that’s got the right message, and that was a message people wanted to hear at that time. We have resurrected the song and put it on this album because people still need that.
“We still need to maybe even educate people about peace, because we talk about it, politicians sign peace treaties which mean nothing to the people — it’s just something between the politicians, but they don’t actually talk to the people about peace, they don’t teach people about peace. I don’t think signing a treaty means anything to a guy in the street. So I think it’s every musician’s duty to try to teach people or educate people about peace.”
In 1993, Lucky captured the bitterness of a nation at war with itself on his album Victims. Lines such as “still licking wounds from brutality, still licking wounds from humiliation” were among the most heartfelt and angry Lucky had written. Critics described it as a “peace cry”. But when it was suggested Lucky had become a politician, he rejected the idea out of hand.
“I don’t know much about politics, you know, but I know about truth. I wanted to be a politician myself some time, but I just didn’t know much about corruption. Maybe that’s why I’m a musician, because I can just do what I do and just tell the truth. But if you tell the truth, they say you’re a politician.”
Nevertheless, the album quickly entered the Billboard world music charts, and set the stage for his most extensive world tour yet and the first documentary video on his life, The Man, The Music.
I’ve Got You Babe
Sometimes, Lucky Dube does sing about the simpler things in life, like love and happiness. “That’s what maybe keeps the world going,” he quips. “Man and woman.” He has no concern that people might confuse the song with an earlier hit by a 1960s duo, pointing out that “there’s a song I know that was written in 1923, called I Love You“.
It’s Not Easy
In 1992, Peter Gabriel invited Lucky to participate in the Real World Recording Week and joined him on stage at the 10th-anniversary Womad Festival. They performed a duet on It’s Not Easy, beginning a relationship that would see Lucky join Gabriel on the Womad world tour and share stages with a range of artists ranging from folk musicians to rock stars. But that song did not come easy.
“That is me that the song is talking about, but at the same time it’s talking about a helluva lot of people out there who have also been in the same situation as I have been in the song. We all have these dreams in life, but sometimes they never come true, you know. Sometimes they just don’t become what you thought they would be and that was my situation.”
Different Colours One People
Lucky detests racism so much, he even rejects tribal identities that people try to use to categorise him, saying: “I am just a human being. People would ask me if I’m a Zulu or a Swazi or whatever. I’m not that. God did not make Swazis, God did not make Xhosas or Zulus; God made people.” It was inevitable that he would keep putting that ideal into songs.
“I was touring Australia. They had a human rights association, and they had a campaign that they were doing there. It was called Different Colours One People, trying to get people in Australia together and just showing their different cultures and all the differences that they have there. I liked that title because it was exactly the same here in South Africa and that’s what inspired the song.”
Natural Man is also an intro to the next song on the album, but it does say something about the way Lucky sees himself. He is one of the most clean-living artists in reggae, and rejects even ganja, insisting that there is no real spiritual basis to its use in Rastafarianism.
“My grandfather used to smoke ganja, but not as a spiritual thing, not as a reggae or Rasta thing. He didn’t know anything about Rasta or reggae. The only reason he was smoking ganja was because at that time the only smokable thing was this ganja, before white people came with cigarettes and cigars and whatever smokable things we have today.
“That’s not to say it had some healing power or spiritual power to it. It was just a herb that people got freely and they started smoking that. It’s something that started in Africa, totally innocently, not as a Rasta or a reggae thing.”
Back to My Roots
In reggae language, getting back to your roots usually means getting back to Mother Africa, but for Lucky it has an entirely different meaning. After all, he is already deeply grounded in his African roots.
“Reggae music is what I originally wanted to do before I started doing mbaqanga music, but at that time I could not get a contract from a record company as a reggae singer, because reggae was not happening in South Africa. I had to start as an mbaqanga singer and then move on.
“So when I recorded reggae music for the first time, I was saying yes, I’m back to what I originally wanted to do, I’m back to my roots. I’m reggae. I’m reggae. There’s a song I wrote some years ago saying the bed I sleep on is a reggae bed, so even though I do other projects on the side, I’ll always be reggae.”