Interview with Oku Onuora on May 3rd, 2020
Last year, we had attended Oku Onuora‘s performance on the Tallawah Stage alongside Dr. T, at the Reggae Geel 2019. Unfortunately, last summer we didn’t get the opportunity to interview him in Belgium, but everything comes in time to those who wait.
Thanks to social networks, we have been able to get in touch with Oku Onuora, and earlier this month, he took the time to get in touch with us, and answered our questions concerning his early life in Kingston, Pan-Africanism in Jamaica, and Dub Poetry, amongst many others during a 3-hour interview.
You may navigate through the interview by clicking on one of the following chapters or take a look at the table of contents here. You may download the full transcript of the interview in PDF or in EPUB.
What a situashan! | Living in Kingston during the 60’s | Awareness | Cold War | Writing | Outspoken | Recording at Tuff Gong | Dub Poetry, likewise & otherwise | Current & upcoming projects
What a situashan!
Read next chapter: Living in Kingston during the 60’s
At the moment we were recording this interview, the Caribbean, most European countries, and the US were in a lockdown because of the fast propagation of the covid-19 pandemic. According to the UN chief, it’s probably one of the worst crises the World has ever known since World War II (AFP, 2020).
When we asked him how Jamaica was coping with the covid-19 pandemic in general, he replied:
Just like, I believe, most of how it is in other parts of the world. People in Jamaica are really hold by this fear because it’s a reality, this frightening reality. It’s probably hyped reality because the coronavirus has been around for a while. Unfortunately, covid-19 as you call it, this guy that has wear his ugly head, will be around for a while to come. I’m just being a merciless realist.
Lockdown di place!
Then, Oku Onuora shared that the lockdown wasn’t a stressful situation for him as he normally doesn’t come out of his house that he calls the bunker very often. Though, he outlined that the situation was much different for people who usually have to hustle every day for survival.
It was kind of hard for other people who used to be outside, and up and down. Three or four days I don’t even come out a the bunker, you know. So I’m kind of used to the lockdown, but for the majority of Jamaicans, especially the population of Portmore, St Catherine, it has affected them greatly because these are people that survive, in terms of sustenance like food, on a day to day basis.
In the words of the system, they are unemployed but they are always employed. They are always hustling. We have a whole heap a people like that in Portmore, in St Catherine. Portmore is one of the other biggest dormitory cities in Jamaica, and in the Caribbean. It certainly affected them tremendously.
Like everywhere else in the World, the pandemic also has a huge impact on the economy. Oku Onuora adds:
It’s affecting Jamaica, because it has affected the tourist industry, which employs or employed thousands of people. Outside of the direct tourist industry, our farmers depend a lot on the tourist industry, because a lot of what they grow are directly sold in the tourist industry. Then you have those that lived off the tourist industry, like the artisans, the small businessmen… I don’t believe we can quantify the effect as yet, but it is affecting Jamaica.
In Europe, all major Reggae festivals that were supposed to be held this summer are postponed to 2021. In Jamaica, the Reggae Sumfest has also been cancelled (Loop Jamaica, 2020). Oku Onuora reacts:
I don’t see any live concerts as we know it taking place in Jamaica, or the Caribbean, North, and South America, in Europe, any time soon. I mean like 2021, yeah, with a different kind of blend, because I’ve said before this guy will be around for a while.
Oku Onuora points out that the lockdown didn’t only have negative impacts on the music industry:
In Jamaica it has affected the music Reggae and Dancehall, but streaming… In one way it has a negative impact, on the other side it has a positive impact, because most of earnings from recorded music now is from streaming. Most of performing artists earn a lot from live performance. Now that has been curtailed, definitely curtailed. So it is mostly affecting that aspect of the music certainly. Aspects of the music has been affect, but then it opens up or it will, hence, the digital, virtual aspect of music.
It will never ever fulfill the virtual world, because as beings we are used to interacting, interfacing, intercoursing, reasoning. You know, like live and direct, there’s a special magic in the presence of ones and ones. Live and direct, ah! So yes, it has affected, but at the same time people are being innovative or even getting more innovative.
Like I’ve said before, recorded music, it will step up the streaming, because people, now, will not be able to experience that live performance. You know as much as it’s better live and direct. People will now have to be satisfied, and will be satisfied, because we live in a digital age. A whole heap a concerts stream, you have more online viewers than people at some venues.
Nothing new under the sun
He also reminds us that there’s nothing new under the sun. It may be the first time the whole World came to a standstill, yet it is not the first pandemic.
The Spanish flu otherwise known as the swine flu, which started in America, killed like how many million people? Millions of people! It started in America a hundred years ago. One can see why so many people were affected because it was World War I, you know, and groups of people were moving all over the place, returning from America.
You had Americans from all over America being shipped to places of conflict during World War I, and then returned, and picking up, because by then it was like a pandemic. Europe was at the center for the Spanish flu. Then it would spread. And because I said before it was a war, it was a particular harsh period.
But it’s nothing new. Wether it’s lab-made or jump from animal to man, it does not matter. It will be around. We need to be merciless realist. All we need to do is to be cautious.
Cracks & flaws
Oku Onuoara thinks this crisis reveals the cracks, and the flaws in the current system:
I don’t rule out anything. I’m observing, and I’m taking note, because this experience that we’re going through globally is showing the cracks, or more cracks, and flaws in the systems. These are situations that show who the true revolutionary is, who a lion, and who a paper tiger. It shows who is roaring, and who is purring.
It is showing that we need to be real, be true, and this is not on one man back. No man is an island. No nation stand alone inna dis ya crisis. That’s a lesson that’s being re-iterated, because it seems as if we are dumb. I have a 12 year old daughter, and she said it the other day. When she said it I’m like “Yo! But you’re human,” and she said “Yeah, and stupid too! I’m human,” and she’s a bright girl.
