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What went wrong with Black Uhuru

Updated: May 10

The group Black Uhuru was the first Reggae act to win a Grammy Award and came together during the 1970s in the Waterhouse area of Kingston, Jamaica. Dubbed Uhuru by a friend of band Member Derrick “Duckie” Simpson (which translates to “freedom” in Swahili) they were one of the most successful of the second-generation reggae bands, despite constant personnel changes over the years. Black Uhuru was formed in 1972 by Simpson, Euvin “Don Carlos” Spencer, and Rudolph “Garth” Dennis and initially played under the name Black Sounds Uhuru, they eventually shortened it to its more familiar version five years later when the group experienced difficulties securing a record contract.

Black Uhuru The first split-up

Spencer left to pursue a solo career and Dennis joined up with the group The Wailing Souls, leaving Simpson as the only remaining thread throughout the group’s evolution. In time, Simpson reorganized the group with Errol “Jay” Wilson and vocalist Michael Rose. According to Simpson, Rose had been doing cabaret shows on the island’s north coast hotel circuit and was a regular in the Waterhouse community. He had a great voice and had already done more than 20 recordings as a solo artiste. Furthermore, it was Reid who had introduced them to Sly Dunbar who would later accompany the group as its section as drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare. Together with the pioneering production duo Sly & Robbie, Black Uhuru created a sound that made them a match for any reggae ensemble. In 1977 they released their debut album, Love Crisis under Prince Jammy’s production. The album included the hit "I Love King Selassie.", “Time to Unite”, and a remake of the Wailers’ “Natural Mystic.” Three years later, the album was remixed and released as Black Sounds of Freedom, the first under the Black Uhuru banner.

Puma Jones


With the addition of harmony singer Puma Jones, an African American woman who held a master’s degree from Columbia University and was a former member of the female group Mama Africa in 1981. This change signaled Black Uhuru’s entry into the group’s most commercially successful period. In addition to recording a critically lauded sophomore studio album, Red , which featured “Youths of Eglington”, “Sponji Reggae”, “Puff She Puff”, “Sistren”, and a live album entitled “Tear it Up.” The group signed with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records in 1981 and was seen by Blackwell as a natural replacement for Bob Marley and the Wailers after Marley’s untimely death in 1981, given its prolific production, masterful lyrical content and sound.

Anthem


In 1983, the group reached its peak with the release of the album “Anthem “which was later remixed for release in the United State. The remade version was re-released in Europe shortly afterward. Anthem would win the group a Grammy award for that year. The succuss though soon sparked internal problems and caused the group to splinter the following year.  Mykal Rose was replaced by soundalike Junior Reid. Jones and Reid remained with the band until 1989. Although Reid left when visa problems prevented him from touring, Jones, who was replaced by Janet "Olufunke" Reid, was forced to step down after being diagnosed with cancer. She died on January 28, 1990, and was buried in her home state of South Carolina.

Fracturing continues

Black Uhuru nevertheless offered a dynamic and progressive sound during their 1970s and early-'80s heyday. Led by mainstay Derrick “Duckie” Simpson, a reunion of the group's earliest lineup enjoyed renewed critical acclaim in the early '90s with albums like “Now” and “Strongg” before fragmenting into warring factions and a lawsuit that earned Duckie Simpson possession of the band name, which he continued to use into the new millennium on 2001's Dynasty. Aside from some collaborative appearances between Simpson and '80s-era member Mykal Rose, the remainder of the 2000s yielded only rumors of a long-awaited Black Uhuru album, “As the World Turns, which wouldn't see the light of day until 2018.

The original three members- Duckie Simpson, Don Carlos, and Dennis reunited at the beginning of the '90s to record a successful string of albums as a trio. Beginning with 1990's “Now” the reformed Black Uhuru enjoyed a renewed period of commercial and critical success rivaling their heyday a decade earlier, logging three more Grammy-nominated albums in “Iron Storm” (1991), “Mystical Truth” (1993), and “Strongg” (1994).

Lawsuit



By 1996, however, the band had again fractured with Simpson and dub poet Yassus Afari using the band’s name while on a tour of Europe and Carlos and Dennis simultaneously touring the USA as Black Uhuru. The issue was resolved after a terse court battle with Simpson winning the ownership Rights to the name in 1997. Following this, Simpson re-launched the group with Jennifer “Nyah” Connolley and Andrew Bees.

This version of the band managed a pair of albums including “Unification” (1998) and 2001's highly regarded “Dynasty”, which revisited the band's early-'80s sound and included Sly and Robbie.

Things remained relatively quiet for the band in the 2000s, with Bees returning to his solo career in 2003 and Simpson joining up with '80s-era singer Mykal Rose to tour as Black Uhuru, featuring Mykal Rose for several years in the middle of the decade.

It was with Simpson and Bees fronting the group, that Black Uhuru re-corded the long-delayed album “As the World Turns” which finally saw release in 2018, 15 years after their previous studio album.

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