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A whiter shade of pale

by Andy Stonehouse Special to the Daily
Special to the DailyNotorious Jamaican vocalist Yellowman seems to have cleaned up his act in recent years - but there's no doubt fans will still experience plenty of bumping and grinding from "Mr. Sexy" when he appears at 8150 tonight.
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Few artists in the reggae arena seem to pose as many simultaneous contradictions as Jamaican legend Yellowman. Born an albino and stigmatized his whole childhood, he nonetheless went on to confuse critics with material that seemed to treat gays and Asians with just as much contempt as he’d felt as an outsider. And despite building a career on sexually charged lyrics and a stage presence that puts even the most superfly of today’s rappers to shame, Yellowman has recently reinvented himself with a slew of material that feels at odds with his older stuff – including a song released on a new collection of children’s reggae songs.

But contradiction is nothing new for Yellowman, born Winston Foster in 1956. Born without skin pigment, Yellowman was tormented as a child and treated as a social outcast. Despite his troubled status, Yellowman developed musical skills and in 1978 entered the Tastee Talent Contest, an island-wide talent search. He placed third and attracted the attention of record producers who began to craft together the lanky albino’s curious musical and personal reputation – consistently appearing in a yellow track suit and cruising Jamaica in a yellow BMW, and building a stage presence that was heavy on the gyrating hips and raw sexuality.

In just a few years, “Mr. Sexy” became a national symbol whose music had spread to the rest of the world, with dancehall-style hits including “Who Can Make the Dance Ram,” “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt,” “Yellowman Getting Married” and “Gregory Free.”

More than 50 albums have been released under Yellowman’s name since the late 1970s, with his best material done in collaboration with Sly and Robbie and Earl “Chinna” Smith. Those early days also earned him the most controversy, with even Peter Tosh stepping into the arena to denounce the single “Mr. Chin,” an attack on Jamaica’s Asian grocery store owners.

In 1986, things changed a bit when Yellowman was diagnosed with cancer and was given only six months to live. He managed to beat the disease but had to have part of his jaw removed ; the resulting disfigurement only served to solidify his self-image and, perhaps, cause him to reflect a bit more on the lewdness and on-stage rants which had given him such notoriety in the past.

When he re-emerged on the scene in the 1990s, reggae had changed to such a degree that he too needed to change his own act. His rhythms became more melodic and he substituted a new political consciousness for much of the vulgarity of the past. His first post-sickness release was a cover of Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” followed by a lengthy series of CDs released through the American reggae label RAS Records.

That’s included a couple of very unusual projects, 1998’s “A Very, Very Yellow Christmas” and his own rendition of “This Old Man” for the “Reggae for Kids” CD, not to mention his inclusion on a reggae-flavored Bob Dylan tribute album..

Yellowman’s most recent RAS recording, “New York,” includes loads of material that seems at odds with the performer’s old days, getting directly political in “Leave Iraq Alone” and “CNN News.”

Despite his personal transformation, Yellowman still continues to perform with all of the sexy style and dancehall swagger of the old days, guaranteeing some seriously sweaty times.

Yellowman plays at 10 p.m. at 8150. Ticket information is available by calling 479-0607.


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