Monday, August 28, 2006

Hill Penned Socially Conscious Lyrics

BEFORE the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq, the reggae group Culture recorded an album called "World Peace."

Lead singer and songwriter Joseph Hill penned lyrics that reflected the concerns of many people around the world as the threat of war loomed:

We can’t take another war/ We want world peace/ Every day the children are crying/ Mamas and fathers are dying/ Nuff man gone to war and na return . . . " he wrote in World Peace.

By the time the album was released in 2003, the fighting had begun.

In a career that spanned three decades, such socially conscious lyrics, backed by roots rhythms and delivered in what was once described as "one of those distinctive Jamaican voices that recalls the village elder passing on centuries of tradition," earned Hill a place of respect in the world of reggae music.

Hill died on Saturday in Berlin, where the group was performing. He was 57. The cause of death was not immediately known. The group planned to continue the tour with Hill’s son Kenyatta singing lead vocals in his father’s place, according to a website posting by Jim Dooley, a Hill biographer.

Though not as famous as Bob Marley, Hill belonged musically to the same generation as Marley, part of the first line of reggae artists who early in the history of the genre found international success.

"People early on understood his talent and responded to it," said Chris Wilson, vice president of artists and repertoire for Heartbeat Records, which released Culture’s last album, "World Peace." "Many artists . . . live in their own rarefied world. He was always of the people . . . He was so concerned about what was going on in the world around him."

Hill was born January 22, 1949 in the Jamaican parish of St Catherine. He came of age musically during what has been dubbed "the golden age" of reggae, with contemporaries such as Marley and Burning Spear.

At Studio One, a recording studio in Jamaica, Hill began his career with the group Soul Defenders. As a vocalist he released a single, "Behold the Land." But his work with a trio formed with his cousin Albert Walker and Kenneth Dayes in 1976 was groundbreaking.

The group’s first album, "Two Sevens Clash," was based on a prophesy of Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey. Garvey had predicted that an apocalypse would erupt on July 7, 1977. The album was a hit in Jamaica and Britain.

In a 1987 review in the Los Angeles Times, writer Don Snowden described "Two Sevens Clash" as one of the best reggae albums ever recorded. In 2002, Rolling Stone included the album on its list of the 50 coolest records of all time.

From the start, Hill distinguished himself as the group’s frontman. Snowden described Hill’s sound as "rich and dark, liquid yet grainy, his voice sounded the way Guinness stout looks."

In the group’s early recordings, Hill also set himself apart from other artists by singing lead vocals and then recording second lead vocals. On those second lead vocals, Hill offered spoken word-style commentary on what he sang in the first. The effect was a textured sound and a rich conversation.

"It really was like poetry or early rap," Wilson said. "I think as he got older he felt more compelled to make his statement (declarative), rather than have sort of the Greek chorus. Those two voices melded together."

Hill viewed music as having a purpose, one that did not change over the years.

"Our message was a positive one," Hill said in a 2003 article in New Times Broward-Palm Beach. "From a very young age, I was aware of the roots and beauty of the country. I also noticed when the community began to collapse and what a dangerous thing that was. I began to see the corruption out there, and what I saw came out in my lyrics."

The lyrics of Hill, who was a Rastafarian, also resonated with listeners in Jamaica because they drew upon the island’s proverbs and sayings.

But his fame was international and his audience included people "who could have been the children of the people he first was writing for," Wilson said. After concerts "they would come up to him as if he were a spokesman for their generation." — Los Angeles Times.

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