In Tribute to a Legend – Lucky Philip Dube – Aug. 3 1964 – Oct. 18 2007
This article first appeared in Reggae Report, V11#6 1993
Lucky Dube… A Natural Man
By M. Peggy Quattro
Few individuals are naturally blessed with the predestined qualities of talent, wit, and a confident disposition. One such fortunate recipient is 29-year-old Lucky Dube, the remarkable South African singer/songwriter, who is presently dispensing his own musical blessings around the globe.
You are among the unlucky if you missed Lucky Dube and his mega band, Slaves, on their recent two month tour of the USA. The incredible show, which highlights Lucky’s dynamic vocals, capable of soaring three octaves, Zulu dancing from Dube, the sonorous back-up singers and stinging brass section, and infectious authentic African-Reggae rhythms, was presented in 35 cities, with venues ranging from small nightclubs to major summer festivals. Included was a free show held on a beautiful July day at Brooklyn’s Metro Tech Commons, sponsored by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The moving response to the group’s performance was indicative of the overall reaction received wherever this talented troupe of performers set down. At the end of August, the tour moves on to Europe where they will be opening act in a series of shows for international pop star Peter Gabriel. A two-week break in their hometown of Johannesburg is followed by a concert in Capetown, then off to finish the year in Australia, New Caledonia, Japan, and France.
Considered a superstar in South Africa, Dube, who neither smokes nor drinks, modestly credits his fans for this stardom. On stage, he acknowledges his audience with making him “feel like a natural man” and he segues into his own rendition of the Carol King classic. “It is the people who make a song or a singer a hit,” he notes, “it is they who buy and support the music.” He attributes much of his career success in Africa to his record label, Gallo. “They are more than just a record company, they are my friends. They know what I like and don’t like, what makes me happy and what doesn’t make me happy.” In the past, the South African government would choose which Lucky Dube songs to play on the radio. These days they play all his songs and air all his videos. This is the result of Lucky’s albums selling in large volume, estimated at a quarter-million units of each album released. It is not uncommon for a Lucky Dube concert to draw a spirited mix of 10,000 to 100,000 fans in South Africa, and throughout Africa, where he is considered the most popular artist of the day.
Singing professionally since the age of 16, Lucky soon became a local celebrity, making his living from mbaqanga, a form of Zulu pop music. Years later, without the consent of his record company (but with several gold and platinum records to his credit), Dube took fate into his own hands. In 1985, he recorded his first Reggae alum, Rastas Never Die. Due to its controversial content, the album was banned in his country. His second album, Think About the Children, quickly achieved gold status in South Africa. The response was so tremendous that Gallo put every effort into promoting the third album, Slave, which achieved sales of over 500,000 since its 1987 release. South Africa’s first Reggae superstar was proclaimed! Several albums later, the name Lucky Dube is enough to evoke words of praise and acclamation from the four corners.
His singing is often compared to the legendary Peter Tosh. Growing up on music written and performed by the Mystic Man, Bob Marley, and Jimmy Cliff affected Dube early on, and this influence is heard in his music and his message. Albums, entitled Slave, Prisoner, House of Exile, and now, Victims, tell Dube’s tale of life in apartheid-stricken South Africa. Living with this injustice provides validity to the images invoked in his songs. Thus, the same call for unity and equality, initially brought thorough by Reggae’s forerunners, is delivered naturally with passion and determination by Dube. “I write about real things…things that happened to me or to people around me. This is something I have always done in the past.”
Elections have been scheduled for April 27, 1994. This day marks the first time that South Africa’s black majority will have the opportunity to vote. Concerning his feelings on the direction that country is taking, Dube is cautious yet optimistic. “There are a lot of people who want these elections go on, so there will be a lot of people trying to stop these elections from happening. There will also be people trying to get these elections going. So there are all these kinds of problems we will be having.” Speaking on the violence taking place in South Africa, Lucky responds, “You see, it has been proven that some of the members of the government, the white government, paid black people to cause these problems so that negotiation would not go any further. They were paid to cause these troubles,” he emphasized.