Oku Onuora believes that this crisis has already induced some changes in our society, and will surely lead to more drastic changes:
This experience has changed. It’s not going to, it has changed the world as we know it. Of course, the cities will open up. Did the Spanish flu a.k.a the swine flu, did it stop cities from opening up? Did it stop the economy from crunching on? No. This brute will not go away. So next year, it will probably come around with more vengeance, because we’ll be so relaxed.
So people be dying. People die every single year from flu. Flu! Virus! Me no even talking about hunger and all a dat, me no even talk about the savage wars, the meaningless wars, the atrocities. As we speak, the amount of people that are dying. What has changed that? Yet, still, you know the whole thing still going on. But just as how 9/11 changed the way we travel, this guy, c-19, will change the way we interact, and how we travel, will affect migration.
9/11, this is not even like a global incident like a pandemic. It changed traveling, and certain security measures forever. People have lost certain rights all over the world. Especially in so called developed countries, like in Europe, the US, China, Japan, you name it, Australia, where the governments are obsessed with having control as much as possible of the people, where they can manipulate the people, where they gather information, the whole biometric thing, and all a that. Don’t be surprised if we are now required to take a vaccine for this culprit to be able to travel, to be able to get a visa, because then, big pharma is a money-making thing.
He also shed some light on the increase of domestic violence induced by the lockdown:
It’s sad when we talk about what this situation has created, we’re talking about the increase in domestic violence. We are hearing stories from all over the world, and not just domestic violence against women, we’re talking about children too. We’re talking about violence against either gender, we’re talking about violence in the home. We’re talking about human rights abuses also, taking place because of what is happening. The hysteria, the pan-panic is causing a whole heap a isms and schisms. It’s a pan-panic actually taking place. One has to wonder if there’s some kind of agenda, because world leaders were in accord just like politicians.
Politicians. You have different levels of governing. You have different levels of how politicians interact with each other. Serious thing, so even where I live here on the Rock, in Jamdown, in Jamaica. It may seems as if there’s opposition, and the governing parties are at each other’s throat but at the same time when you check it, when you check the reality, guess what? They are bosom buddies. They are partners in crime.
Due to the lockdown measures that have been taken in the Caribbean, Europe, the US, and many other places of the world, most performing artists cannot tour until further notice. Oku shares that he had plans to tour to Europe this year:
This year, I was working on it, because I’m constantly working on what I am doing. I always know that the answer/call will come through. I had been looking to come to pass to Europe, if even one or two shows, you know. Definitely! So, what has happened now is, you know, BAM! You know, ah! It put the pause on that.
I was definitely looking, although there wasn’t, up to date, no announcement. I’m still talking to people. As I said before, I was ought to do at least a couple of shows for this summer, but unfortunately before we could get serious in terms of igniting the machinery to get that going, then the announcement of this wretched entity [Laughs], this diabolic entity…
Despite all that, he doesn’t give up on touring in Europe:
I really examinate the way forward now with what is happening in the world today, and the changes that will take place, you know, in terms of the effects that the crisis now will have on the music, because I have been off the scene for years.
The first performance I did in Europe for almost 20 years was when I performed in Switzerland in Undertown, when I’ve gone to voice “I’ve Seen.” I did perform last year in Reggae Geel, and I did a few summer shows. I had been working on getting to perform in Europe before that. For about three years, every year I’m saying like “This year I’m going to do some work in Europe,” and finally it happened. It starts to happen, and then this thing [ed: covid-19] happen. Ah! [Laughs] But that’s how it goes, one has to be prepared to deal with the unexpected. Always expect the unexpected.
Living in Kingston during the 60’s
Read next chapter: Awareness
Growing up in a working class family
Oku Onuora was born Orlando Wong in 1952 in Kingston’s Jubilee Hospital. As his father died at a young age, he was raised by his mother Ruby Myers, and his grandmother (Masouri, 2017).
I didn’t grow up as a suffering child. I grew up in a working class area, where next doors, Dunkirk, a squatter settlement just up the whole big yards, and all of that stuff. I’ve always considered myself a privileged. I didn’t know my father. He died, or came out of the picture like when I was about 2 years old. So, I didn’t have the opportunity to know a father, but my mother, and my grandmother dem grew me, dem nurture me, dem nature me.
Raised by independent women
He remembers his grandmother, and his mother were very independent, and strong:
My grandmother was self-employed. [Laughs] She didn’t work for anybody. She did laundry, she washed, and ironed clothes. So she had a day when she did washing, and the day when she did ironing. She’d take in some work home, knock the bulk of it. There were days, like 3 or 4 days out of the week, she’d go out and work a day a particular sum of money. In Jamaica, we call them days worker. She was fiercely independent.
My mother was a factory worker, and an entrepreneur. My mother kept dance. I can remember, me and my mother keep couple dance. My mother was the head of a partment. A partment in Jamaica, I think is a group of people putting a sum of money every week, and each person will get a draw. So that money is accumulated, and it’s a kind of informal, and it still happens in Jamaica, and other parts of the world in probably different forms.
A spoiled child
While growing up, Oku Onuora never lacked of anything. He considered himself as privileged, and recalls:
I was the only child for my mom until I was like 13+, so I was spoiled, but I was very rebellious at the same time. I was very independent, because I had two strong independent women growing me. My mother had a boyfriend up until I was probably about 10 or 12, my sister’s father, and after that my mother just remained single.
My mother didn’t want to send me to government school. In fact, I believe I was one term in a government school, and that was the Rollington Town primary school. My mother always endeavor to send me to a private institution. She took care of me. I was the first kid, as you would say, on the block.
Out of my friends, I was the first one to own a black and white television. My mother allowed me to put that television on our veranda, and I’d invite my friends in, we’d sit in the veranda, we’d watched tv until a certain hours. There was only one television station. My mother took me down town to a store that was popular in that time called Time Store, and she bought me a phonographic player to satisfy me, to keep me at home. So I grew up quite privileged in the strata. I didn’t have a gold spoon, but I didn’t wear patch batty. I was always clean, and well dressed.
