CAPLETON – THE PROPHET ‘PON TOUR
by Patricia Meschino
The imposing stage at Jamworld, St. Catherine, Jamaica, the largest open air entertainment center in the Caribbean and occasional home of Sting and former home of Reggae Sunsplash, is a challenge for any musical artist. When an entertainer fails to meet audience expectations there, the repercussions are greatly magnified; but when an artist delivers spectacularly, the effects seem to reverberate all the way to the island’s north coast!
While Sunsplash ’94 was, as a whole, not as successful as previous years, the five-day event nonetheless produced some unforgettable musical moments that are still being talked about. On Dancehall Night, the performance most “Splashers” are still raving about came from Capleton. As he took the stage about 2 a.m., the still black sky was illuminated by lighters flashing in approval as far as the eye could see. All over Jamworld, firecrackers were exploding as the zealous Dancehall congregation chanted along with the scriptural lyrics put forth by their “prophet.”
Capleton’s praises to H.I.M. Haile Selassie I, DJayed through an arresting juxtaposition of ancient teachings, biblical verse and hip vernacular, produced multiple encores. Each time he attempted to leave the stage, the crowd’s thunderous shouts of “more, more” seemed to shake the entire parish of St. Catherine.
As the DJ who now “runs ‘tings” in JA, Capleton is an uncharacteristically humble youth. Born Clifton Bailey on April 23, 1967, in rural Islington, in the parish of St. Mary, his love of music and DJing skills appeared early on. As a youth, Clifton would beat pans in the street and make up lyrics about local events. “That is an inborn conception from school days,” says Capleton. “I would DJ like a jukebox. I would go and punch the rhythms and anything that took place, like something happen in the area, I go lick lyrics offa it. I was about 9 years old when I started doing that.”
The moniker–Capleton–was given to Clifton by friends while he was in his teens. “There was this famous lawyer living in my area,” he recalls. “One day me and my friends were in an argument, and they said to me, ‘Cho, how can you talk so, you must be a lawyer Capleton.’ From then on, the name just stuck. They first called me Lawyer Capleton, then just Lawyer, until it just became Capleton.”
A move from the country to the urban hustle of Kingston saw the aspiring DJ working with a variety of small sound systems. In 1986, he secured a gig with Stuart Brown’s Africa Star set (Mr. Brown remains Capleton’s manager to this day) and his career began to take life. The following year Capleton hooked up with producer Phillip “Fattis” Burrell and recored the X-rated “Bumbo Red,” which generated ’nuff excitement on the Dancehall circuit. In an era of rampant slackness, and after “Bumbo’s” tremendous success, it was expected that Capleton would continue along the same path. However, he chose to take a more conscious approach to his lyrics with a “big up” to the ladies called “No. 1 ‘Pon the Look Good Chart,” a plea for unification in the Dancehall; “Almshouse”; and the visionary “Prophet,” the title by which he has also come to be known.
Capleton describes “Bumbo Red” as a way of breaking into the music business, but also defends the song’s explicit language, which depicts some immoral practices. “When you check the song’s lyrics, it really tramples corruption,” he says. “Some claim it is lewd, indecent language, and that’s why they fight it; but if you really listen to the words, it’s a positive tune.” Would The Prophet perform that song now? “I wouldn’t say no,” he answers. “Maybe. . .Anything the Almighty say. I’m a youth that go by my feelings and vibes, so I just move when Jah say to move.”
Capleton’s first engagement overseas was in 1989 when he went to Canada to perform with Ninjaman (who ruled the DJ circuit at the time) and Flourgon. “At that time in Canada, nobody knew who I was,” he recalls, “and the response that I got was great. Even though bigger artists performed, they never really moved the crowd like I did. So it gave me the vibes to keep going.” As that show gave him the incentive to continue his work, it was another show, that same year, that nearly made him stop DJing. “That was New Year’s 1989. Someone saw me on the African Star set, stole my lyrics, recorded them and made a great fortune from it. That just made me feel cut up inside, and ’nuff time it made me feel like giving up the business.” With his manager’s encouragement, Capleton persevered and his popularity continued to swell. In 1990, he performed at his first Sunsplash, devastating the competition and earning multiple encores.
