Music
5:26 pm
Mon April 1, 2013

In South Africa, A Reggae Legacy Lives On

Originally published on Sat March 30, 2013 12:33 pm

It's Thursday night in downtown Johannesburg and some 500 people are packed into Bassline, a warehouse-like club in a hipster-friendly neighborhood. They're here for South Africa's longest-running sound system, or crew of reggae DJs. But tonight they get something extra: a young woman sporting dreadlocks and an army cap gets on the mic to freestyle.

Her name is Nkulee Dube, and she carries two storied legacies on her shoulders. She's now the country's biggest reggae star — and the daughter of the man sometimes dubbed "Africa's Peter Tosh."

"When I travel around the world, people are like, 'We are just happy there is someone taking over, putting on your dad's shoes,' " Dube says. "I'm like, 'What? I cannot put on those shoes. They're very heavy!' "

Reggae, after all, runs deep in South Africa. During the 1970s, songs by Peter Tosh and Burning Spear were gospel to the anti-apartheid movement. James Mange, a reggae artist and former resistance leader, was the first Rastafarian prisoner on Robben Island alongside such anti-apartheid activists as Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela. He says they were huge reggae fans.

"Walter Sisulu even asked for certain albums in particular: 'That one, that one, by that boy. What is his name?' We'd say, 'Bob Marley; he has about three,' " Mange recalls. "[Sisulu would say] 'Exodus—give me that one.' "

Mange became known as the Bob Marley of Robben Island, where reggae was a mainstay even when warders censored political songs.

"It was not anything for entertainment. It was almost like your prayer time, if you like," Mange says. "It was a time when we started remembering why we were where we were and what lay ahead. And it was the kind of food we needed to sustain us during the hard times."

During the '80s, South African acts like O'Yaba and Johnny Klegg recorded political reggae tunes and Lucky Dube would become the first African reggae artist to perform in Jamaica. Lucky Dube released 22 albums in three languages. Meanwhile, his daughter, Nkulee, has toured four continents and released her debut album, My Way, in 2011.

"When they heard that I was going to release an album, everyone was like, 'You're gonna do reggae like your dad,' " she says. "Obviously I am gonna keep my dad's roots and my dad's teachings. I am part of that reggae history. So that album is just saying, 'Yes, I am. But I am doing it my way and I can do whatever I want, so don't put me in the same box as my dad.'"

Nkulee Dube's career started at age 16 — in dance. She toured as a backup dancer with the risqué Afropop star Lebo Mathosa, a woman who made it in the male-dominated South African industry. Mathosa heard Dube singing and invited her onstage one night. Afterward, she took the teenager under her wing.

"She created who Nkulee Dube is onstage," Dube says. "Because I would look at her on stage and she would say, 'Do you see what I did there? I moved from that corner to that corner because there's people all around the stage, so you have to perform for each and every person.' "

That was more than Dube got from her father at first. She did not grow up with him, though her mother told her who he was. She waited until she was 18 years old to knock on his studio door.

"And he's like, 'Who are you?' I was like, 'Nkulee,' " she says. "He said, 'No, who are you?' I said, 'Nkulee, why?' And he said, 'What are you doing here? Sit down.' I was like, 'I'm your daughter.' And he said, 'I knew it!' "

Their relationship took off from there — in and out of the studio. They recorded still-unreleased duets, and Nkulee got schooled in writing music.

"He would say, 'Whenever you write, have depth,' " she says. " 'Let's say it's a love song. Don't just say hey, I love you. Go deeper than that.' "

And in that depth, a legacy lives on.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Reggae, of course, was born in Jamaica, but the music has deep connections to what many Jamaicans consider the motherland - Africa. South African artist Lucky Dube was the continent's all-time bestselling reggae singer. When he was murdered during a carjacking in 2007, South Africa lost a true icon. Now, a new African reggae star is on the rise: 27-year-old Nkulee Dube, who also happens to be Lucky's daughter. Baz Dreisinger has her story.

BAZ DREISINGER, BYLINE: It's Thursday night in downtown Johannesburg, and some 500 people are packed into Bassline, a warehouse of a club in a hipster-friendly neighborhood.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When I say more, you say fire. More...

CROWD: Fire.

DREISINGER: They're here for African Storm, the country's longest-running sound system, or crew of reggae DJs. But tonight they get something extra: a young woman sporting dreadlocks and an army cap gets on the mic to freestyle.

NKULEE DUBE: Ladies, representing, yeah. So, do you like it? Do you like it? You wanna get (unintelligible) you like it...