A caring mother
Oku Onuora remembers his mother as a caring person, who greatly inspired him to care for other people as well:
My mother was a caring, loving person. My mother would always look out for the downtrodden. She would not pass someone who needed help. Never. There are incidents in my life, I see my mum gave away my clothes, gave away some of my grandmother’s clothes, some of her boyfriend’s clothes, bought food, and at the same time gave money to the person, and she had this smile on her face.
I inherited that from my mother, I am this kind of being that I do not like to see injustice. I used to go to the movies, and my friends would be cheering when the cow boys would massacre the Indians. They’d shout out to John Wayne. They’d do that. I didn’t like cow boys. I was that kind of child.
Read next chapter: Cold War
Oku Onuora was only 10 years old when Jamaica became independent so he barely noticed any change at the time. Though, he shares that he eventually became aware when he grew older:
The time Independence came about I was like 10 years old. The transition from Independence, I didn’t observe it at that time. I came to awareness when I was like 13-14 years old, 15. By the time I was 16, I was more aware of what was happening globally with the struggle of people in the US, the struggle of the people in Africa.
So, that was the bottom drop for me. It was after that I would be able to actually reference from what people who had actually experience. This kind of transition, I got that from people who had recently experienced it. So the people in their early 20’s, because most of my friends were grow ups. I didn’t hang around a lot with my peers, people in my age group, at all.
At the time when black people were fighting for their rights more than ever in the US, Pan-Africanism was culminating. During the 60’s and the 70’s, Oku Onuora has been inspired by the Black Power Movement, and other iconic figures of revolutionary movements. He recalls:
In the 60’s, I was more intrigued by the revolutionary movement, and what was taking place in Cuba. Che Guevara was my hero. Serious thing. I was introduced to Frantz Fanon very early. I was influenced by the Black Power Movement, the Pan African Movement, the movements that were taking place in America, and in Africa, in the 70’s.
At 16, as I said my heroes were people like Che, and Fidel. These people were my heroes. Kwame Nkrumah. So, at 16 years old I was reading books. I was familiar with the words of Kwame Nkrumah, of Che. So I was aware of what was taking place in Cuba, in North America, and on the Dark Continent, you know, the changes that were taking place in the world, I was even aware of Vietnam.
Rebelling against the system
When we evoked the Rodney Riots, Oku Onuora shared that it was a way for him to manifest his rebellion, and displeasure with the system. He highlights that Jamaican people have always been rebellious, because of their history:
Yes, it has been in the DNA of the people in this region, especially on the Rock. Because this is one of the first stop that was made. You can do your historical research. You had the Golden Triangle, right, where the ships would leave from Liverpool, and go to the west coast of Africa, and it would pick up the cargo, and then it would head to the Caribbean. Then, it would head back to England.
The rebellious ones were left in Jamaica. You know, people who would try to jump overboard, people who fomented rebellion on the slavers on the journey, people from North America who ran away, who rebelled, people from other islands were sent to Jamaica. Dem send dem a Jamaica cah, I don’t know, probably Jamaica got the worst a the worst slave masters.
So, people who were very rebellious were left in Jamaica, on the Rock, here. Further, if you rebelled in North America, one of the place that you would be threatened to be sent was Jamaica. So, most definitely, it’s in our DNA.We are rebellious people to this very day. More like resilient. When you’re resilient you tend to go against the norm. Some people use the word rebellious. We have shown how resilient we have been.
Read next chapter: Writing
In the context of the Cold War, the US put an embargo against Cuba, in February 1962 (Time, 2015). On the other side, right after proclaiming its independence, Jamaica joined the camp of the US (Countrystudies.us).
Prime Minister Bustamante described Jamaica as pro-Western, Christian, and anticommunist, and he announced “the irrevocable decision that Jamaica stands with the West and the United States” (Countrystudies.us).
Oku Onuora comments:
The early politicians in Jamaica, like Bustamante, and you know others, were puppets. Serious thing. They had to work with the power to be, that was the USA at the time, because Britain just didn’t give up her positions just like that. America became a major player in this region.
The early politicians didn’t have the guts. They were spineless. They were individuals. Of course they were champions, mostly verbally, but outside of that these people were weak. They weren’t fierce freedom fighters. They were paper tigers, and it’s not new, because even now they’re aren’t roaring, they don’t roar, they purr.
Jamaica between imperialism and communism
Oku Onuora reminds us that for a while the PNP party had supported Cuba during the Cold War, and it had terrible consequences for the Jamaican people:
So during that time, the Cold War was at its heights. Cuba becoming a communist, because one must remember the whole political history of communism, and imperialism in this part of the world. The dominant imperialist power was the USA. So how would they tolerate Cuba here, an ally of their biggest enemy. Now way!
Then, that’s just a part of our relationship. Because, then the PNP party under the leadership of Michael Manley embraced Cuba. We suffered. The people in Jamaica suffered, because the people, and the government of Jamaica dared to embrace Cuba, and to say to the people of Cuba we are your friends.
The party, which Bustamante led, didn’t want to have anything to do with Cuba. In fact, they collaborated with the US to subvert the government that was in power at the time, that had created the relationship with the people of Cuba. They aided them, and had bettered them. Thousands of people in Jamaica died, because of that.
So yes, I mean it’s not a one-sided thing, you know, because you say how could we [ed: join the side of the US during the Cold War]. No! We did not totally. Just like now, you have some people there are funds, they gravel to gain, and to keep power. There are funds, and there are pounds. Nothing has changed!
Read next chapter: Outspoken
In the early 70’s, Oku Onuora was sent to jail after being caught for armed robbery. While, he was in hell, as he calls it, he took journalism classes, and started writing because he felt the need to express himself and reflect what he was seeing in the hope that it would bring changes (Masouri, 2017).
