Interview by Kwame Dawes
This tribute to Judy Mowatt on her 68th birthday which came up on 23rd December, 2020 features an interview with the reggae artist conducted by Kwame Dawes of the Bomb Magazine. Judy Mowatt was born in Gordon Town, Jamaica on the 23rd of December, 1952. Enjoy this interview as we get in the Christmas mood all over the world:
It is hard to admit to the subject of an interview—someone you have long admired for her righteousness and nobility, someone whose art has left you feeling a sense of appreciation for the dignity of artists who are socially and politically engaged—that your most primal connection to her is physical. I used to watch Judy Mowatt jog along Mona Road in Kingston, Jamaica, every morning when I was a graduate student at the University of the West Indies. She was beautiful enough to wake me up each morning. Afterward I would pray, read my Bible, and study John Donne. Of course, reggae is about the dialogue between the sensual and the spiritual, and Mowatt, a regal member of Bob Marley’s backup singing trio, was a symbol of both for me. I have always followed her music and have always wanted to talk to her about working with Bob Marley and about her own music.
I was nervous when I called her at home to set up the interview. She was polite, charming and gracious. I blundered around a lot but she disarmed me when she admitted that she had just burned a pot of turn cornmeal and her house was filled with smoke. We laughed and I knew I would enjoy this.
Born in 1952, Judy Mowatt began her career in Kingston as a dancer. She soon became a member of several successful women’s singing groups in the 1960s and early ’70s. Then she teamed up with Marcia Griffiths and Rita Marley to form the powerful backup singing team for Bob Marley and the Wailers, The I-Threes. She toured with Marley for the most successful performances of his career. In 1979 Mowatt became the first Jamaican woman to record a solo album when Black Woman was released by Tuff Gong. She has gone on to have a remarkable solo career that has secured her place as the queen of reggae music. In 1995 she created quite a stir in Jamaica by converting from Rastafarianism to Christianity. Her journey has been marked by a deep and abiding faith and a rich legacy of some of the most moving and eloquent reggae tunes ever produced. Mowatt lives in Kingston, Jamaica.
Kwame Dawes During your years with the Wailers, what were your dreams for your future as an artist and as a woman? Did you ever imagine where you would be in 20 years?
Judy Mowatt I knew deep in my heart that my calling was as a solo singer. I could not have my own career when I was with Bob because we were on tour almost the whole year, and then we were in the studio recording, and the next year we were on the road promoting the album that we had just completed. I started out as a dancer—not because I wanted to dance but because I wanted to get into music—and then I sang with the Gaylettes. We did songs like “Son of a Preacher Man” and “I Like Your World.” When we started out, we didn’t know what to expect. People told us that we were talented, and we knew it, and we wanted to express this talent. We didn’t know that money existed, so people took advantage of us. They would record us and not pay us any money for our number one songs. In early ’67 we went to the Federal Records label.
KD When my family moved to Jamaica from Ghana, in 1970, there was a woman, an actress, who used to look after us kids now and then; she was about 17 or 18. She had old 45s and ska records, and I used to play “I Like Your World” over and over. That’s a nice tune.
JM That was written by a brother named Henry Buckley, who’s no longer alive today. He wrote that song particularly for us. He also wrote “Silent River Runs Deep” for Federal Records, and they asked us to sing it. And that was a success. At the time Jamaica had two radio stations, JBC [Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation] and RJR [Radio Jamaica Rediffusion], and “I Like Your World” was number one on both stations. But then the two other Gaylettes went to the United States, and I was pregnant with my first child, so I had to stay back. Then I met Sonia Pottinger.
KD The record producer.
JM Yes, the only female record producer at the time. Her label was called Tip-Top. She also did gospel way back then. I think she had a radio program on Sunday evenings. I wanted to record with her because, as a female, I thought I would be given justice and she would understand me and my needs. I had been hoping that I would be able to record with her, not knowing she had the same thought. One day I got the message that she wanted to see me. She asked me to record the song “I Shall Sing,” which was a Miriam Makeba original. My career went to another level with her.
