It’s been said that people set their televisions afire at his command. After one of his performances in Jamaica, a sugar-cane field nearby was engulfed in flames. And fights are constantly flaring up to defend his honor. Today, just about every time reggae artist Capleton opens his mouth, he turns his targets into pot roast: From Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to Bob Dole to Queen Elizabeth, he is out to “see de wicked dem a bu’n up, now again!”
But when Capleton, named after a Jamaican lawyer for his argumentative skills, swept the reggae-music scene in 1989, he was a different kind of fire starter. His first hit, “Bumbo Red,” was so sexually explicit that it was quickly banned from the Jamaican airwaves. Naturally, the rude boys of the dancehall scene embraced him as their spokesperson, while roots-reggae fans immediately wrote off his carnal lyrics and gun-toting rhetoric as blasphemy.
And so it went for several years, until 1993, when a strange occurrence transformed Capleton: His 3-month-old daughter reportedly uttered the words “Selassie I”—the name of the Ethiopian emperor who became the god-figure of the Marcus Garvey-inspired Rastafarian movement—prompting Capleton to grow locks and pledge the Bobo Shanti order of the faith.
Swearing off the nasty lyrics, he started writing black-consciousness messages, as on the 1994 single, “Don’t Dis the Trinity,” which voiced his rebirth with capital conviction: “If yu dis’ Marcus then yu must bite the dust/Equal rights and justice that’s what he taught us/If yu dis Selassie-I, boy yu going die/Emperor Selassie-I ah guide I and I.”
The change sparked a flourish of creativity on later albums that called decadent dancehall heads back to the straight and narrow with the same raw, rugged beats, though Capleton began to couple them with the rootsy black chants of the Peter Tosh generation. A comfortable middle ground seemed to be forming, but not everybody was moving to it. Many wrinkled their brows in skepticism, noting that dancehall artists Buju Banton, Sizzla Kalonji, and Anthony B had also recently found Rasta. These critics saw Capleton’s new chantings as just another marketing ploy.
A local Caribbean radio host sucked his teeth in annoyance as we looked at a flier for the upcoming Capleton concert. “I’m more Rasta than him,” said the church-going, old-school reggae promoter, admitting that he refuses to play Capleton on his show. And one Rasta reggae devotee said that, although she could appreciate the transformation of the DJ’s lyrical content—given that “Bobo” translates as “humble thyself”—she couldn’t see why people were going around calling him “the Prophet.”
But for the nonbelievers there was ample evidence: According to reports in Xnews, an online Jamaican news magazine, Capleton was in the studio recording “Sodom and Gomorrah” one Wednesday afternoon with other musicians from his David House crew when he started DJing a line about lightning and thunder. He uttered the lyrics while holding his hand up in the air and then bringing it down forcefully. A loud clap of thunder shook the building, and the electricity went out. Eyewitness Johnny Ringo reported, “Mi suh frighten mi t’ink a god himself a come di way how the thunder sound powerful.” The Rastas retreated out of the darkness and went into deep meditation, viewing the event as a sign from above. The cassette left behind in the machine had recorded the thunderclap.
Sign or no sign? It mattered little to followers who came to view Capleton as an artistic sellout. In the mid-’90s, Def Jam’s Russell Simmons signed the dancehall artist to do two albums, Prophecy (1995) and I-Testament (1997)—featuring remixes with Atlanta’s Dynamik Duo—which catapulted Capleton to the forefront of the hiphop world. Some folks, upon hearing his latest Jamaican singles, wondered whether Capleton had “gone Puffy.” It seemed that he had diluted his lyrical content in the duets with rap artists, such as Method Man, who weren’t known for their political messages.
But now Capleton is coming back—on his own terms, as usual—with two more albums, One Mission and Pure Fire, responding to his haters with songs like “What They Gonna Do” and “Mr. Mass Media.”
Inside the main room of the Felicity Cultural Center in Northwest at about 1:30 a.m. Sunday, Chicago’s DJ Rock Stone chanted over the spinning dancehall favorites and wickedly taunted the crowd: “De promoter [Snypa Corporation] say no more Capleton!”
Long pause while no one moved.
“…’Til later,” he added finally.
It was a long wait. The mostly young fans in the audience squashed closer to the stage in anticipation, transforming the hall into a sweatbox of colorful hot pants, sequined tops, and baseball caps alongside Ethiopian headwraps. Someone decided to shut down the bar, leaving some people to clutch their bottles of water protectively, others to fan themselves furiously with fliers for upcoming shows, and a few to dig into their jackets for hidden stashes of liquor. One woman walked about in a black catsuit with a fur coat dangling from her shoulders, dragging on the floor. An older man next to me nodded off to sleep. The guy next to him took the time to calmly roll up a spliff.
At about 3 a.m., something began to smolder from a corner of the stage. One man began stomping back and forth across the stage with a flaming torch fashioned from the white T-shirt off his back.
Capleton roared, “Fire bu’n ‘pon Babylon!” as he raged onto the stage in a shiny, metallic-blue, work-of-art saronglike suit and a red scarf covering his tall black headwrap. The people in the crowd screamed, “More fire!” as they saluted Capleton with lighters held high in the air. More fiery lyrics rolled off Capleton’s tongue: “Bu’n Bill Clinton!” he yelled, with a few choice words about cocksucking—it’s not for the righteous. Someone kept blowing a horn to embellish his cant. The audience jumped up and down in paroxysms of adulation. During “What’s Wrong With the People,” Capleton raced from one side of the stage to the other, screaming, “Put another fire ‘pon de one Jerry Springer!”
At one point, he told the band to hold up: It was time to talk about Truth. Western schools, he said, have taught black people to respect Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, and Napoleon—this after “traitorizing” black people’s lives and land. But, Capleton insisted, black people need to study their own history and culture. Calming down from the earlier frenzy, the crowd listened silently, some nodding their heads in approval. Having finished the lesson, Capleton went back to singing: “Who fi get bu’n up haffi get bu’n up/Who fi get mash up, haffi get mash up/Who fi get broke up haffi get broke up”—and the masses twitched into a frenzy all over again.
As the lights came on, marking the end of Capleton’s hour-and-a-half-long show of stamina, the incendiary adventure continued: Waiting outside the building in front of a long red firetruck, a couple of fire officials remarked that they had never seen anything like this crowd—”Not at this time of night,” one said. And, as if by strange coincidence, that night there were seven calls to the D.C. Fire Department—one of which involved a big blaze on Capitol Hill. Two days later, a rooming house caught fire at 121 New York Ave. NW. Washington, it seemed, was burning for the occasion. CP