When we asked Oku Onuora if he would have been writing even if he had not gone to jail, he replied:
I can’t say. That’s difficult. Wow! I can’t say. The kind of person I am, I was. Yesterday, today, tomorrow, I’ll still be the same. The kind of person that I am, that I was, would lead me along a path that probably more than likely I would be writing. I don’t know. Because that’s my mission. I would discover my mission.
You stomp me with that. I can’t say, but hell [ed: jail], actually situations that we come forward again, because we cannot escape it, actually bring forth latent spirits, latent talent. It brings forth your strength, bring forth what makes you strong. Experience does that. Just like this diabolic entity [ed: covid-19] that is causing pan-panic.
I can’t give a definitive answer. As I was saying, situations, experience bring forth the best in us, bring forth that which was hidden, makes us innovative, unlock our creative channel. So, I don’t know.
I’ve always been outspoken, always. The most dynamic way of being outspoken is poetry. Poetry, music, culture. Sometimes, I saw myself writing film scripts. This is even why I Dub Poetry. Today, I still work the potential of Dub Poetry. The whole process of dubbing is awesome, because my aim, and objective is to use the audiovisual medium to reach people.
This is why I embrace the internet. I embrace the technology. I embrace it, because look at what is happening. We are reasoning in real time. But me no know. So more than likely, yes. I would be writing. I don’t say, yes. Or probably, I would have became a politician. [Laughs] Wow! Oh my Gosh! That’s a nightmare! [Laughs]
Oku Onuora adds that passing on to the next generation is very important to him:
I’m always championing at youths. As a youth, I championed because of youths. As a grown up, I champion because of youths. I say generation link. I have a phrase, not a phrase that I use, I practice it. Generation link! Because, too often, and the reason why I say generation link, and I make an effort to maintain that link, is the youths have always been cursed out for being the worst generation
In every generation, you know people say “You are the worst generation. We did not do this.” Even amongst Rasta, and this is what really jarred me, when I heard a Rasta man call the youths dem serpent, and vipers. If there’s a disconnect between generation, there can’t be an even flow. There can’t be a logical transition. So, I don’t lie, I would have been using a creative means, and writing would be involved in it.
An international language
Even though he’s not a 100% sure he would be writing if he had not gone to jail, Oku Onuora believes he’d still be using a creative means that speaks volume:
I had never given any thought before, really! Serious thing. Thank you for bringing me to this realization. Yes, I would have been doing something using a creative means. I would be, because that’s how I am. I’m at my best, especially, with this kind of creativity, because it speaks volume. Music, poetry, song, these are international languages. I am more known outside of Jamaica than I am known in Jamaica. I have performed to some huge enthusiastic audiences that related to what I was saying. It’s a powerful tool
Giving a helping hand
Oku Onuora doesn’t like to see injustice, and always feels joyful to help someone. He says:
From then til now, I have always been enraged about seeing people being bullied, people being exploited, people suffering. Even today, I’m passing someone on the sidewalk, something talks at my heart strings, to this very day. I’ll be on the mall, and some person you look at them, and you see hunger. You see dem desolate, you see dem destitute, you see dem homeless, and they’ll approach me. I see dem pass everybody, and they’ll come to me, and I feel joyful when I’m able to help someone.
One one cocoa full a basket
Oku Onuora doesn’t expect to change the World in a blink of an eye, but he is convinced that if he is able to touch one soul, it’s enough. He refers to the domino effects:
Once I’m able to touch your soul, in whatever way, I can touch your soul to benefit that soul, I am pleased. Serious thing. Because I’m fortunate. Fortunate to realize the power of consciousness. Fortunate to realize being who you are, realizing your mission, and doing what you do no matter how insignificant as it may seem doing it wholeheartedly. Because the biggest help that I have received, in my life, from my birth, is free.
The progress that I had made as a poet, as a Dub poet, I didn’t make it alone. People helped me along the way, and these people were never ever or hardly monetary. I must big up people like Barbara Gloudon, at the time she had a column in the Star, while I was in prison in 1970’s, people like Leonie Forbes, people like Professor Mervin Morris, who at one time was the head of the English department of the University of West Indies. Jamaica’s first poet, Lorrie, since we got independence, an awesome person, and this person is some a the biggest helping hand. To these people I owe a lot.
I am not here to say about multitude, if I’m able to touch one soul, if I’m able to reach out to a brother man, to a youth, to make him be able to take that giant step, to be able to inspire him to do best, the best that he can. Guess what? I am pleased, because it’s like a domino effect. I’ve touched many lives over the years, individuals, and these individuals have gone on, I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. They’ve gone on, and they have touched other souls. So it’s like a domino effect. Poetry, my power, my speaking ability, my speaking talent, my poetry, my creativity, is the tool I use to do this.
Read next chapter: Recording
Jamaican politicians might be spineless, and act as puppets when it comes to geopolitics, but certain artists who had denounced their schemes have sometimes paid the cost of their lives.
Speaking without fear
It is clear that Oku Onuora was, is, and will always be outspoken. Hence, some of his work has sometimes been described as subversive. When we ask him if he ever feared for his life, he answers:
No I have never ever given thought to that. There’s a possibility that that may have happened. But why give thought. Why be obsessed, and be possessed by what may be. I am not working towards that. I am just simply speaking my mind. I am simply expressing myself, my displeasure, my anger, making suggestions for changes to take place. Attempts have been made on my life before because of what I believe, of the things I speak about. So why should I fear? That will just stifle my creative flow [Laughs]. Come on. I have not been conditioned like that.
I had a grandmother who was fierce. She she didn’t say much. I get my social distancing too from my grandmother. My grandmother was a peculiar kind of person. An awesome kind of person. She didn’t say much. But the lot that I learned from my grandmother, I learned it through her attitude. Her behavior. She had a great influence on me, likewise my mother. I am a merciless realist, I know the kind of society I live in, I know the kind of system I live in. Okay. I am not blind. I may be mad, I may be insane, I may be a lunatic, but I am well aware of what is taking place in the world.
