Duane Stephenson: reggae’s poet of the people

Duane Stephenson transforms Jamaica ghetto life into art. Nazma Muller quotes chapter and verse

Duane Stephenson, only the second artiste to produce an album from scratch at VP Records. Photograph courtesy VP Records

Some artistes make one song and it’s enough to make them a star. If they never sing another song, it doesn’t matter. That one tune, if it’s powerful enough, and connects with listeners at gut level, will never be forgotten.

So it is with “August Town” and Duane Stephenson. The 33-year-old’s story of growing up in the famous hillside community on the outskirts of Kingston (home also to Sizzla Kalonji); watching its peace shattered one day by political hatred and violence; and his own redemption from a life of crime is a searing narrative told in soaring vocals against the sweet chords of soul-reggae music.

…And then the football ground became a battlefield/and my life seemed so surreal
People were falling all around/but Jah helped me to stand my ground/Only Jah could have helped me to stand my ground…

Stephenson recalled, “One day, the place just became Iraq.” The violence that erupted in Jamaica in 1980 came as a complete shock to him and the other children, who had been taught not to listen to “big people conversation”. But it had been brewing for a long time.

“It’s a universal story,” he pointed out. “Many people will relate to it. Everywhere this has happened, the people have the same scars.”

But “August Town” is only Stephenson’s greeting, his opening statement. The writer of Jah Cure’s mega-hit “Reflections” (“Behind These Prison Walls”) has much, much more to say.

In a perfect world every man was free/No violence never dey pon TV/Every youth a go a school/De shotters dem cool/No unrest never down a TG/August Town was calm/We ah chill under the palm/A flowers alone a grow a Tambrin Farm …

TG is Tivoli Gardens, another volatile area of Kingston, where Stephenson attended high school. Tambrin Farm is one of Jamaica’s prisons.

Joel and dem was back in the news/But this time we woulda change our views/Because he was seen giving a helping hand…

In “Giving a Helping Hand” Stephenson takes a radical view of “bad man” Joel, imagining the people holding back their condemnation because Joel “was seen giving a helping hand, helping his brother out”. Stephenson turns the negative into a positive. He refers to the One Order gang from Spanish Town, and the Spangler Posse, then cleverly collapses Jamaica’s two political parties (the People’s National Party and the Jamaica Labour party) into one:  There was order, no clans, no Spanglers, no gangs, just the People’s National Labour Party…

He incites the masses to see the good even in the bad, and tells them, “We would have changed our views because we were all giving a helping hand…”

“I sucked at poetry,” Stephenson says. But he is a poet. The notes he has jotted down over the years, since he was a teen, about what was happening around him have become anthems of the ghetto. He is the voice of angry Jamaican youths, telling their side of the story, but in the soothing tones of roots reggae.

For his magnetic voice and impressive singing, Stephenson credits choir practice as a boy and his time in the highly respected Jamaican performing arts school, the Cathy Levy Players.

His talent was so apparent to VP Records – the Jamaica-born reggae label that signed a multi-million-dollar partnership deal with Atlantic Records – that he became only its second artiste, after Tarrus Riley, to produce an album from scratch. Since the release of From August Town in October 2007, Stephenson has toured Canada, the US, Italy, Germany, England and the Caribbean.

“He is a dedicated and prolific singer, songwriter and musician,” says his manager Dean Fraser, himself a world-class saxophonist who adds the magical touch of his playing to “August Town” and “Little Cottage in Negril”, a love song that gives a glimpse of Stephenson’s range. “I’ve been working with him for seven or eight years. He’s a total artiste, a very respectful youth. He knows what he wants musically and he goes after it. He’s an artiste of the future.”