Black Music Month: Yellowman

June is Black Music Month and WERS at Night will recognize black musicians, composers, singers, and songwriters who have made enormous contributions to the music industry. Today, June 11th, Rockers is highlighting Yellowman.

In honor of Black Music Month, this week I’ve chosen to feature reggae great Yellowman, for his achievements and influence in the reggae world. Born in Kingston in 1956, Yellowman (real name Winston Foster) was placed into a Catholic orphanage called the Alpha School for Boys. Throughout his school days he was frequently discriminated against due to his white complexion as a result of having albinism. While having a rough childhood in a number of ways, the young Yellowman practiced his singing skills, eventually winning a Jamaican deejay contest, bringing him immediate recognition within the island. A few years later, Yellowman was signed to the American label CBS records. This move led him to become a prime example of one of the first generation dancehall artists to gain popularity outside of Jamaica, and the first to be signed to an American label. Shortly after his move to CBS, Yellowman was diagnosed with skin cancer in 1982. The famed deejay was given a tentative three years to live by his doctors, but this analysis proved to be false and after extensive surgery. Yellowman was able to recover and continue recording. Since then, he has continued to tour and record up until the present day, his most recent tour of which was on America’s west coast just last fall.

For the duration of his over three decade career, Yellowman has won over fans all across the world with his distinctive style and flow. In my opinion, Yellowman represents the perfect bridge between dancehall and roots reggae. His laidback style and plodding grooves fit in perfectly with many of the roots artists surrounding him in the 70s, yet his vocals and production style are much more akin to modern dancehall and even hip hop artists. Yellowman’s lyrics were often focused on boasting about himself in a questionably tongue and cheek fashion, as is now clearly a staple of hip hop. For many years Yellowman’s lyrics were highly sexual and free spirited, later moving to a more matured and world-conscience direction. With his goofy swaggering stage presence and unique appearance, Yellowman was a hard act to ignore in the dancehall scene of the early 80s. The employment of a live band during his performances instead of the sound system approach of his early career further helped bridge the divide between the world of roots and that of the dancehall style. The records are able to accomplish the feat of becoming relaxed and low key while retaining huge amounts of energy and not getting repetitive or boring at any point. Yellowman’s understanding of melody as well as rhythm was unparalleled by his contemporary’s and give him yet another reason to be able to stand out from the crowd.

Yellowman’s influence in the music following his debut is hard to overstate. The riddims he brought into the reggae consciousness have been used by nearly every big dancehall artists to follow him, as well as artists as diverse as Sublime and rapper Eazy E. Many reggae musicians and hip hop musicians cite Yellowman as a clear influence on their work, whether in the lyrics and delivery of the vocals or the types of beats and riddims Yellowman chose to employ. For his influence on black music across the world and the enduring talent he has shown, Yellowman is a perfect addition to the roster of the artists worthy of being recognized by the WERS Urban team for this years’ Black Music Month.

By Steve Cameron

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