I don’t just talk about the problems, because if you don’t talk about the solutions too then shut up. Even though it’s just a suggestion, suggestions, and words are important. People have been influenced by words, by deeds. These things do change one’s circumstances. It doesn’t take money to shape you, to make you who you are. So no, I have never ever feared of that. Because of what I do, I have been threatened, because of what I am from dem time deh til now. From yesterday, today and tomorrow, I can guarantee you I will speak my mind without fear or fever. As I said, my life has been threatened before.
Bob Marley never hesitated to denounce the shitstem as Peter Tosh would call it. In songs such as “Rat Race,” he threw lights on political violence. In 1976, a couple days before the Smile Jamaica concert, and about 2 weeks before the Jamaica general election was held, Bob had been the target of an assassination attempt at Tuff Gong studio, 56 Hope Road (Lee, 2004).
Oku Onuora was shocked when he heard about Bob’s assassination attempt. He comments:
When the attempt on Bob Marley was made, I was like “Wow! Wha dis? Wha gwaan?” But already, we had seen the assassination of Malcom X, we had seen the assassination of Martin Luther King. We had seen the assassination of other people, other champions, other fighters, other outspoken persons, it’s not nothing new.
Shock on off, I have not put on my shock on off. It has been happening. The assassination of those who dare to speak.
I am talking about a whole heap of people, like Pablo Neruda from Chile. The first, from early on, I am aware that they go after the artist, the writers, the intellects, the outspoken people, because you can be an intellect, and you work with the shitstem, you spew out the same shit. Because our education system produces carbon copy, produces conditioned minds. Those who have excelled have rebelled. So no, we deh ya, and we nah shut up we mouth. We a say weh we a say.
Losing a brother
In 1983, Jamaican Dub Poet Michael Smith was brutally stoned to death by followers of the JLP after ‘giving a hard time’ to the Minister of Education Mavis Gilmour at a political meeting she gave at Stony Hill (Pearn, 1983).
When we evoked the circumstances of the death of Michael Smith, Oku Onuora expressed his sadness:
I was saddened, especially when Michael Smith was stoned to death, ironically in Stony Hill on Marcus Garvey’s birthday. I was angry, but then Mikey Smith wasn’t the first, he wasn’t the last, to have been assassinated, because he was assassinated regardless of how it was done, whether it was coordinated or not, whether instructions were given. It’s insignificant. He was assassinated.
Oku Onuora knew Michael Smith quite well, he remembers:
I met Michael Smith at my first reading that I did publicly. Because from time to time I would read poetry, I’d recite a poem in prison to bredren in hell. I did my first public reading at the Kingston St Andrew Parish Library in Kingston Jamaica, Headquarters for the Jamaican library service. Michael Smith approached me after I finished my presentation, from Redcam Avenue library, in 1977. He said he wrote poetry, and I invited it to visit me. He visited me at the Fort Augustus prison. When I came out of prison, we linked up again at the Jamaican School of drama. Then it was called the creative art Center, now it’s called Edna Manley College, EMC.
We would hang out together, we would read together, we would perform together. During that time, whenever I was performing Mikey would be there. We were like a pair. Mikey Smith would be there, I would be there. Mikey Smith was my brother. I knew Mikey Smith very well. I believe I knew Mike Smith more than a whole heap of people. Me know Mikey Smith more than a whole heap a people who say dem know Mikey Smith. We were good friends. He was my brother. We had our differences now and again, but Mikey a my bredda.
Read next chapter: Dub Poetry, likewise & otherwise
A means for transmission
Oku Onuora explains how he ended up recording against all odds:
My first single “Reflection In Red” was recorded at Harry J’s studios. I’d never been in the studio before. I didn’t visit studios. I have never done the hanging out at studios. Because for me, it’s not like a recording artist with groups, you know what I mean, music thing. No!
This was a means of transmitting, of transferring, of using a medium for what I was making. I saw music was an awesome tool. I didn’t even see myself becoming a recording artist as such. I’m using this weapon, Dub poetry, to speak my mind, to dub out someone consciousness, to dub in some consciousness.
I didn’t used to hang out at studios, and all that, and see what is happening. I decided that I needed to record my works, because there’s a rhythm in it when I recite poems, and hearing music.
As a novice in music recording, Oku Onuora reached out for help. He relates how he produced his first single “Reflection In Red” that he recorded at Harry J‘s studio:
I approached Steve Golding. He is an awesome musician. Steve Golding has played with Ossie [ed: Oswald Douglas], he used to play with Bob Marley. He’s one of the world’s top Reggae guitarist.
So, I approached Steve Golding, and I told him that I have a project. I told him what I wanted to do, and I asked him to put the project together, because I wouldn’t be hanging around with musicians. I wasn’t familiar with producing music.
In fact, I didn’t even have any tape. He loaned me a 2-inch recording tape. He got the musicians together, and we did “Reflection In Red.”After we did “Reflection In Red,” I took the finish product to Bob Marley for distribution, because before I came from prison had expressed the desire to meet me. The link was through Judy Mowatt.
Recording at Tuff Gong
Oku Onuora recorded his debut album “Pressure Drop” at Tuff Gong studio. He details how he was introduced to Bob Marley:
My first typewriter that I ever got, and the only typewriter that I ever owned as given to me by Judy Mowatt. By then, I was in prison. Before my book came out, Judy Mowatt told Bob about me. Bob was living in Miami at the time, I believe. When Bob was living in Jamaica, off Lady Musgrave, nearby 56 Hope Road, in that barbican area, he told her that he’d like to meet me when I came from prison. So, when I came from prison, Judy Mowatt took me to see Bob Marley, and we reason, because I did know Bob before from Trench Town.
