The St. Petersburg artist who helped bring reggae to the region in the 1980s but took a hiatus is now back.
Carl Olamina Ridley, also known as “Ola”, is fascinated by one mission: to educate the masses through his art, poetry and music.
“I strive to inspire, motivate and educate my people and the general public,” he said. “The awareness-raising mission.
In 1976, Ola experienced a cultural and spiritual awakening. He began to browse African literature and history to learn more about his true heritage. He began to adopt West African religions and the Rastafarian way of life as his spirituality, eating vegetarian and dreading his hair. His growing awareness of Pan-Africanism has inspired his art and music.
“I realized that I am an African living in America, not an African American,” he said. people who were robbed in Africa. I finally woke up and it was part of my healing process. ”
In the same year, artist Quincy Jones released a single titled “What Good Is a Song?”
“What good is a song if it can’t inspire
if he has no message to bring
If a song can’t send you
Upper! Upper! Upper!
So it’s not good enough to sing.
These words were the genesis of all his music and works of art. The reggae group he would later form, the Awareness Art Ensemble, was inspired by the song by Quincy Jones.
“When I write I want to make sure that I say something, I inspire something for my people in particular and for the world in general,” Olamina said with calm resolution in her voice.
Ola reciting poetry
The progress index
Awareness is born
Olamina’s awareness first began with performances of poetry, art and informal oral creation around Petersburg. Three drummers, including Ojulaba Hunter, added rhythms to Ola’s poetry. Eventually the spoken performances turned into a full reggae band with Olamina as lead singer, Ojulaba on the keys, Chuck X playing bass hits, Ras Mel amplifying the sound with his electric guitar, Oye on the keys during the break. from Ojulaba, and Zebulon leading the rhythm on the drums. They formed what was known as the Awareness Art Ensemble (AAE) in 1980.
From Jamaica to Virginia
Reggae emerged from Jamaica in the late 1960s. Bob Marley popularized the genre around the world, becoming one of the major influences of the Awareness Art Ensemble. It was AAE who helped usher in reggae in Petersburg, Richmond and the South East. They were regulars at Cafe New Horizon, Richmond’s premier reggae and alternative music club, and filled the Dogwood Dell Amphitheater. They’ve toured all over the East Coast, from Vermont to Florida, and the South and Midwest, including Chicago and Texas.
“Outreach was the ancestor of the cultural movement even in Richmond,” Olamina said. “Before Awareness, there weren’t many African groups. With Ezibu Muntu Dance Co., Plunky and the Oneness of JuJu and The Last Stop Gallery, we were like the vanguards of the cultural movement in the region, ”said Olamina. They released a few singles in the 80s as well as their one and only album, “Coming Home”, in 1988.
The band stayed together for about 12 years before going their separate ways in the early 90s. Guitarist Ras Mel left, then “Drummer Zeb” went to join the Wailers, and bassist Chuck X died in 1999. Ola continued. , adding new members to maintain the same sound. However, performance had slowed down considerably since their peak.
In 2005, Ola had to overcome another setback after an infection called an epidural abscess developed around his cervical spinal cord, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. Despite the doctor’s diagnosis that he could never walk again, with rehabilitation, determination and a lot of cheeky, Ola was able to stand and take small steps with a walker. His incident even set his bones on fire to create music.
“I’m not angry [or] resentment, ”he said. “For me, it’s about keeping your spirits up, because when the spirit dies, the body isn’t far behind.”
“Adversity is a great motivator. Musically, it made me more determined to bring it out so that the masses can share and benefit from the awareness, ”he said.
With the political climate becoming increasingly charged, Ola felt an increased urgency to make music, releasing in 2020 an album aptly titled “Back to the Mission”. Themes of liberation of the spirit, spirituality, Pan-Africanism, love, unity, freedom and catchy island rhythms accompanied by the soft and jazzy tones of the brass resonate throughout the song. album.
In 2021, Ola released an album filled with love songs titled “Intimately Yours”. Currently he is working on another titled “Chant Down Babylon” – the oppressors and negative forces of our society.
“We have come to play the music of Jah (of God) to enlighten people, unify and spread love. The unity of the African people above all, then love in the world, ”Olamina said with a smile. The smell of burnt amber, incense and cinnamon fills the living room, the smoke from the incense sticks gently rises. Ola’s artwork adorns her entire home. Perhaps the most important of all is called “A View Thru an African Eye,” which represents the African’s struggle from slavery to the civil rights movement. African masks and a Rastafarian flag hang on the walls, signifying spiritual awakening and cultural pilgrimage to Olamina.
“I’m going back to the mission.
Joyce Chu is the social justice watchdog reporter for The Progress Index. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter @joyce_speaks.