Radio Sandwell Music

Spotlight on UK women in reggae

2015-03-31 00:06:28

Sandra Cross
HITTING THE RIGHT NOTES: Sandra Cross

A SPOTLIGHT is about to fall on a group of unsung heroes in the UK music industry - women who have devoted their lives to the culture of reggae and lover's rock.

Donald Harper, an academic and music industry veteran, will shine a light on these songstresses who made such unforgettable sounds between the 1950s and 1980s, but perhaps never had the universal recognition they deserved.

The reggae roll call of artists is impressive: Carroll Thompson, Janet Kay and Lorna Gee, who all shared the 'queen of lover's rock' crown at the height of their careers; Birmingham's own Audrey Scott, Sandra Cross, Toyin Adekale, Paulette Tajah and Kofi to name but a few.

And no one is implying that these are names from the past - far from it, as Harper explains: "Up to 80 per cent of these women are still doing their thing even though they range in age from their late 1940s to late 1960s; some of them have been out there for up to 50 years, so I believe it's time they were recognised for the indelible mark they have made on the UK reggae industry."

Up to a dozen artists, including those named above, have agreed to be part of his documentary. Its theme is: 'Whither Jamaica's Music Industry? Learning from strategic failures to harness and organise a cultural resource for economic development.'

Jamaican-born Harper, currently an associate tutor at the University of Leicester, who grew up in New York, is working on the film for his PhD, but says the project is far from an academic exercise.

"I hope to use this to help develop some kind of policy for reggae music both in Jamaica and the UK, where the lover's rock genre began," he tells The Voice. "The Jamaican government recognises that reggae is something they need to support, but much of this is nothing more than rhetoric."

Harper may occupy an academic world at Leicester's School of Management, and has worked with several of America's top companies from retail to real estate, however his roots also lie in the reggae music industry.

The founder of Jamstar Productions, an entertainment marketing firm that has worked with some of Jamaica's premier artists, Harper has worked across the world supporting names such as the Skatalites, Chakademus & Pliers, Diana King, Nadine Sutherland, Patra and Lady Saw.

Yaz Alexander and Donald Harper
MUSICAL PALS: Yaz Alexander with Donald Harper

He compares the reggae sound to ‘a spice’ which has never made the UK mainstream, yet helped so many artists not automatically associated with it such as Sting, The Clash and The Specials.

This, in part, he believes is down to one of reggae's major problems  - a lack of professionalism within the industry, which has nothing to do with talent.

"There is talent in abundance," he says. "But the creative side and the organisational side is like night and day. People are so focussed on the recognition, they don't focus on the business.

"This is compounded by the fact that the African and Caribbean communities have a history of not working well together, which I put down to the impact of slavery on people's mindsets. This has to be acknowledged."

Harper's documentary will have a Birmingham dimension as the city's own reggae star Yaz Alexander, is helping him with research material. Damien 'Lil D' Morgan, the city's well-known rapper, will produce the documentary through his video company Dynamexx Enterprise.

Alexander, still a vocal force to be reckoned with ever since making her first recording in 1985, says the female artists' struggle resonates with her.

She spent 14 years touring the world with international reggae star Pato Banton, and is still performing with her latest gig Friday April 10 at Cobs Bar in Sherlock Street, Digbeth.

"I think the majority of artists started out not thinking about a career because they see the music as their life, rather than a business or a way of making money," she tells The Voice. "We all started out knowing so little about copyright, contracts, record deals and touring, which is all part of the industry."

Harper has applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for help in making the documentary and a crowd funding initiative is being planned through Buzzbnk.org. He is also hopeful that sponsors will come forward.

Anyone wanting more details can visit the website: www.womeninreggae.org or email Harper at info@womeninreggae.org.

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