At the end of the day, Bob said to me if you need an helping hand, give me a check. The next time Bob saw me, I was looking a distribution deal for my single “Reflection In Red.” When I went to 56 Hope Road, and I told him about what I wanted, he called SangieDavis who worked with Tuff Gong, and Tommy Cowan. Tommy Cowan worked at Tuff Gong at the time, also. Diane Jobson was there. He said “Yo! Look at this! I told this bredren if he needed an helping hand, he should check me. And look what he did? He brought me a finish product.”
He explains that before he came to Bob, looking for a distribution deal, he had already released his album independently:
Before I went to Bob, I had a stamp made, and I put out “Reflection In Red” independently, on the Kuya label, on my own label, before it came out via Bob Marley, 56 Hope Road Label. Every time people talk about “Reflection In Red,” they talk about the 56 Hope Road label, and Tuff Gong, Bob Marley. I’m just getting slight. I believe one or two people have mentioned this, but today I’m saying to you that the first release of “Reflection In Red” was on the Kuya label, my own label. It was put out by Progressive Artist Movement, P-A-M.
Making the link
Oku Onuora relates his encounter with Judy Mowatt, and other people from the art world while he was in prison:
At the time there was a lot happening in the penal institution. There was a lot of changes taking place in the political system in Jamaica. The PNP government that was in power was working on a number of reforms. What was taking place with the movements in prison got the interest of people from the outside world. Artists especially were getting involved with programs that was happening in prison.
I would create waves, because I was outspoken. Reggae music actually was becoming a force to reckon with. So what I was doing was recognized as a part as of that movement. So I came to her attention, and she reached out. That’s how Judy Mowatt became aware of me, and what I was doing.
I’d reached out to a number of brothers in hell, people from theater, music, and the art world. My first book of poetry, “Echo,” which was published while I was in prison, the artwork was done by a young Jamaican artist. At the time, his name was Mervin Morris. He has changed his name, he migrated to the US, then he migrated to Ghana. I met him while I was in prison, because he came into prison, and he was giving art lessons. So when the book came about, I said I wanted this young man to do the book cover.
Oku Onuora once turned down the opportunity to work with with Linton Kwesi Johnson, aka LKJ. He explains why:
Independence is very very important to me but that’s not the reason. LKJ couldn’t produce my first album. LKJ thing is different from my thing. We do similar things, but then a Dub Poetry me a deal with. LKJ is a Reggae Poet. Me woulda take another 2-3 hours to really talk bout dat. [Laughs] I was given the offer, he had a deal with Island Records, so he approached me to do my debut album. I said no. This is how Mikey Smith did “Me Cyaah Believe It.” When I turned down the offer, he reached out to Mikey Smith.
This was a time when Jamaican artists would give anything to be on the Island label, the Reggae label. I turned that down, because I didn’t believe Linton was the person to produce my debut album. My production of my debut album wasn’t just… The whole thing is a statement. I’m making a statement, you know. People talk about, people talk, but is more than talk. You walk the walk, you no just talk, you walk it too. I’m talking about being independent. Okay. I’m talking about self reliance.
So, my producing, my works, my debut single, my debut album is a reflection of what I preach. Yes, I have collaborated. I mean like you have other poets, in recent times, Meeka Nyota, a young poet, Jawara Ellis, they have projects that they have invited me to participate in, and I have done so. I’m not against collaboration. Even when you hire someone to do some work for you, it’s still a collaboration. You have free collaboration, you have collaborations that are paid for, you know.
Dub Poetry, likewise & otherwise
Read next chapter: Current & upcoming projects
Oku Onuora does Dub Poetry, not to be confused with a Reggae Poetry. Despite the similarities between both genres, he explains how he stands out as a Dub Poet:
I am a Dub Poet. I can’t speak for somebody else, but people like LKJ, Jean Breeze, Mutabaruka, they say they are not Dub Poets. Muta, Linton, Jean Breeze, and some a say DubPoetry is limited. I didn’t say that, research it. If you listen to my work keenly, you will hear the difference with what Linton does. Muta use Reggae rhythms, I use Reggae rhythms too, but I’ve done things Linton, and Muta had never done before. No one had never done that before with Reggae poetry or poetry as we know it.
When I put out my debut album “Pressure Drop,” for example, Muta second album was coming out, Linton had out 3 albums, Jean Breeze had an album out, Mikey Smith had an album out. That was the time of vinyl. Side 1: Strictly Reggae! Strictly original rhythms. Me nuh redo ova riddim. The closest I have come to that is when I do “Running Away,” Bob Marley, on “A Movement,”me and Monty Alexander. Who done it? No Studio One rhythm. Strictly original rhythms were used. Okay.
I used 3 parts harmony. The first time I attempted to use harmony, the engineer said to me “Bredren a talk yuh a talk.” That’s why I love Family Man so much, I just invited him “Yo! Come listen to that session ya.” We had done projects before, and Family Man said “Yeah man,” the man say harmony. I used harmony. None a dem had done! Linton had not done that, on his 3 albums before. Muta, on his 2 albums.
Beyond Reggae music
Oku Onuora shared that he enjoys listening to various genres of music, including Afrobeat, with artists such as Fela Kuti, and Manu Dibango but also Rock music, with bands like Pink Floyd, and The Doors. As far as it concerns African music, he told us us that he likes to listen to Dermot Hussey‘s show titled “The Riff,” on Sirius XM.
When it comes to poetry, he doesn’t limit himsellf to dub Reggae music. He reminds us he dubbed a Jazz piece on his debut album:
I used Jazz, cah music me a deal with, Black music, African music. Our musicians were influenced by Jazz, by Afrobeat, by African rhythms. Okay. I was invited to the Angoulême Jazz Festival in France, because of that one Jazz piece on my debut album. I use African rhythm, I use a djembe drum with a poem called “Decolonisation.”
alien images colonize your thoughts
tarnish your sight / shackle your tongue / make you self abusive / destructive
djembe drum / rise rage / release dark phantoms / of your being
to perform ancient rituals / dance / drum in your head
liberate your thoughts / purify your sight / unshackle your tongue
After reciting a piece of “Decolonisation,” he relates how he got to work with the djembe drum player Obayana Olumide:
Obayana Olumide came from the US. He heard that I was recording the album. So he paid his way to Jamaica, and he came. He phoned me at Tuff Gong studios where I was working on the album, and he said to me “I’d like to play on your album,” and I said “Okay, I’ll find a poem. We’ll work together.” I found the poem “Decolonisation.”