It was after a late October appearance at East Orange New Jersey’s Wilkerson Center (that produced a massive roadblock situation), when Capleton commented on his awesome Sunsplash ’94 display. “It’s a natural blessing from the Almighty,” he began earnestly. “What really happened at Sunsplash was I had to show the world His Imperial Majesty really is the ruler of the land, because the people seeking still. Jah did say he would call upon the youth dem because dem strong, and out of the mouth of babes and sucklings certain things will be revealed–His mercy and His righteousness. Still, no one can seek Jah for you, the Bible is just a guideline to get you on the right track. Seek Jah for yourself and then you will know the real truth.”
Hard-core Dancehall fans were more prepared than other “Splasher’s” for Capleton’s dynamic delivery of spiritually-versed lyrics and the outpouring of emotion he elicited. A visit to any Reggae club over the past few months, from Kingston to Brooklyn, and at every juggling session and sound clash in between, the greatest response selectors received came when they played Capleton’s tunes. With his songs bearing titles such as “Heathen” and “Warning,” producing the frenzy once garnered by “Coppershot” and “Wicked in Bed,” clearly some drastic changes have occurred on the Dancehall circuit. Words as sanctified as The Book of Psalms have become commonplace, which for most DJs signals a 360 degree turn from what they were chattin’ about merely a few months ago. As a spate of Capleton singles–“Wings of the Morning,” “Chalice” and the immensely popular “Tour”–burn pure fire in the Dancehall, other DJs are now having to rethink the careers they’ve built on gun and X-rated chat, and are scrambling to develop some “reality” lyrics.
Selassie I liveth every time/Marcus Garvey liveth every time/Emmanuel liveth every time, the meditation which opens Capleton’s No. 1 hit “Did the Trinity,” and some of his other songs, has become the current Dancehall rallying cry. The Prophet sees the lyrical shifts as sustenance for a spiritually and culturally malnourished population. “They were brainwashed, miseducated and enslaved. They tricked us from we God, we culture, and tricked us from we roots,” he explains. “Today, the people must bear depression, manipulation and interrogation, so the music can come like food. In the beginning was the word and the word was Jah. It’s like they need something to hang on to; they need to know where they’re coming from and where they’re going. It starts them on a vibe to seek and find themselves.”
Transforming from an abyss of immorality to an altar of offerings, the current lyrical adjustments taking place on the Dancehall scene have certainly produced a healthy amount of skepticism among some followers who question certain artists’ sincerity. However, the conviction with which The Prophet puts forth his words and the power within his performances is undeniable. Capleton’s visionary pronouncements, while prayerful and culturally conscious, smolder with a flame of rage that seems capable of igniting a revolution. In his smash hit “Tour,” he documents his own career as well as conditions in his homeland: Leave from Jamaica, go foreign ‘pon tour/Preaching, teaching the people for sure/Answer to Jah when him knock ‘pon the door/If ignored you go perish for sure/Come back to Jamaica everything insecure/Rich a get richer and the poor a get poorer/Come back and me see Panhead skull bore/Come back and me see Dirtsman skull bore/It seem like the people them don’t love God no more.
On “tour” in East Orange and at subsequent shows at Brooklyn’s Biltmore Ballroom and Harlem’s Karate Center, sirens blew and the massives roared, pounding walls and stamping their feet while receiving this musical sacrament. On stage, Capleton seemed to draw his inspiration from divine intervention, delivering his Gospel with such fervent belief that even a doubting Thomas could be converted into a Dancehall disciple. Backstage, after all is done and most of the well-wishers have departed, The Prophet seemed almost dazed from going through the performing ritual, as many in attendance are when they truly penetrate the lyrics and give themselves over to its message. Yet, Capleton doesn’t accept any accolades for the impact he is making upon the audiences and the entire Dancehall genre. “Yeah man, it’s not even me. It’s Jah himself, Jah works,” he reasons. “Sometimes people tell me I make certain moves on stage and I don’t even remember. It’s just the powers of the Most High.”
