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Coming Clean : Yellowman, the Pioneer of Dance-Hall Reggae, Wants to Change His Image With 'Prayer'

August 30, 1995|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Yellowman's life has been a series of challenges. He was born a black albino. A decade ago, he waged battles against throat and skin cancer. And now, having been known more for his prurient lyrics than for his skills as a singer, songwriter and musical trailblazer, he is fighting to change his image.

In the early '80s, Yellowman--who performs tonight at the Galaxy in Santa Ana--pioneered the "dance-hall" style, reggae's counterpart to hip-hop. While Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff and others were concerning themselves with politics, love and spirituality, Yellowman (born Winston Foster) took delight in paying homage to his sexual dimensions. He cultivated a brazen, arrogant image, substituting ghetto braggadocio for more cerebral concerns.

In terms of style and antics, his influence came to rival even Marley's. But now, at 39, he feels he has painted himself into a corner and has come to be seen as a one-trick pony. He remains faithful to the dance-hall style, but he has shifted the focus of his lyrics: His latest album is called "Prayer."

"Well, you know, I figured you have to move and not have such a hard edge," he said recently on the phone, his Kingston accent enveloping every word. "I tried clean lyrics and other lyrics to let people know what I can do, let them know the other side of me.

"What I do is just my job, which is entertainment for the people. I'm a clean man, you know. When I'm [offstage], I'm a different person. A lot of people take it seriously, you know, but I'm not like that."

Indeed, it was hard to reconcile the man on the phone--polite, thoughtful and extremely soft-spoken--with the rapid-fire toasting that is the Yellowman trademark on records. Married with seven children, he sounded very much the gentle family man.

"I love my family, and I'm a very sporting type of person: I like to play soccer and jog a lot. I put myself in the category of the people. I'm not a star. If I am a star, [the people are] a star. If they are not a star, I am not."

*

Such humility disappeared for a moment, though, when he was asked about his status in the world of dance hall. "I am dance hall. Some people call me the King. The reason why is the personality, the way I present myself. A lot of people would come to me and say I'm like Mick Jagger in reggae because of the energy that I put on, you understand. Some artist will come and do like 45 minutes. I will do a hour, two hour.

"Dance hall is like reggae, but it's the street stuff," he continued. "Dance hall is a get-up type of thing, you know." Still, he said that for his own enjoyment, he actually prefers more traditional styles. "First of all, I like Bob Marley. I like Bunny Wailer; I like Jimmy Cliff; I like Dennis Brown; I like UB40.

"But you know, UB40, they learn off me, you know. When I tour England, they always come to my concert." Asked how he feels about other non-Jamaicans who have taken his style to a level of fame and fortune that has eluded him, Yellowman answered, "People have try to talk like us. A lot of people think UB40 is from Jamaica. They're not from Jamaica. Ace of Base is not from Jamaica. They watch a lot of reggae video, so they learn. It's kind of dishonest. . . .

"People think they are real reggae. A lot of them, they know nothing. They are nothing, you know."

Meanwhile, his efforts to change his own image will continue. He said his next album is in the can, ready for release either later this year or early in '96. "This one will be a follow-up to 'Prayer,' " he said. "This one will have a lot of clean lyrics also."

* Yellowman performs tonight at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. 8 p.m. $15. (714) 957-0600.

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