Ras Kimono was a fearless political commentator, one who called out political leaders in his music at a time when it was dangerous to do so. He stayed true to his conviction that music must seek to create change within the society.
Ras Kimono fervently eschewed being referred to as a legend. ‘The word pisses off’, he once said. But until his sudden death on Sunday June 10 2018, he was legendary- and that’s not simply because of his iconic thirty-six inch long dreadlocks.
Ras Kimono belonged to the era of musicians for whom the craft was a spiritual assignment. Inspired (obviously) by Bob Marley, young Ukeleke Onwubuya started experimenting with music as a student of Gbenoba Secondary School, Agbor in present day Delta State. He would later move to Lagos and form a group, Jastix, along with Blackrice Osagie, Amos McRoy and Majek Fashek. The group played in the local Lagos circles without major success for a few years before all four went their separate ways. Reggae music was on the rise in Africa, following Bob Marley‘s death in 1981 and several musicians embraced the music and lifestyle. Majek Fashek was the first to gain mainstream success after his 1988 record Send Down The Rain. Ras Kimono soon followed with own 1989 album Under Pressure.
Under Pressure introduced Nigerians and Africans in general to this infectious brand of reggae. Using Jamaican patios with an unmistakable Nigerian twang, he wailed and sang of the everyday suffering of the black. He sang about police brutality, poor governance, mass unemployment and poverty of Africans. He struck a chord with a population dealing with successive dictatorial regimes. Signed to Premier Music-a giant record label that ruled the African market in the 80’s and 90’s- he was afforded the opportunity to make music just like he wanted to, often mixing his socially conscious lyrics with rhythmic sounds. A prime example of this was the second track on the Under Pressure album, Rhumba Stylee. He put a twist on the 1960’s American dance move, The Twist and gave it a completely African feel. Bob Marley would be proud…
He released a string of hits records over the course of five years, touring extensively across Europe and America, using his music as a weapon to fight injustice and preach the gospel of Africanism. While Majek Fashek became a ‘world citizen’ through his acceptance into mainstream American industry, Ras Kimono was the most visible reggae musician in Nigeria and he inspired a younger generation of artistes such as Blackky, Daddy Showkey, Baba Fryo to follow in his stead. However the mid 90’s brought with it a dip in the general music industry with the economy groaned under General Abacha’s harsh regime. No longer able to survive solely on making music, he disbanded his band Massive Dread Reggae Band and relocated to the United States. By the time he returned a decade later, reggae’s place had been usurped by the emerging pop and hiphop movement.
But Ras Kimono’s place was never taken. Like a dreadlocked colussus, he was a remarkable personality. Tall, big bodied with a greying mane that was almost half of his height, he stayed faithful to what he believed in. Although the music wasn’t as flowing as it did in the beginning, Ras Kimono remained visible at a handful of shows and concerts. He released a couple of albums between 2009 and 2011 but the ship had long sailed: younger fans respected him as an old-timer but didn’t quite connect to his music. Still, he got involved in PMAN and COSON, all in a bid to ensure that Nigerian music thrived and survived.
Ras Kimono was also a puritan- in the music and through his lifestyle. He refused to be lumped together with the dancehall subgenre, often describing it as devoid of any messaging, only meant for fun and dance. His dedication to the Rastafarian way of life was also striking. He grew out his dreads for thirty-six straight years and no doubt would have continued if he didn’t pass away. He never drank nor smoked and was a vegetarian, unlike his friend and partner Majek Fashek whose struggles with substance abuse is well documented. How ironic that he was on a trip to join Majek for a tour of America when he took ill suddenly and died few hours later. He was 60 years old.
Ras Kimono was a fearless political commentator, one who called out political leaders in his music at a time when it was dangerous to do so. He stayed true to his conviction that music must seek to create change within the society. He believed that it was his mission to stand tall for the masses and he did. For four decades, his message was unchanging, ‘No food fi we belly, no money inna we pocket, no bed fi lay we head; the people, them a-suffer, in a ghetto, in a city, everywhere that me go, me see them..some are cry, some are die, some are weeping, some are wailing… see them flying pon the sky while we walking on the line, money disappearing with no traces…’
At his death, his country continues to grapple with all the issues he sang about in 1989. What a smelly shit!
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