U Roy and the London Olympics are used to sharing venues. Last year he performed at the Jamaica 50 celebrations at indigO2 in Greenwich while the larger arena hosted the gymnastics.
This summer, as the Anniversary Games took place at Stratford’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park stadium the 70 year old toaster found himself at the site’s smaller Copper Box arena for the Barbican’s Open East Festival. He was the penultimate act on an Afrocentric bill topped by Fela Kuti’s son Seun on a Sunday afternoon of food markets, a beer festival and sheep shearing. (Rural matters and reggae in London also have a lengthy pedigree – the previous weekend Max Romeo and Cornel Campbell sang at Lambeth’s Country Show).
If the games don’t officially list sound system deejaying as an event – U Roy’s achievements certainly are Olympian. He wasn’t the first to talk on the microphone at a Jamaican dance but he was the man who sent it into the stratosphere. Today, when deejays have been more popular than singers in Jamaica for decades his importance cannot be overstated. The only reggae artist on the lineup, he had toured Africa in the 70s following the success of his Prince Tony produced albums on Virgin Records – before it was common for Jamaicans to do so.
Thanks to my friend the author David Katz and Soul Beats Records in France, Veronique and I were granted access to the show. I wore a t shirt bearing the logo of Treasure Isle – the label which helped U Roy take the top three places in the Jamaican chart in 1970.
As I was leaving home I heard that the writer and countercultural figure Mick Farren had died. Though I never knew Farren personally I was friends with him on social media and his autobiography was a big inspiration to me for reasons I won’t go into. As I listened to Don Letts spin tunes in the ale tent I thought about my own life – where it had been and where it was headed. Rain spat through the sunshine. There was a rainbow in the sky. I concluded that if ever music’s ability to uplift was to be tested it would be now.
Fortunately if ever there was a man for the job of changing the mood it was U Roy. “The original rapper” looked dapper in his red and black checked pants and shirt. He doesn’t move around the stage like he used to yet his voice bounces all over the place as it always did. His backing singers Winsome and Richie were in fine voice, his band was snug and the sound system was crisp, fat and clear.
He drew his old Treasure Isle hits Wake The Town (on Alton Ellis’ Girl I’ve Got A Date) and Wear You To The Ball (over the Paragons vocal of the same name). He saluted the other artists present with the Mad Professor’s True Born African and fused past and present in a Sly and Robbie/Bitty McLean combination from last October’s creditable album Pray Fi Di People. Naturally he closed with Natty Rebel on the Gladiators cover of Bob Marley’s Soul Rebel.
The singer Cornel Campbell once told me he always knew when a tune was going to be a hit if children danced to it. Everywhere you could see small children and their parents dancing to every one of U Roy’s songs. “It’s a great honour for me to see so many young people in the audience” he said.
Long after several of those he inspired have ceased to maintain their consistency and delivery on stage U Roy is still an Olympic Champion deejay. He has the power to make a sad time a happy one. I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure I was not the only person there who felt a great weight lifted by the performance that day.
Photographs by Veronique Skelsey