On a mission from Jah

Back in the U.S. for the first time in a few years, singer Luciano is doing what he does best — spreading revelations, and with considerable charm. “The message I came to deliver, I realized, is a mission,” he enthuses to Xpress.

“In Jah [God] we are rewarded in higher regions. I realized people needed a message coming like a river of water.”

By which he could well mean a torrent of albums. He’s cranked out three or four annually in recent years, releasing more than 20 CDs since his first hit, 1995’s “It’s Me Again, Jah.”

A tireless performer, Luciano seems to have accepted the torch of Rastafarian-infused reggae without limits. Passed through the hands of such giants as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Garnett Silk, the tradition is no slight undertaking. But Luciano, who plays a Grey Eagle show on Sunday, is the man for the job.

After all, he’s known as the Messenjah.

Dancehall days

In his native Jamaica, Luciano is a superstar.

But, in a land rife with rags-to-riches stories, his rise to fame was typically preceded by hard luck. Born Jepther McClymont, he loved singing as a child and accompanied all his daily chores with music. It was the loss of his father when Luciano was not yet a teen that he attributes to his introspection. “From a long time I had this deep insight into life,” he reveals. “I’ve been working for my bread in some terrible places where there are rude boys [gangsters] and dancehall vibes [nightclubs].”

It was his association with the Xterminator label that eventually propelled Luciano to notoriety. The same label also saw the rise of controversial performer Sizzla at the same time. In the early ’90s, Luciano knew his rich voice would take him places, but he wasn’t willing to embark on a career of mindless love songs or sexy dancehall singles.

“Even before Xterminator, I had the spiritual outlook in life,” he claims.

A glimpse at Luciano’s first CD covers, like 1995’s Back to Africa (SAIN), shows the performer with close-cropped hair. Soon after, he began to grow his now mid-back-length dreadlocks. His material also reflected a deep commitment to Rastafari, including allegiance to Ethiopian King Haile Selassie and a desire to move to Africa.

A very different vibe

“One of the prime sources of creative energy during the ‘Rasta Renaissance’ of the mid-1990s was the emergence of a group of fire-breathing Boboshanti artists such as Sizzla, Anthony B, and Capleton,” writes essayist Gregory Stephens. “If the main voices of the early-1990s flowering of conscious reggae were culture artists such as Luciano and Garnett Silk working within the ‘One Love’ wing of Rasta, the Bobos forwarded a very different vibe. In contrast to the emphasis on unity and spiritual growth of the Twelve Tribes branch of Rasta, the Bobos advocated a philosophy of black supremacy.

“Sizzla,” he goes on to write, “quickly earned a reputation as the ‘angry young man’ of the Bobo Dreads. His passion and undeniable talent energized many young people of reggae’s international audience, whose mood often was closer to Sizzla’s anger than to Luciano’s inity [unity].” (See sidebar for more on Rasta speak.)

“After a while, some artists like Sizzla will reach a stage in life where they need to be positive,” is the tactful response of Luciano, who’s prone to creating music that appeals to hardcore reggae fans and new recruits alike. Jah Works (Sanctuary, 2005) carries both staunch ideology (an antievolution commentary) and cross-genre reaching (a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”). And he’s still talking about returning to Africa.

“Africa is the cradle of all human beings,” the singer imparts. “We have to accept that and realize we’re all one, and we have to embrace each other.”

In fact, Luciano plans nothing less than a full-fledged repatriation. “In October, we’re going to Zimbabwe and Ghana. I’ll be setting up my roots,” he says.

“In the heart of the people”

“I am an ambassador for love and for justice too,” Luciano told author Robert Roskind in The Gathering of the Healers. The book describes Roskind’s efforts to rally the support of Jamaican celebrities and elders for the One Love movement.

“One Love will come,” the reggae star says. “It’s there in the heart of the people.”

The term — meaning respect for all — comes from a Bob Marley lyric, and it’s in Marley’s footsteps that humanitarians like Roskind and musicians like Luciano follow, bringing a message of unity to the world beyond Jamaica.

But despite his trademark velvet voice, the crooner isn’t proposing warm-fuzzy peace — it’s more about social and economic justice. And that’s not easy. “In the process of sending the One Love message across, [we] need to find ways of getting [wealthy people] to help, too,” he insists.

For instance: “All the sugar companies that benefited from slavery [in Jamaica] could give something back.”

The mission, he says, “is bigger than you and me. It’s a life. It’s a reality.”

Rasta speak

Though Rasta has no language of its own, practitioners of the lifestyle have adopted a way of speaking that sometimes turns contemporary linguistics on its head. The word patterns are based on spiritual concepts, Biblical terminology, Patois, and a conscious effort to turn away from Babylon’s — i.e., Western society’s — grip. One way of doing this is to dissect the sounds of a word, replacing negative or non-progressive sounds with positive counterparts. An example is the word “library,” which many Rastas refer to as a “tru-brary,” exchanging the “lie” for the truth.

Of course, the “li” in library comes from the Latin root “libr,” referring to books. But as French essayist Boris Lutanie explains, “The Rastas consider, not without some reasons, that the English language constitutes a weapon of Babylon intended to maintain them in a form of mental slavery.” Here’s a brief glossary:

Downpress: oppress

Forward: to return; “I and I will come forward soon.”

I and I: means both you and I and the Great Spirit; use as you would the term “I”

Idren: children or brethren

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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