Music, activism and music: an interview with Brinsley Forde

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“You can’t have romance without rebellion,” says Brinsley Forde before performing at the Leeds Playhouse as part of Jamaica Society Leeds’ Out of Many festival.

The show – Rebellion to Romance – is a heady tribute to Lovers Rock of the 70s and 80s, protests against social injustice and the resilience and creativity that thrived despite hardship.

Brinsley will be joined on stage by Lovers Rock creator and producer Dennis Bovell and vocal genius Janet Kay and Carroll Thompson.

“Music brings together all colors and beliefs,” says Brinsley, who now lives in Poland.

“The main thing is that people go out and have fun to good music – that’s what I bring to Leeds – good music.

“I recently did an interview about a 1989 concert in Gdansk where several reggae artists were invited when they had their first non-Communist government.

“I was the MC of the show and wherever people have been deprived and suppressed, they see reggae as the voice of rebellion.

“Where people are going through hardship, they will reach out, they will rebel, they will do whatever they need to improve their situation.”

Brinsley Forde

Celebrating life and giving back is apparently part of her DNA; he was recently praised for his efforts to help Jamaican students cross safely into Poland after the invasion of Ukraine. The 24 students also enjoyed a welcome taste of home thanks to its restaurant Boomshakalaka.

He now plans to put his expertise and contacts at the service of children abroad.

“We are setting up the Helping Hands International Foundation in Africa, working with children and musicians on the ground,” explains the Back to Africa singer.”

“It’s still in its infancy, but the dream is to make the impossible possible by working together – the work we are planning can hopefully reach much of the continent and beyond.

“I’ve been singing about it for years, but sometimes you just have to say ‘OK, let’s do the physical side’ and that’s what we hope to do in the coming year and beyond.”

The actor and musician first found success as a young teenager in Magnificent Six and a Halfshown to the massively popular Saturday morning pictures, providing independence for children and a welcome respite for parents.

This was followed by Here comes the Double-decker busa crazy series of seven children and their antics in and around their lair – an old double-decker bus.

But it was a chance encounter with the legendary Peter Tosh, while Brinsley was working in a grocery store, that led to Aswad.

“I was there to sell the oranges, post them online, and I watched and it was like a mirage,” Brinsley says.

“I was there in Neasden and there was Peter Tosh walking down the street.

“I told him, like telling the man who he is, ‘You’re Peter Tosh!’ he’s laughing.

“Fortunately, I ended up telling a friend of mine who is no longer with us, Delroy Washington as he was called, that I had seen Peter Tosh.

“He took me home and they were all there, Bob, Bunny, Family Man Carley, Wire. I was playing music and they were waiting for their work permit so they had a place to rehearse but nothing in the house. I took my Marshall amp and my guitars over there and we jammed.

Rebellion to Romance Top left Brinsley Forde, top right Dennis Bovell, bottom left Janet Kay, bottom right Carroll Thomspon.

“I learned so much from that little situation there that it was definitely one of the inspirations that made me form Aswad.

The recent passing of Angus ‘Drummie Zeb’ Gaye of Aswad is understandably painful.

“We shared a life together of touring and making music – it’s hard to admit that we’ll never share the excitement of playing on the same stage,” Brinsley says.

Despite Aswad’s reggae beats, it wasn’t all easy. A musician’s craft must be honed and nurtured, despite long hours and lack of money, which means he has to be his own roadie.

There was also racism, including TV executives’ reluctance to have black Rastafarians on screen, as they believed audiences wouldn’t tune in.

But Aswad’s success on the charts was talked about and, with the group being young fathers, they were more than able to identify with the children’s television shows that featured the best musical talent at the time.

Did the band realize they were paving the way for black people?

“I believe we had some responsibility in the sense that our lyrics really explained what we were going through, there were times when we felt we had to make sure we got it right – that was the situation,” Brinsley said.

“If I’m being honest, the moment it really hit home that it meant anything was when I was given the MBE.

“A lot of people said ‘We feel like it’s up to us because you’ve been in our lives for so long and we feel like we did.’ Was it just one of those times where you’re humbled and a situation where you think I should accept or not?

“But we have to have those moments when the younger ones can be inspired.

“They see you did your best, so they know it’s not impossible.”

It was the hit of 1988 Do not turn around which saw Aswad (Arabic for Black) become a household name, with the track originally written for Tina Turner.

“When I first heard it I thought if Tina Turner did that it would be a hit because I kind of connected it to What’s love got to do with it? She recorded it but they didn’t give it much thought and put it on the B side.

“Would I have liked us to write it?” Yes! But it opened the door to many opportunities.

“You have to give thanks for these times and times.

“In my career, there are times that you don’t forget – meeting some people you never thought you’d meet, having a number one record, getting on stage and it all worked out and I love that.

“Hopefully there will be a lot more before I move on.”

More information about Rebellion to Romance: The Show here

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