KD Where was her studio?
JM At the bottom of Orange Street here in Kingston. I met Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths through her. You have to have dreams in life, to see yourself in a certain place with people of a certain kind, and it comes to pass. I admired Marcia and Rita very much. Marcia had a style; she was always consistent. You could depend on her to come out with a hit every three months. Rita had a group called the Soulettes, and they were successful, recording and performing around the Kingston circuit. Rita and Marcia were two people I really loved and I always wished that someday we’d get a chance to sing together. Well, one day Mr. Dodd called me and said he was having a studio session in the evening and would I like to come sing some harmony. When I went, there were Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths. I couldn’t let them know the joy I felt recognizing that my dream was coming to pass. It took only about half an hour to complete the song, the chemistry was so right. Marcia was doing a concert that night at a small nightclub on Oxford Boulevard, and Rita and I went, and at one point she called us up to sing a song with her. Everything happened, bam, in that one day. Suddenly people demanded that we form a group, because of the chemistry we had together. That was in ‘72. And then a few years later Bob heard us. He was doing “Jah Live,” and then he did the album Natty Dread, for which we did the background vocals. We recorded that in his studio on Third Avenue, that very historical studio where so many of the ’70s hits were recorded. During that time my solo career was on the back burner: Bob’s work took up all my time. I knew I had a future and I had dreams for my career, I just knew that it was not the right time. But every now and then I would go and record a song and save it for an album.
KD Black Woman came out in 1979.
JM Right. I used to read a lot about African history and what took place in America during the time of slavery. I was reading a book called To Be a Slave by Julius Lester. I saw the pain, the degradation, the suffering, especially of the women, how they were sold and separated from their families. We in Jamaica never experienced that. Most of the songs on the album came out of that book, out of that pain. It was as if I was pregnant with the Black Woman album. Sometimes I’d read in that book and then have to just empty myself in tears because I would be so full learning what happened to my ancestors. That was how the song “Black Woman” was birthed. But even then, I never got the opportunity to give the album the justice it deserved in terms of promotion, because of being on the road with Bob. When Bob passed in 1981, it was time to launch my solo career.
KD How different do you see yourself as today from the young singer working with The Gaylettes? What do you want that younger person to know?
JM That young girl didn’t have any sense of purpose. That young girl wanted to get her life going. That young girl was a loveless girl. I grew up without a father, and my mother was a teenager when she had us, and so she needed the love for herself; she needed to find herself. She was not prepared to have children, and she never had the ability to mother us. Mothering was left to my grandmother. And so that created a void in my life, and damaged emotions. Not having a father figure, you are still looking for love. I never sat on a daddy’s lap and I never got hugs from mommy. So I went in search of love in different places, in older men. At a young age, I found myself in many circumstances that I shouldn’t have been in. Just hurting and trying to find the solution in men. And every time I looked for that man, which was a man maybe my father’s age, I’d realize after a while that he was not really looking for a woman—
KD —but for a daughter.
JM He was looking for a daughter. In that era of my life, I was just trying to escape, and music was an escape for me. I found in music a way of expressing what I was going through and I hoped that it would mean something to another woman who was going through the same thing. I was very unstable, and I was also very closed. The only way I wanted to express myself was on a record. That allowed me an inroad into Rasta. I kept seeking this love and wasn’t finding it, but Rasta was the one thing that provided this love for me. Their motto and their salutation is “one love,” and there were many brothers and sisters who had the same experience that I had, and so we were able to share that.
KD How old were you when you turned to Rasta? What were the circumstances of that?
JM I was in my early twenties—
KD So before you were with the Wailers?