Now fully bearded, with newly sprouted dreadlocks gently crowning his head, much is being made of Capleton accepting Rastafari, the change in his appearance and his lyrics, but he feels it’s a matter of what people want to focus on. “Actually the image was there before, ” he says, “but the publicity, the recognition of the people, the music was different, from Bob Marley and them time; more slack thing and gun thing, those things were in the limelight. One time I was in Europe and a reporter said, ‘If you’re the man with the handle, you have to know how to handle the handle.’ That means that you can break them [your fans] and bring them back still. Now that I get the recognition and they know the individual, I can put across the right thing and show the real side.”
1994 has been a year of tremendous breakthrough and consistent hits for Capleton, and it is his devout Rastafari faith that has enabled him to reach these higher heights with his music. “Rastafari is upful livity. When you are a Rasta, you are one of Jah’s servants,” he says, “so you don’t do certain things; certain things you don’t involve with. Certain people, they don’t try to get close to you because for them Rasta is a form of bad vibes, an evil thing. People will come to defile you, but Jah say from dem fruit you shall know them, so you just have to bear the right fruit. Rasta is really the truth, and each one need to seek and they will find. Rasta is King Selassie I, and Selassie I is the Almighty, but plenty people don’t know. When I say that, people say you’re mad or you’re a fool, but I & I couldn’t see God as a spirit. I & I see God as a natural man, seen, because He say I’m going to create man in My own image and likeness, like me and you.”
The Prophet’s fans have stayed with him throughout his artistic and spiritual metamorphosis and their numbers are now quickly multiplying. Capleton is currently the best selling Reggae artist in N.Y.C. At the time of this writing, he had five songs on WNWK’s New York Reggae Top 20, a chart compiled each week for the past 10 years by radio host Clinton Lindsay, based upon local record store sales of 12″ records. (The only artist to ever rate higher than this was Shabba Ranks with six records on the chart at the height of his grassroots popularity in 1990.) Therefore, Capleton has now become of great interest to many record labels who are anxious to have him ink a deal. However, he and his management place the integrity of the music they are making above the dollars that the labels are offering. “It has to be our desire and what I & I require. We don’t need no one to push us around,” he states confidently. “We supposed to control our music. You can’t sign away your black heritage to Europe. Right now, I deal with the upliftment of black people, all people, seen. Liberation, equal rights and justice, repatriation, Rastafari and King Selassie I. Just dem things, straight forward, and we nah go change.”
The perplexing problem of Jamaica’s most talented DJs being signed to major labels, their lyrical and rhythmic strengths downplayed to suit supposed American tastes, the albums not selling as they should, and the artist eventually being dropped from the companies are among other reasons why Capleton is proceeding cautiously. “You have to look before you leap. A man sign and big things supposed to happen for him and nothing gwaan.”
As Bob Marley wrote in 1979: Them a go tired to see we face/But they can’t get we out of the race; whether an organized conspiracy or a misinformed business decision, conscious lyrics have definitely been suppressed by major record labels. Nonetheless, Reggae music perseveres, adapting to the ever changing times but still echoing the concerns of the oppressed. As cultural topics have now made a prominent reappearance in the Dancehall scene, it is The Prophet who is leading this musical mission, “preaching and teaching the people for sure,” while retaining all the modesty of a young Clifton beating pans ‘pon the street. “Jah say humble thyself and thou shalt be exalted; exalt thyself and thou shalt be abased,” Capleton recited. “Everywhere in the world, I just flex the militancy and deal with everyone on one basic level because no one is better than anyone else, seen?”