DREISINGER: Nkulee Dube carries two storied legacies on her shoulders. She's now the country's biggest reggae star and the daughter of the man sometimes dubbed Africa's Peter Tosh.

DUBE: People, when you travel around the world, they were like, oh, you know, we're just happy there is someone taking over, putting on your dad's shoes. I'm like, what? I cannot put on those shoes. They are very heavy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DUBE: (Singing) Thing you don't drudge, thing you don't rub, thing you don't kill, thing you don't kill, thing you don't mix and (unintelligible) and crack, thing you don't smoke, man, crack no, no. Who dem, who dem, (unintelligible) Rastaman...

DREISINGER: Reggae runs deep in South Africa. During the 1970s, songs by Peter Tosh and Burning Spear were gospel to the anti-apartheid movement. James Mange, a reggae artist and former resistance leader was the first Rastafarian prisoner on Robben Island, alongside such anti-apartheid activists as Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela. Mange says they were huge reggae fans.

JAMES MANGE: Walter Sisulu even asked for certain albums in particular - say, that one by that boy, what is his name? We'd say Bob Marley. Say which one? We've got about three. "Exodus," give me that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXODUS")

BOB MARLEY: (Singing) Wipe away transgressions, (unintelligible) free. Exodus...

DREISINGER: James Mange became known as the Bob Marley of Robben Island, where reggae was a mainstay, even when warders censored political music.

MANGE: It was not anything for entertainment. It became almost like your prayer time, if you like; that was prayer time. It was a time where we started remembering why we were where we were at, and what lay ahead. And it was the kind of food we needed to sustain us during those hard times.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET UP STAND UP")

MARLEY: (Singing) Come on. Get up stand up, stand up for your rights. Get up stand up, don't give up the fight...

DREISINGER: During the '80s, South African acts like O'Yaba and Johnny Klegg recorded political reggae tunes, and Lucky Dube would become the first African reggae artist to perform in Jamaica.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HAND THAT GIVETH")

LUCKY DUBE: (Singing) (unintelligible) who doesn't care about the poor people. One cry for (unintelligible) for you, who doesn't care for the helpless people...

DREISINGER: Lucky Dube released 22 albums in three languages. His daughter Nkulee, meanwhile, has toured four continents and in 2011 released her debut album, "My Way."

DUBE: People, when they heard that I was going to release an album, everybody was like, oh, you're going to do reggae like your dad. Which is, obviously, you know, I'm going to keep my dad's roots and keep my dad's teachings. So, the album is just saying yes, I am but I'm doing it my way. I mean, I can do whatever I want, so don't put me in the same box as my dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DUBE: (Singing) I, I, I, I, (singing in foreign language). I know (singing in foreign language) I'm doing my thing, this time around (singing in foreign language), yes, I'm making (singing in foreign language)...

DREISINGER: Her career started at 16 in dance. She toured as a backup dancer with the risque Afropop star Lebo Mathosa, a woman who made it in the male-dominated South African industry. Mathosa heard Dube singing and invited her onstage one night, then took the teenager under her wing.

DUBE: Definitely, she created who Nkulee Dube is onstage, I think, because I would look at her onstage. And then when she gets ups, she would say did you see what I did there? I moved from that corner to the end of that corner because there's people all around the stage, so you have to perform for each and every person.

DREISINGER: That was more than she got from her father at first. She didn't grow up with him, though her mother told her who he was. She waited until she was 18 to knock on his studio door.

DUBE: And then he looked at me, stared at me, 'cause I had dreadlocks longer than this actually. And he's like who are you? I'm like Nkulee. Like, yeah, who are you? I was like, no, I'm Nkulee. Why, why are you asking? He's like what are you doing here? No, I'm here to see you. OK. Sit down. Let's talk. Who are you? I was like I'm your daughter. He's like I knew it. I knew it.

DREISINGER: Their relationship took off from there, in and out of the studio. They recorded still-unreleased duets, and Nkulee got schooled in writing music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DUBE: (Singing) She promised not to be a bad girl, she promised not to be a sweet girl. She promised to make up (unintelligible) wanted mama (unintelligible). She promised not to leave you alone. She promised that she'll always be there. But all she missed from you is a bit of love...

He would say reggae's not like any other genre. Reggae has soul within it. So, when you write, whatever you write about - let's say it's a love song - have depth. Don't just write, hey, I love you. Like, go deeper than that.

DREISINGER: And in that depth, a legacy lives on. For NPR news, I'm Baz Dreisinger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DUBE: (Singing) She (unintelligible) life I live inside of a blessing. Why you have to be so cruel to me? (unintelligible)...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.