JM Yes. Everything started happening during those Rasta reasonings. There was a community of brethren who would congregate, and we would talk about our lives and our future; we would talk about leaving Jamaica and living our lives in Ethiopia, leaving everything behind. That was the long-standing desire of every Rasta brother and every Rasta sister. During my Rasta period, I saw a purpose; I realized that what I went through in life is something that I can share in music, through songs like “Black Woman” and “Slave Queen.” And I recognized that I have a lot to share. A few of the songs were experiences that I saw in other people and I was able to keep the life in them, but most of the songs that I wrote were from my own life. Still trying to find that love, trying to fill that void. But although I was a Rasta woman and I think I was living a righteous life, I still found that I didn’t have any control over some of the things that I’d do. The things I did not want to do, I found myself doing. I was professing that Rasta shouldn’t do this and Rasta shouldn’t do that, but never had the willpower to not do these things myself. Anyway, I realized that where I was wasn’t where I wanted to be, that there was something more that I desired in my life, but I could not put my finger on it. I had come out of an Evangelist family background, so although I was a Rasta I found myself going to church from time to time. And there I would feel a sense of satisfaction. I would feel fulfilled by going to the altar. But when I came back into my environment, I would be the same Rasta woman, and fear would overtake me because I didn’t want my brothers and sisters to know that I was visiting churches and that my focus was not entirely on my faith. I was stepping out every now and then because of this void that I felt within me. So, who am I now? I am a fulfilled person. The fulfillment I have found is in Jesus Christ. I searched for 22 years, and Rasta gave me some kind of peace and joy and solace, but it was not a miracle. It was not everything I knew I needed. And in Christ I find that I am complete. I have no longing. My senses have been converted into spiritual desire. The desires that I had before, I don’t have anymore. But I do have the same passion that I had as a Rasta woman to get across the message of peace, the message of love, the message that uplifts my sisters especially. Most of my songs were really to uplift and encourage women.
KD Still, it is a big shift. During your Rasta days you would speak of your Rasta faith with the same kind of passion and evangelistic zeal as you now have about your Christian faith.
JM People ask questions like “You said Haile Selassie was God; how could you change?” What helped bring about my conversion is that somebody gave me a cassette tape of an interview with Selassie. I was on a Sunsplash tour and I had a day off, and I decided to listen to the cassette. This was around 1994. The interviewer was talking about the birth of Jesus Christ, and how Ethiopians celebrate Christmas, and suddenly he said, “There are millions of Christians throughout the world, Your Imperial Majesty, who regard you as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.” And Selassie said, “I am a man; I am mortal. I will be replaced by the oncoming generation. They should never make the mistake of assuming or pretending that a human being is emanated from a deity.” Well, when you hear a truth, your heart knows it. I recognized that for 22 years I had been worshipping and giving my life to this person. Sometimes people want to use that to show up the Rastas, but that is not what I’m about. You know what I mean? But it was never easy to make that conversion. Even my own Rasta brothers and sisters did not understand that I was being led by the spirit and not just my own will. They saw me as a sellout. But I recognized that I have to entreat them with love. Love was what conquered most of the fear and most of the war, because it was like a war raging.
KD Did your conversion change things like the shows you would do? Did it change your invitations to perform?
JM The Lord didn’t want me to relinquish the songs that he gave me, but I had led a lot of women—and a lot of brothers, but mainly women—down the Rasta road, and I recognized that I had the responsibility to make the correction, to let them know that God has made a change in my life, and to show them how. And that these are some of the songs that God has given me now to sing.
KD Uh huh.
