After a 15-year recording hiatus, British roots reggae radicals Steel Pulse are back with a new album, Mass Manipulation. Since emerging from Birmingham's largely Caribbean working-class Handsworth neighborhood with their 1978 single "Ku Klux Klan," the band have been among the genre's loudest (and most mellifluous) political voices, combining powerful social messages with gorgeous grooves.
Steel Pulse’s new work continues that rich reggae tradition with songs like "Don't Shoot," "Justice in Jena," and "Thank the Rebels" (inspired by the Arab Spring). In fact, when you factor in the incongruously jaunty "World Gone Mad," which covers everything from crooked leaders to global warming, Mass Manipulation feels like a trip through the past fifteen years of hot-button politics. We caught up with the legendary David "Dread" Hinds about why activism belongs in art, and how to make effective protest music.
Spotify for Artists: This is your first album in 15 years. What inspired you to return with a statement?
David “Dread” Hinds: There've been so many things happening on this planet that correlate to everything we've been about as a band from the very beginning. When we started out, it was on a platform of speaking out against racism, police brutality, religious wars. The way the world's been behaving, the only thing that wasn't happening on a large scale was these mass shootings in public places.
You've dedicated so much of your creativity to the cause. How do you stay angry?
Check the climate. We were involved in Rock Against Racism back in the '70s, and now it's back at our doorstep with Brexit. To show you how close it is to home, we played the Bataclan only 13 or 14 months before the terrorist attack there—we knew people that got shot—and we played [Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas] within a year and a half of [the Route 91 Harvest Festival] shooting. It's fresh blood each time for us. It isn't difficult to keep current because it's all hitting you in the face at an alarming rate.
There are many venues for political action. Why is it important to speak out in song?
No matter what side of the planet you're on, what you believe in, and what your politics are, the common denominator is music. As soon as someone hears something that strings a few notes together, they're shaking their leg and nodding their head. You mention politics to someone and they turn away: "I'm sick of hearing about that." Well, no one's sick of music. With music, they start liking the beat, then the melody, then they hear what the song is saying. "Damn, it's about me! You're telling me I can make a difference? All right, here's what I'm going to do."
What makes a good protest song?
When it's written immediately after an incident. For example, Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." He was on his way back home from Dr. Martin Luther King's I Had a Dream speech, when he heard about this guy who got six months in jail after he struck a barmaid with a cane and she died. He put pen to paper! He's a legend because of the potency of his lyrics, and it helps when people can correlate your songs with something that's fresh in their minds.
In the '70s, you played with punk acts whose sound matched the intensity of their politics. Your lyrics are just as serious, but the music's pretty. Is there power in that combination?
When it comes to delivering messages, reggae music is one of the most potent formats—we've studied Bob Marley's songs and realized how politically charged they were even when they were indirect. The music's always been known to be hypnotic, and we want it to be catchy. When we're doing "Don't Shoot," we know there are a lot of people in the audience that might not be in favor of the support of Trayvon Martin, but you can see them rocking to the song. The melodies stick to your head, and even if you're not politically motivated, you still want to like it.
Do musicians have an obligation to address politics in their art?
I do think they've got the obligation, but whether they honor it is another thing. There could be a lot more artists airing their views. Because the sun shines out of the butts of the acts these kids are listening to. We've seen how influential rap music can be. I went out to see Get Rich or Die Tryin', the movie, and I came out so charged. And I'm saying to myself, “If it's doing that to me, and I'm not into rap….” All it takes is these badass guys getting more political in their songs, and maybe it'll turn the youths around into seeing what's going on around them and wanting to make changes.
What would you tell those living in countries where they don't feel safe to speak out?
That's a very hard question. There are many countries out there where people are using music to air their views and before they know it, their head's on the chopping block. It's not easy for me to say, "Stand there, hold the fort, and hope no one touches you." The only thing I can suggest is to escape to a country that protects freedom of speech, then air your views so the message gets back home. Miriam Makeba did it in the '60s when she left South Africa. She was able to make her spirit and voice heard from afar and help galvanize the people to fight apartheid.
What about artists who simply fear they'll lose fans by choosing a side?
You gotta expect it. But if you're serious, nothing beats being original and being sincere—that speaks forever. When people look back into the archives of music, achievements, and politics, they always remember the odd man out. Vincent van Gogh died penniless, but you can't talk about the history of art without mentioning him. You might not be there to reap the benefits, and that's a setback [laughs], but the comfort is: You know what you're doing and you believe in it.