Then, he continues to explain how what he does is different from what a Reggae Poet does:
I use a nyahbinghi rhythm on “Beat Yuh Drums Rasta Man.” Muta neva have a nyahbinghi rhythm. So I move from Reggae, Jazz, nyahbinghi, African rhythm. No one had done a poem without music, I had about 2 poems without music on my debut album. So me different, without any apology. I use to be very quiet about things. Now is a time for me to make certain utterances. Not that I was a fraid before or I didn’t want to create… No no no no. I just felt like just chilling. Okay. People normally don’t hear me talk this, I mean like, in this interview that we are doing I have said stuff that is the first time I’m saying it, or I said it probably one or two time before, just in recent times. So we different!
Unlimited Dub Poetry
He really insists on the fact that Dub Poetry is not limited as certain people would say:
I have heard some people say that they sometimes write Dub Poetry, but yet ifif I say Dub Poetry is limited, you cannot build me, and I show as a Dub Poet. I make sure you cannot introduce me on stage as a Dub Poet if I say Dub Poetry is limited. Are you picking me up? Okay. So me a Dub Poet. Okay, but then because Dub Poetry has fired the imagination of ones and ones, you have even Dub Poetry in the Oxford dictionary. There is this back and forth as to the founding father, I have never ever nowhere, research it, I have never ever said I coined the phrase “Dub Poetry.” I say I am a Dub Poet.
After I started to say that I’m a Dub Poet, and I’m using Dub Poetry, and speaking about why I am a Dub Poet, Linton, I read it after, I cyaah say Linton said, he used the phrase “Dub Poets” to describe the Deejays. Before I know say Linton use the phrase fi describe Deejays, me a say Dub Poetry. A dub me a dub. So, Linton cyaah use the phrase describe the Deejays like Big Youth, and Daddy U-Roy, these early Deejays, because this is what he said, he described them as Dub Poets. I am not a Deejay, I never pretended to be a Deejay, when you listen to me, me nuh sound like Deejay. I’ve never made an effort to become a Deejay, I never used that format. You listen to I, I’m a Dub Poet.
Dub in consciousness, dub out consciousness
Oku Onuora points out that certain people sometimes wrongly described themselves as Dub Poet:
I’ve seen people who have come as Dub Poets, when I just heard about them they were Dub Poets, like Ini Kamoze. I’ve first heard of Ini Kamoze from Spanish Town, through my bredren Knobby Natural, he was doing Dub Poetry. When I first was introduced to I Wayne, in Braeton in Portmore, I was introduced to him as a Dub Poet, and he was saying that he was doing Dub Poetry. You know I Wayne, he’s not described as a Dub Poet. You have never heard him say he was doing Dub Poetry, at least I have never heard him say that in public. But when I was introduced to I Wayne in Braeton, at a gate where he was staying, beautiful place, natural, like a garden, in a middle a garden, I was introduced to him, he said he was doing Dub Poetry.
I have not changed. I have seen people who say “Yo! Me a Dub Poet.” Then I see him down the line, and he would say to me “Bwoy, you know say me a try a thing.” I say you don’t have to explain that you a try a thing at Dub Poetry. As I’ve said it all the while, poetry is the mother. So a poet universe’s work is either by singing this poem, by reciting it or by chanting it. A poem is a playlet, you can stage a poem. What I do, I dub poetry to my music. I dub that musical poetry further onto a musical rhythm. My thing is to dub in consciousness, dub out consciousness, dub in positive energy, dub out negative energy. It’s a process of dubbing, hence the poetry.
Current & upcoming projects
Behind the production of “I’ve Seen”
“I’ve Seen,” the latest album of Oku Onuora was released on Fruits Records in February 2019. He tells us how he got to work with Doctor T.
I’ve seen, I’ve seen, I’ve seen… Yes! That’s an awesome project, I love it. Once again, I was approached by someone who I did not know before. Doctor T approached me, and said he wanted to do an album with me. He said he had wanted to do an album with me, and Scratch, for years, ever since he started to listen to Reggae, and Dub music. At the time, I was in the process of doing a new studio album, because up until that time I had not really done anything new.
Until the release of “I’ve Seen,” Oku Onuora had not released any album since 2013.
In 2013, I had put out an album called “A Movement,” but the tracks on “A Movement” was mostly digitally recorded for one, there was like the instrumentation, there were tracks that I did at a time, when I wasn’t really working on an album, I was just recording stuff, because I had nothing else to do.
I had a studio facility, and an awesome musician available, Courtney Panton, original bass player for AK7. He was one of the original members of the AK7. He played on “Pressure Drop,” the album. I did these tracks. And in 2013, I want to signal my return, or my rising from my bunker, rising from my foxhole, and I put out “A Movement.” When I put out “A Movement,” there were tracks that were laid 12-15 years ago.
An independent artist
Oku Onuora is an independent artist who usually produces himself. He explains why he agreed to let someone else produce his latest album:
For another reason also, I produce all my works today. I am an independent artist, I produced my debut single, debut album, my following album, and I work with original rhythms. Okay. So from “Jump Street,” my debut single, I produce my debut single, and you know, subsequent singles. My first UK release “I A Tell,” the single, 12 inch, I produce all of it.
When I was approached by Doctor T from Switzerland, and he said “I’ve worked with Scratch, I’ve done an album with Scratch.” We discussed the matter for a little while. I didn’t just say yes. In fact, there was a time when it seems as if it would not happen. So we came to an agreement, and I allowed him to compose all the music. I did not interfere with the musical composition. Doctor T was responsible for the production. He did not interfere with my poetry, and he didn’t make any suggestion.