JM Tony Rebel had invited me to perform at his annual Rebel Salute in Mandeville in 1995 or ‘96. When I went there, I saw something I never saw before. I saw a lot of Rasta brothers “burning” the flag and Jesus. [One of the most damning acts by Rastas is to shout “Fire, bun”—that is, “Fire, burn”—to anything offensive. Mowatt was dealing with Rastas who were expressing their disapproval of the flag and Jesus at the concert.] Now I didn’t know what to expect. And when it was time for me to go up on stage I said to myself, I am going to go up there and I’m not going to say anything to anybody, I’m just going to sing one song after another and come off. And then I heard this scripture passage in my head: “If you deny me, I will deny you, before God, before my father and his angels.” But when I went up there, nothing came to me. We played one song, then another. It wasn’t until after the third song that I said to the audience, “I’ve been in this business for almost 25 years, and I am a mother in this business to many of you young entertainers, and I want you to just listen to me for a while. Something has happened in my life and I am one of the happiest women on the face of the earth. And it is because of the change that Jesus Christ has brought in my life.” Well, I hear some heckling, but I also hear applauding. It never mattered to me what came, I just knew that I had to say what I had to say. I told them that in the Bible we will find the truth for ourselves. And I heard some people again applaud me. I didn’t know who they were. I was speaking with my eyes closed and I wasn’t paying any attention to anybody. It didn’t matter if somebody took out a gun and shot me right there. I just knew I had to say what I had to say.
KD Let me go back for a moment. I’ve always said that “Jah Live” and the circumstances surrounding that recording parallel, in so many ways, the mixture of shock, uncertainty, and eventual hope, that the apostles of Christ felt after the crucifixion. When Selassie died, Marley came forward as the prophet, and, amazingly, restored faith. That moment was such an important one, even for those Jamaicans who were not Rastas. What was the experience for you?
JM That morning a lot of Rastas were questioning their faith. I decided that I was going to wear some added colors that day—red, gold, and green—so that people could see that I was not backing down because of the news. I never believed it. I never thought that anything bad would ever happen to His Majesty. So I was on the defensive. That was a gloomy morning. A lot of people didn’t want to leave their homes. Rastas congregated and they were just talking about the news.
KD When did the “Jah Live” recording take place?
JM About two weeks after. Not immediately. When Bob first heard the news, he didn’t believe it. He said, “Jah lives,” and as he said it, it was truth, because Bob spoke for the masses. We all agreed that “Jah lives.”
KD It’s a powerful song, full of proverbs. “He who laugh last—
JM “—is he who win.”
KD It’s a really interesting tune.
JM There is another thing I would like to point out: Bob has always sung about the Lord. That is why I gravitated to Bob’s writing and to how he saw his life. You could relate to Bob as a Rasta man and as not a Rasta man. When he wrote what came out of him, he was speaking for you and me, for everybody. There is a song that says. “Thank you, Lord, for what you’ve done for me / Thank you, Lord, for you made me sing / Sing along, sing along.” Then in another song he says, “Feel dem spirit, / Lord I thank you. / Feel all right now / Lord I thank you.” And he never specified who this Lord was.
KD One of the tunes that still means a lot to me is his “Give Thanks and Praises.” You spoke earlier about this search for something, some solace, some peace inside, and in the lyrics Bob says. “If Jah didn’t love I / If I didn’t love I / Would I be around today? / Would I be around to say: / Give thanks and praises.” He was talking about the attempt on his own life. But at the same time, and in that quest for a connection inside, he was standing alone and saying there is this relationship that he has with God. To me it really is one of Bob’s most wholly moving tunes. It’s not a hot one that everybody goes on about, but it is the honesty of that faith. And that is one of the things that always struck me with your work, that you always sang out of your own experience and your own life. Can you talk a little bit about how you write songs?
JM Well, I’ve tried in some ways to emulate how Bob wrote his songs because, as I said, I found it relates to a human situation. You could hear his soul, he bared his soul inside his songs. I covered “Conceret Jungle”: “Concrete jungle, where the livin’ is hardest.”
KD “Where is this love to be found?”
JM Right, where is this love to be found. You are not alone when you are writing songs like that; you are sharing with people out there. You will probably never know them, but the music will reach a place you will never reach, and that’s their soul.
JM I shared a lot of Bob’s sentiments. I think there was something between Bob and myself—I cannot really put it in words, but I think our quest for life, our quest for love, was a similar one.