Faced with the obvious problems, no matter which side wins, Lucky would like to see a united South Africa. “That is what I would personally like. Not to have a black government or a white government…I would like a government that represents the people of South Africa. If that could happen, that would make me very happy.” Should the black majority win in April, Lucky feels that they are ready to take on this power. “This is not something that was decided yesterday or a week ago. People have been in this struggle for a long time and they are prepared…for longer that I can remember.”
Coinciding with his on-going message of love, strength and unity, it’s only natural that Lucky’s new album Victims is faring extremely well in the international marketplace. According to Randall Grass, VP of A&R for Shanachie Records, the label responsible for Lucky’s albums in the UD, “The sales are very, very good. I would say it’s three times as strong as the last album (House of Exile, 1992), and he’s achieving this without pop radio. He’s not dependent on that at all.” House of Exile is still selling consistently well, says Grass, and it was recently awarded the NAIRD (National Association of Independent Record Distributors) Award for Best Reggae Album 1992. Grass describes Dube as “a uniquely organized artist,” and adds, “he’s focused, humble and a tireless worker. Lucky in not unlike Bob Marley, who was dedicated to do whatever was necessary to succeed.” As opposed to other Reggae artists struggling for position in the industry, Grass explains, “Lucky has the ‘big picture’ perspective. Many Jamaican artists are affected by what’s happening in the local scene—not true for Lucky.”
When Lucky Dube and Slaves were invited to perform at Reggae Sunsplash in 1991, the group looked forward to the opportunity. As it turned out, their first visit to Jamaica produced mixed results. Upon their arrival in Montego Bay, the group was instructed to turn over their passports to Immigration for reasons still unclear. “We do not receive that kind of treatment in our airports at home,” Dube remarked. Yet, their outstanding and memorable performance at Sunsplash left them with the unequivocal distinction of being the top performers over the four day musical feast.
Slaves, the band responsible for providing Lucky with his strong and driving musical accompaniment, have released two successful albums on their own. Knell Down (1991) was followed by Talkin’ Reggae (1992). On the latter, Lucky worked with the group in the studio doing some producing, arranging, and providing vocals. “Not too much though,” Dube says, “because they had to express their feelings, it had to be them. They have their own great talent and you can’t keep that down.” Their loyalty to each other is commendable and obvious in their consistently professional behavior both on and off stage. For most of Lucky’s shown in their native South Africa, Slaves will go on as opening act, then return to rock with Lucky for another two hours!
The association with Peter Gabriel began last August when Lucky Dube was invited to perform at a series of WOMAD shows that culminated at the World in the Park Festival in England. “We got together when I was singing ‘It Ain’t Easy’ on stage,” Lucky recalls, “he got up there and we sang that song together. The vibe was just great and he loved it, so this year he decided that we do something that’s more solid.”
Lucky’s return to Japan this year will mark his third visit to the Reggae-crazed land. He remembers seeing men in business suits and ties coming to his shows, and thinking, “Oh, what am I going to have to do – some Kenny Rogers or Dolly Parton?” But that concern soon diminished when the crowds were every bit as enthusiastic and responsive as in the USA or Europe. Fortunately, the branch that handles Lucky’s albums in Japan included the lyrics in Japanese. “I noticed that the people were singing along…but in Japanese!”
Lucky Dube is also known for his aspiring acting career. His films to date include Lucky, Lucky Strikes Back, and most recently, Voice in the Dark with John Savage. He admits that a personal goal is to act in, and hopefully produce a Dracula-type movie. “Back home, they don’t believe in horror movies all that much, but I still want to do it.”
An astute businessman as well, Lucky oversees his musical career along with cousin/producer/manager Richard Siluma, even handling his own growing international fan club. A book detailing the life I f Lucky Dube is currently being written by Guy Henderson in South Africa and set to be released by 1994. “I like being involved in wha goes on with Lucky Dube…I like having control.”
Being in control and actively participating come quite naturally to the young star. “Music was meant to get people together and never to divide people,” lucky remarks. “We do this music for the people and because of the people. We really appreciate that they care.” It’s by no mistake, that with his talent, with and confident disposition he has reached this level of prominence, for Lucky Dube…he’s merely doing what comes natural.