By Isaac Asabor
There is no denying the fact that mere exhibition of a passing glance at the foregoing title of this piece will instantly convey the impression that this writer has committed an error in the spelling of the lyrical phrase, “Go There Natty Dread” that is inherent in one of the hits of the just departed dance hall exponent, U Roy. No! It is not a mistake as it is the corrupt version of the original lyric which in my teenage days was excitedly mimicked to catch fun at parties, particularly Room Parties. To many young Nigerians who were not born in the 60s where it would have being possible for them to socialize and party with the dancehall music of U Roy whose real name was Ewart Beckford, it would be easy to dismiss the news of his death that hit the media space today, February 18, 2021 with mere wave of the hand. However, this indifferent attitude will not in any way help to make some of us that socialized and partied with his music not to mourn him.
Since the news of his death begun to make headlines, not few fans of the legendary Jamaican Reggae and Dancehall toaster have taken to the social media to mourn his departure to eternal glory. As gathered, the singer and vocalist, died at the age of 78 as he had been ill for some time. He died on Wednesday night at the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) in Jamaica after undergoing a surgery.
According encyclopedia.com, “In the late 1960s, U-Roy helped in starting the dub revolution, rapping over “versions” of popular songs remixed by dub pioneer King Tubby. This style, known as “toasting,” would later influence both Jamaican dance-hall music and American hip-hop, laying the foundation for what is now a dominant music form.
As gathered about his background, while still in his teens, as a deejay for Doctor Dickies sound system, later known as Dickies Dynamic, he was said to have both selected the music and chatted over the sound system, pumping up the audience and occasionally commenting over the track that was playing, accentuating it with whoops and hollers. At the time the most prominent deejay was Winston Count Machuki, who worked for Sir Coxsone Dodd’s sound system and later Prince Buster’s Voice of the People. By 1965 U-Roy was deejay for Sir George the Atomic, based around Maxfield Avenue in Kingston, and later worked briefly for Coxsone, doing his number two set.
Permit me to say that his hit album titled, “Go There Natty Dread”, which was also one of the most reverberated lyrical lines, and which then as a teenager was corrupted to “Baby Na Today”, invariably inspired the title of this requiem of sort.
After a career spanning more than 50 glorious years, the legendary toaster fondly called Daddy U-Roy by his global fans can be described to have had a successful and memorable outing in his earthly journey as he Just two years ago was called upon to play the role of a musical ambassador, inspiring so many persons and winning a plethora of accolades in the course of his musical career. While responding to the award bestowed on him in 2019 by the leadership of the International Reggae and World Music Awards (IRAWMA), which hosted him, and filled him with humility and gratitude, he said, “I feel so good about this, 2019 looks to be my year for awards.”
He added, “When I started out this thing, awards was never even a possibility. “Awards? For what? Fi say ‘whoiee’ and dem things yah? I give thanks for the blessings and for every year of this journey. It has been a gift from the Most High.”
As a professional entertainer that throughout his life time dedicated himself to his craft, U-Roy was no doubt an achiever. His travel experience took him halfway across the globe and back and, as expected, he must have passed on with plethora of cherished memories. From my imaginative mindset, he may at the moment be satisfactorily nodding his head in the heavenly side of life about the fulfilled life he lived on earth.
As gathered from his response in one of the media parleys he had, he said, “I was performing on stage when a man took his handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped my shoes with it. I wasn’t expecting that. I felt embarrassed. I touched him and told him gently to stop,” he recalled.
At the time, U-Roy really began to appreciate the impact of fame. The man, an African, was paying him homage, in the same way that the youth on Galloway Road in Kingston used to form a barrier when he was driving pass so that he would be compelled to stop and acknowledge their greetings.
The toaster who has distinguished himself with his signature chants, “Wake the town and tell the people” and “This station rules the nation”, from two of his chart-topping hits, recalled a time when he was wont to dismiss his early success as flash in the pan. According to him, when those songs reached the top of the charts and stayed there for the first two weeks, he shrugged it off and told himself that they would soon be replaced with bigger, better, tunes. Especially because it was the era in which singers ruled and he was only a deejay. But when the singles continued to gain traction, and climb the chart, he started to pay keen attention. The songs, which dominated at one, two and three for a history-making six weeks, established U-Roy as dancehall royalty and helped create the authentic deejay sound.
When he was told that one of his songs, “When U-Roy come with Wake the Town, it’s like a new Jamaica was born,” and U-Roy wholeheartedly agrees “that it is like I wake up one morning and it come in like the whole Jamaica a sing the song”.
Having woken the town and ruled the nation, U-Roy had many balls to attend. He became one of Jamaica’s biggest stars, who shined brightly in the UK, and with the release of the album “Dread In A Babylon”, his place was cemented. The idea for the now iconic cover for this album, which saw U-Roy engulfed in a thick cloud of pure ganja smoke, originated with the producer Tony ‘Prince Tony’ Robinson. “You see all that smoke, I had to lick the chalice about 10 -12 times to finally get that look,” he recalled.
“Dread In A Babylon” was more than just another album; it was a statement, not-so-subtly infused with politics and protest. It is not surprising, therefore, that Chalice in the Palace, one of the songs, faced being banned in England, because it was said to be disrespectful to Queen Elizabeth.
“But I wasn’t disrespecting anybody. I was just saying that I wanted to smoke my chalice in Buckingham Palace. How is that disrespectful?” U-Roy asked, adding that he never knew that in his lifetime he would see marijuana being freed up.
“Back in the daya, if them hold you with a pound of weed is the same crime like you kill a man. And to know that finally society people come to realize that herb is a medicine. I feel so good about it,” he said.
U-Roy has a philosophy about life that is as simple as it is true. “In life, you cannot afford to be selfish, you have to accept changes. The youth will come with their changes, you have to accept them. If people didn’t embrace me when I was doing things differently, who knows what would have happened?” asked the man who is credited with revolutionizing the style of reggae in the ’60s and ’70s, as he was the first to gain recognition by ‘toasting’, which was a technique of rapping over versions of popular songs remixed by King Tubby.
At this juncture, it is honorable to say that his legacies in the global reggae industry will forever live on as he in no small way helped in catalyzing the global appeal which dance hall genre of reggae’s music has today. As Daddy U Roy transits to the other side of life, it is expedient the global community befittingly honor him as the reggae world has lost another iconic figure who in his earthly journey was reputed to have released phenomenal catalogue of hits. Good night to the reggae exponent who drove dance hall music forward across the decades and will be sorely missed, particularly as the corrupt lyric, “Baby Na Today” continues to reverberate in the subconscious of this writer.