Culture warrior: Joseph Hill

Garry Steckles remembers the legendary Joseph Hill of the reggae band Culture, who died last August

Joseph Hill. Photograph by David Corio

It’s 1993, Montego Bay, Jamaica, the final night of that year’s Reggae Sunsplash. The high-powered lineup — Saturday night, traditionally, was “big star” night at the legendary festival — includes Lucky Dube, the South African reggae sensation, and the veteran Jamaican harmony trio Culture.

The previous year, Sunsplash organisers had taken a gamble in signing Dube — in those days, virtually an unknown with the majority of Jamaicans — for the festival, and it had paid off handsomely. His performance had been so brilliant, they’d decided right away to bring him back in ’93 as one of the headliners for the festival’s finale. And second time around, Dube had again been spectacular.

Or so we all thought, until, around three in the morning, it was time for Joseph Hill and Culture to take the stage — and to redefine “spectacular”. For something like an hour and a half, Joseph gave us a tour de force of roots reggae that was astonishing even by his standards. Interestingly, the stage outfit he’d chosen from reggae music’s most dazzling wardrobe was a set of no-nonsense military fatigues. It was almost as though he’d gone on stage to do battle — and, when I raised this possibility with him in an interview a few years later, he laughingly conceded he had, indeed, been out to make a point that evening. “I love Lucky Dube,” he told me. “I just wanted to kind of show that reggae’s a Jamaican thing. Jamaica’s the roots of reggae.”

It’s 1978, Jamaica again, and this time the venue is Kingston’s National Stadium, and the occasion is the biggest reggae concert — to this day — in history. The now-legendary One Love Concert for Peace has been organised by warring political gang leaders in an attempt to bring a lasting peace to Kingston’s violence-plagued ghettos, and the headliner is Bob Marley, returning to Jamaca for the occasion after spending almost eighteen months in exile, following a failed attempt on his life.

The lineup’s a virtual who’s-who of reggae: in addition to Marley himself, there’s Peter Tosh, Jacob Miller and Inner Circle, Dennis Brown, the Mighty Diamonds, Trinity, Big Youth, Dillinger, Althea and Donna, Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus — and an up-and-coming young harmony trio by the name of Culture, performing largely on the strength of their huge hit, “Two Sevens Clash”, released the previous year.

The evening gets off to a sluggish start — the cavernous National Stadium had only a few thousand people in it when the opening notes were played, at exactly 5 pm, and, several hours later, some of reggae’s biggest names still hadn’t managed to get more than a few lukewarm rounds of applause from the notoriously hard-to-impress Jamaican audience.

Then came Culture. And the Peace Concert vibe was suddenly kicked into another gear, as Joseph Hill, Kenneth Dayes, and Albert Walker, backed by the masterful Lloyd Parkes and We the People band, skanked their way on to the huge stage with dance moves that seemed to defy gravity and any rational laws of which directions the various parts of the human anatomy could move in simultaneously. Culture’s performance that evening firmly established their credentials in reggae’s major leagues.

Fast-forward almost two decades. It’s 1997, and Culture is headlining the St Kitts Music Festival. Signing the world’s most revered roots reggae group is a major coup for the fledgling festival, and the island’s hard-core reggae fans are out in force for Joseph Hill’s first performance in St Kitts. We’re expecting something special — and, from the moment Joseph bounds on stage, clad in flowing white robes and moving like a man half his age, we know we’re not going to be disappointed. Almost ten years later, Culture’s performance on that late June evening is still talked about in tones of awe in St Kitts.

Joseph Hill’s passing last August is still hard to comprehend for millions of reggae fans around the world. He left us so suddenly, so unexpectedly, at a stage in his life — he was 57 — when his physical prowess had seemed undimmed by passing years, and while he was still spending most of his life on the road carrying the message of Rastafari to adoring fans around the world.

Joseph Hill’s story parallels that of roots reggae itself. His career started in the early 1970s, as a percussionist with the Soul Defenders band that was a fixture at Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd’s legendary Studio One, the training ground for virtually every major performer in Jamaica in that era.

Joseph’s unique voice — a hard-edged, flexible tenor with a timbre capable of cutting through the heaviest of backing riddims — soon caught Dodd’s finely tuned ear, and in 1972 Joseph cut his first single as a lead singer: the track, “Behold the Land”, remains a Culture classic to this day. At the same time, Joseph was learning the music business inside out, with the Soul Defenders backing many of the greatest musicians of the era, among them Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, Alton Ellis, Freddy McKay, the Heptones, and the Abyssinians.

In 1976, Joseph teamed up with his cousin, Albert Walker, and a third singer, Kenneth Dayes, to form a group they called African Disciples. The following year, with their name by now changed to Culture, the trio recorded one of reggae’s all-time classic albums, Two Sevens Clash — the title song of which was the year’s biggest hit single in Jamaica.

While much of this was happening, Joseph Hill, like many reggae stars of the era, was barely scraping an existence, and he continued to work at his “day job” — as a sign painter with the Kingston Public Works department.

Culture’s first three albums, Two Sevens Clash, Baldhead Bridge, and More Culture, were recorded with the prolific producer Joe Gibbs, but they soon switched camps, joining forces with Jamaica’s first major female producer, Sonia Pottinger, with whom they cut more classic singles and albums. Their output during this period included many of their best-loved songs, among them “Fussing and Fighting”, “Love Shines Bright”, “Natty Never Get Weary”, and their pro-marijuana classic, “International Herb”. Over the years, the lineup of Culture changed occasionally, but the constant was Joseph Hill as lead singer and chief songwriter.

On stage, Joseph was always one of reggae’s most compelling performers. Depending on the occasion and his mood, he might appear in any one of a dizzying array of outfits — from ornate bright yellow suits to crisply pressed military fatigues, from all-black topper and tails, with Rasta adornments, to an immaculately tailored three-piece tweed suit topped by a raffish fedora. One of his least-appreciated assets as an entertainer — overshadowed by his seriousness of purpose — was a uniquely individual fashion sensibility worthy of GQ.

Whatever he wore on stage, Joseph Hill’s mission never varied: He was a globe-trotting ambassador of Rastafari, with a universal message of peace, love, and compassion — a philosophy that embraced his extensive knowledge of history and the accumulation of knowledge of people and places he acquired in the course of decades of touring.

Joseph Constantine Hill, January 22, 1949–August 18, 2006. Thank you for making our world a better place.