I was like “Okay, let me see what someone else would do.” The result, “I’ve Seen” is an awesome album. Awesome poems, if I may say so. What I love about the album was that during the voicing in Switzerland, I wrote some new poems for the album. Doctor T felt it best that I voiced the album in Switzerland, and not in Jamaica. Awesome album, did very well in 2019, awesome album. I would not have done that. If I had done the album then, it would be different. So, it’s great to see the collaboration, because collaboration is good. We always collaborate, wether we are independent, wether we produce the product ourselves. Even when I pay musicians to play in a track, it’s a collaboration.
Oku Onuora‘s latest single “Yanga!” was produced by Mexican label Natty Congo Records, and released this year in February. He says how he got to work on this project:
The video for it will be released shortly. I went to Mexico for ten days, for the release, a release party. I did my debut performance in South America, I’d never been to Latin America before. So this project “Yanga!” when I was sent the rhythm, I was like “Wow! This riddim is awesome.” Then, the title of the rhythm is “Yanga Liberation Riddim,” and I’m like “What? ‘Yanga Liberation Riddim’?” and I was informed by Natty Congo who Yanga was.
I researched even further, and was like “Wow! Yanga.” So, I listened to the rhythm, and I’m hearing “Yanga, Yanga, Yanga, Yanga, Yanga” I’m like, I write a poem. I write a simple poem, because I don’t write epic, complex poems. So “Yanga” came to the fore.
Oku Onuora shares that he was agreeably surprised when he learned about Yanga:
I learned something. You’re never too old to learn, the similarity between the cultures, between the people, the oneness of the people of the region, you know, I just was like “Wow!” Now, I’m aware. I know that it’s one people this side of the world, the Caribbean, Latin America, we have similar history, similar culture.
Yanga was brought from the Dark Continent, taken to Mexico, and he rebelled. He ran off, he ran up inna the hills. He resisted the spaniards. The spaniards mounted an attempt to get rid of Yanga. Yanga refused to go, so they made an agreement with Yanga. It’s similar to what the people they call the maroons in Jamaica, like Sam Sharpe, Nanny, Cudjoe, you know what I mean. You have maroon towns, likewise. The word “maroon” comes from the Spanish word “cimarron,” and I was like “Wow!”
When I went to Mexico, I was surprised that a lot of Mexicans did not know about Yanga. I was surprised to know outside of Mexico, in the other parts of the world, people who were experts on Caribbean history, and Caribbean culture, you know, Latin American/South American history, and culture, did not hear of Yanga. So I am proud.
The project exemplifies the union, the oneness, the solidarity of the people in the region, in more ways than one. For me it’s an awesome project, because it’s not about the numbers, it’s not about the like, it’s about the love, it’s about the mission. So Yanga for me, right now, is a symbol of the rebellious spirit of the people of the region.
He also unveils the caribbean collaboration behind “Yanga Liberation Riddim:”
The rhythm was played by Dia Fearon, son of the keyboard icon Jah D. So the rhythm was built in Jamaica, these awesome Jamaican musicians participated, then you had a Cuban percussionist playing on it, and you had some Mexican hands man playing on the rhythm. It was like “Wow!” You know, it was mixed by Magoo from Argentina. It was a Caribbean, South American, it was original energy. That was the main fuel that really inspired me, because I don’t really do rhythms it like that.
Quality over quantity
Oku Onuora says why he doesn’t voice every rhythm that people send him:
Over the years, I’ve done very few recordings for the people on rhythms, because I prefer live rhythms. I’ve done stuff on computerized digital rhythms, because I’m listening to this stuff, and I think like “Wow!”
I receive many rhythms over the years, and I politely decline working on them. It’s more than receiving a fee for doing something, the rhythm haffi talk to me, I have to be moved by the rhythm. That’s first, and foremost, and I have to create a piece of work that will last way beyond my time. 20 years down the line, I listen to it, and I’m like “Okay, great.” Just like with “I A Tell” that was re-issued on vinyl, in 2018.
He evokes how he got re-issue “I A Tell, Dubwise & Otherwise”:
“I A Tell, Dubwise & Otherwise” the tracks on that album were produced like 30 years ago. The album came out in 1989. Then, more than 20 years after, someone saying to me “Yo!” I never spoke to Iroko Records at all. They approached me for the first time, and they said “We want to re-issue ‘I A Tell, Dubwise & Otherwise’.” So for me, that speaks volume. I say to young poets, and young musicians produce quality, make sure that what you create is your best, up until that time. Then when you move on, try to create or do better.
In 2018, Iroko Records issued a book titled “I A Tell,” which gathers 68 poems that were originally published in the Oku Onuora‘s collection of poem “Echo,” and “Fuel for Fire.” Since the publishing of “Fuel for Fire,” in 1998, he hasn’t published any collection of poems. When questioned about his upcoming projects, he revealed that he currently has several literary projects in mind:
I’m always working even if I’m not writing. I’m always creating. In terms of literary works, I haven’t really put out anything in years now. I’ve done two collections of poems in the past. “Echo” came out like 1979, and has been through several reprints of French, and English editions, when Blue Moon had put out “Pressure Drop.” Then there was “Fuel For Fire,” which was the title of my second collection of poems, and that came out… Wow! 20 other years ago.
So I haven’t published anything in recent times. I am getting the energy, the urge, to publish a collection soon. Well, I’m putting it together. How soon it will be published you know… So I’m working on that, I’m putting a collection of works together. Dub Poetry and otherwise.
I am working on another literary project. This is not poetry. I won’t say much about it, because in the past I’ve talked too much about it, and not do anything about it. Ah! [Laughs] More talk more than anything else!
Table of contents
- What a situashan!
- Living in Kingston during the 60’s
- Cold War
- Dub Poetry, likewise & otherwise
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