David, I think most of your fans will know by now that Steel Pulse was named after a race horse by the same name, but what's the story behind that?
David Hinds (vocals & guitar): "When we started out we didn't immediately find a name that suited our music. We tried a number of different names, but they all lacked meaning and a sense of longevity. Now Ronny (Ronald McQueen, red.), our bass player back in the day, was really into the horse races and when we heard the name of that race horse, it had a ring to it. Steel Pulse was the horse that won the Irish Derby back in 1972. The "steel" part represented the roughness of our music and the "pulse" is like the rhythm or the beat. And the rest is history I suppose..."
When you guys started out you immediately stood out because of the extravagant outfits you wore on stage.
Selwyn Brown (keyboards & vocals): "We really wanted to bring more to the stage than just music, so that's where the costume idea came in. By dressing up in these outfits we were able to leave a more lasting impression on the audiences we played for. Actually, truth be told, we were influenced by Matumbi; whenever they went on stage they wore clothes representing the different parts or classes in society and to my knowledge they were the first reggae band that did something of the sort. I think we also underestimated the impression we made by dressing up like that, especially when we started wearing those hoods to perform 'Ku Klux Klan'."
That fun part in stage shows seems to be outdated now, because it has disappeared completely.
Selwyn Brown: "Well, I think as a band you shouldn't repeat things endlessly because however good it is or how big an impact it may have eventually it will grow old, so in my opinion it's important to look for a fresh look on things. Over time we have gathered quite a loyal following as well and we noticed those people were more and more into what we were saying rather than what we were showing, so we left the costumes behind."
From the very beginning the message of Steel Pulse had much more of a pan-African content compared to most other reggae bands who stuck with Marcus Garvey and Rastafari. There's one name in particular that returns in quite a few of your songs and that's that of George Jackson. Could you quickly remind us who he was exactly and tell us what he represents to you?
David Hinds: "George Jackson was imprisoned in 1959 for stealing 70 $ from a gas station somewhere in the San Francisco bay area for which he was consequently sentenced to several years in jail. During his incarceration a prison guard was murdered and he was accused of the killing along with two other guys. The threesome would later become known as The Soledad Brothers. During one of the trials surrounding this case his seventeen-year-old brother, Jonathan, held the judge and several members of the jury hostage in an attempt to free George. He and his brothers-in-arms got gunned down by the police and not much later George Jackson himself was gunned down by a prison warden because he was allegedly trying to escape. What made his case interesting was the obvious lack of justice that had been done to him and also the fact that he became a political activist, striving for more equality for black people. His prison diary and other novels all became best sellers. When all this occurred I must have been around fourteen or fifteen years old and growing up in Handsworth, the black ghetto of Birmingham, we identified with his struggle and persona. Now Rastafarianism and politics generally don't mix, but I think we managed to give that mix a different spin in our music. I actually believe that politics are a part of every man's existence, whether we like it or not, and since it is what it is, we said: "Well, why can't we have a voice in the political arena then?" and try and steer our own destiny. Our music had to be like a wake-up call for the people, making them see the system for what it was. Most people aren't even conscious of what is happening around them. The system thrives on fear - the war on terrorism is a good example of that - and from the moment you start being afraid and living your life in fear, you'll succumb to almost anything they put in front of you."
Another voice of consciousness that is still serving a life term in prison is Mumia Abu Jamal. Is that a case that you've been following attentively as well?
David Hinds: "I take pride in saying that the first time I went to the United States, which was at the beginning of the eighties; I had the pleasure of meeting Mumia Abu Jamal who was still a journalist at the time. From what I can remember of him at the time, he was quite a militant individual and as a follower of the teachings of John Africa he was also wearing dreadlocks, which of course fascinated me. What happened to him subsequently is now history. He was working part-time as a cab driver in Philadelphia at the time, when one night he saw an individual being brutally harassed by a police officer. When he got closer he noticed the individual was in fact his own brother. What happened next is not exactly clear, but in any case some shots were fired and the police officer was killed in the confrontation. Mumia was convicted for the murder, first condemned to death, now serving life imprisonment. He's been fighting his conviction ever since and I admire him because he decided to do that in solidarity with his brothers and sisters of the MOVE organisation (MOVE was created in 1972 by John Africa, a charismatic leader who, though functionally illiterate, dictated a document describing his views known as The Guideline to graduate student Donald Glassey. Africa and his followers, the majority of them African-American, wore their hair in dreadlocks and advocated a radical form of green politics and a return to a hunter-gatherer society while stating their opposition to science, medicine and technology. As John Africa himself had done, his devotees also changed their surnames to show reverence to Africa, which they regarded as their mother continent, red.) who also had been incarcerated (In 1978, an end was negotiated to an almost year-long standoff with police over orders to vacate the Powelton Village MOVE house. MOVE failed to relocate as required by a court order. When police later attempted entry, Philadelphia police officer James J. Ramp was killed in a shootout. Seven other police officers, five fire-fighters, three MOVE members, and three bystanders were injured. As a result, nine MOVE members were found guilty of third-degree murder in the shooting death of a police officer. Seven of the nine became eligible for parole in the spring of 2008, and all seven were denied parole, red.). We're still rooting for him and in time more and more evidence has been gathered that proves his innocence. The important thing is not to give up hope."
