These days, it seems like everyone and his brother is a musician. If they’re not toting guitars around town and launching concerts on street corners, they’re cranking out albums on their laptops and releasing them over the Internet. It’s almost too easy.
Unless, that is, you happen to be from Jamaica. From the scrappy ghettos of the island’s poorest communities come a surprising number of hard-luck-turned-success stories. Most reggae fans know how superstar Bob Marley endured hardships in Kingston’s Trenchtown neighborhood, learning self-defense to protect himself from the bullies who targeted him because of mixed-race heritage. Out of adversity, Marley found the inspiration to not only elevate himself, but to bring reggae to the rest of the world.
Impressive, sure, but that same story continues to repeat itself as Jamaican youths make music from the humblest of beginnings. Such is the case with Clifton George Bailey III, the dancehall musician who has gone by a number of names, including King Shango, King David, the Fireman, the Prophet and—most notably—Capleton.
In an interview with The Jamaica Star, Capleton described one of his earliest jobs selling hardcover books. During the 1980s, he became a DJ and his rise to fame soon followed. But he pointed out that he never forgot his origins, buying his early employers a printing machine when he was able.
Capleton shot to stardom as a dancehall artist when, in 1989, Canadian sound-system owner Stewart Brown gave the young performer his first break. Capleton’s first hits, “Number One on the Look Good Chart” and “Woman We Lotion,” were underscored by a swagger that only seemed to fuel his hit-making potential.
In fact, even as dancehall trends turned from braggadocio and violence to themes of consciousness and Jamaican roots culture, Capleton never apologized for his more controversial lyrics and reportedly even incorporated his bawdy hit “Bumbo Red” into his Rasta philosophy.
It’s likely that Capleton’s strong stance is at least in part responsible for his long-term success. After all, fans like to know what to expect. That doesn’t mean the performer is impervious to change: Online resource DancehallReggae.com claims, “No more do we hear him uttering lyrics degrading women or insinuating any form of violence. Instead, his tunes are created in such a way that they have the capabilities to uplift or direct one’s way of life.”
Still, certain controversy has followed the artist throughout his career, namely his proclivity for chanting “Fire” (a Rastafari call to metaphorically “burn out” evil or wrong livelihood, often mistaken for a suggestion of literal violence) and his perceived attitude toward the gay and lesbian communities. These stumbling blocks have hindered Capleton’s attempts to break into U.S. markets, to the extent that much of his 2004 West Coast tour was canceled. One song mentioned ad infinitum during that debate was “Bun Out Di Chi Chi,” translated to the ugly sentiment, “burn out a queer.” According to The Orion, “Claudette Kemp, Capleton’s manager, said not only is the translation wrong but the lyrics are incorrect also. ‘It means to burn out the corruption within yourself,’ she said. ‘It is about morality. It has nothing to do with gay people.’”
The article goes on to note, “When Jamaican terms were translated … ‘chi chi’ was said to be a homosexual person, but Kemp said it means a termite. ‘They misinterpret the lyrics,’ she said. ‘We are not attacking gay people. That is not our mission. We are not attacking communities; that is not what Capleton is about.’” (Xpress attempted to reach the musician for his own viewpoint, but he was unavailable for comment.)
Now, two decades and 17 albums into his career, Capleton has proven himself as a force to be reckoned with in the often fickle business of reggae and dancehall music. Where few artists manage to last beyond a single international release, Capleton routinely plays world tours while continuing to hone his Jamaica-centric dancehall style. His most recent album, last year’s Rise Them Up, nods to a gentler side of the fiery performer with songs like “Jah Jah Lives,” “Spread the Love” and “Loving You.”
who: Capleton and the Prophecy Band with Jah Thunda, Kulcha Knox, and Steve Martinez and Stable Roots
what: Fiery dancehall reggae
where: Grey Eagle
when: Tuesday, June 24. 8:30 p.m. ($18 advance, $22 day of show. www.thegreyeagle.com or 232-5800.)