For the documentary "Door Of No Return", you travelled to Senegal to visit Goree Island. Why now, after some thirty years in the business?
David Hinds: "Well, we've always strongly related to Africa and we ventured over there for the first time in 1982. That first experience was far from wonderful though, mainly because of a dodgy promoter who even left us stranded there at one point. The experience left us somewhat disillusioned, but I guess now enough time had passed to give it another go. Our sole regret was that so far we hadn't really invested in the continent and there's so much still to be done over there, so that's why we're in the process of establishing an organisation called UFFA or United Front For Africa now, which will in part be funded with the revenues we get from selling our merchandise and from donations as well. We'd like to concentrate on doing simple things that are often overlooked by other organisation, but which are vital none the same. To give you just one example, when we were in Ghana last, just before the millennium, we learned that to put one person through university there would set us back just a mere 150 $; that's the sort of amount we in the west spend on an average pair of sneakers!"
As a descendant of the slaves, how emotional was it to be standing in the "door of no return" (The House of Slaves or Maison des Esclaves and its Door of No Return is a museum and memorial to the Atlantic Slave Trade on tiny Goree Island, 3 km off the coast of the city of Dakar, Senegal. Its museum, opened in 1962 and curated until his death in 2008 by Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, is said to memorialise the final exit point of the slaves from Africa, red.)?
David Hinds: "It was emotional, but you have to know we shot the documentary a few years after we'd visited the island for the first time. That first time was a very mixed experience for the band; there was a lot of crying going on, but also agitation and disgruntlement. What stuck in my memory was the fact that that portal through which the slaves left was actually known as "the door of no return". When a slave passed through that door he was never to see Africa again. As a descendant of those slaves I wanted to express our respects in a song stating that we did return through that "door of no return" after all."
There's a growing trend of people going in search of their roots; there's the popular BBC show "Who Do You Think You Are" for example. Is that something you've also been involved in?
David Hinds: "Well to begin with Marcus Garvey said: "A nation without the knowledge of its past history is like a tree without roots." I think what we have to remember most about slavery and colonialism is that throughout history many nations have been colonized, but when it comes to taking individuals out of their original habitat and moving them to a completely different environment, there's no other continent that was hit as bad as Africa was. Doing that severed an entire race of people from their culture, language and even the food they were used to. I never went the Alex Haley (Alexander Murray Palmer Haley, August 11, 1921 - February 10, 1992, was an American writer. He is best known as the author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written in collaboration with Malcolm X. Haley claimed to be a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte and went to the village of Juffure in The Gambia, where Kunta Kinte supposedly grew up and listened to a tribal historian tell the story of Kinte's capture. Haley also traced the records of the ship, The Lord Ligonier, which he said carried his ancestor to America. Genealogists have since disputed Haley's research and conclusions, red.) way myself, but whenever I go to Africa I'm very aware of the similarities there are between certain African customs and the Jamaican traditions that were passed onto us by our parents and grandparents. When you travel to Cameroun, for example, you will see that the people there cook green bananas, something we in Jamaica know as well. Things like that make you wonder where your original roots lie. On the other hand we have an arrogance that's very similar to that of Nigerians and there's dozens more of these small little things, so you keep wondering."
You recently did a tune about America's newest president, Barack Obama. What's Steel Pulse's take on that whole thing?
David Hinds: "For that, we have to talk about George Bush first. I have to give George Bush credit! You want to know why? It took a president to be that bad, for America to look in the direction of Barack Obama. If George Bush would have performed only half as good as any other American president, Barack Obama wouldn't have gotten a looking. I didn't think I would live to see the day a black man would become president of the United States. I first came across Barack Obama when he was still campaigning for Senator John Kerry, a couple of years ago. I didn't have a clue who he was, but I heard him speak and what he was saying mesmerized me immediately. I knew straight away he was presidential material. Where I'm concerned, he is the first man since Martin Luther King who can really touch you with words. To me Barack Obama is like the Bob Marley of politics. (laughs) He's been thrown in at the deep end and I don't know if he has truly realized what he's inherited exactly, so I guess there's still mistakes that are going to be made, but I'm rooting for him, because if he doesn't succeed I don't think there will be another black president in the next century to come!"