Skankin In The Virgin Islands
An Overview Of The Scene On St. Croix

This is the unedited version which was first published in The Beat in 2002

Since 1988, I've been to Jamaica on 10 different occasions and although it's always been a great time, for years I haven't cared for the direction of the music. Dancehall was taking over the island and I longed for the roots.

In the fall of 2001, I was fortunate to receive the re-released debut of Midnite, entitled "Unpolished" (it originally came out in 1997). After just one listen I knew this group was extremely special. They played the hard-core roots style which I absolutely loved. The catch was that they weren't from Jamaica, but were rather from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In the following months, I obtained each of their crucial recordings and witnessed them in concert on three occasions - and was completely blown away each time. I realized after seeing them the first time that this was the band I'd been longing for.

During that period, with my interest in St. Croix reggae music piqued, I was also introduced to some other outstanding talent from the island; Dezarie, Sabbattical Ahdah and Army, just to name a few.

About a year later, in early August, I heard that St. Croix was hosting the first showcase of local talent in an all-night, 12-hour marathon called the "V.I. Reggae Fest 2002." When I heard that some of my favorite new artists would be there - and that the headliner would be Midnite - I decided it was a perfect time to take my first journey to the small stretch of land in the Carribbean. I needed to see first hand how in the world this tiny island was producing such incredible sounds.

The first thing I noticed as the airplane descended on that late August day was the smallness of the island (it measures only 7 miles by 28 miles). It was beautiful and tropical as I arrived at the Henry E. Rohlsen airport minutes later, where a dread named Turtle proceeded to drive me to my hotel in Frederiksted. That evening I decided to wander around and to my surprise, there was absolutely nothing going on, and I mean nothing.

The next day, in conversation with some locals (called "Cruzans"), they explained some things. It seems that since 1989, St. Croix has had the extreme misfortune of having four devastating hurricanes, most notably Hurricane Hugo. There's also been a big cutback in air travel coming to the area (they currently have only two major flights - from Miami and Philadelphia - as well as some commuters from Puerto Rico and St. Thomas, when just a few years earlier they had many more flights to the island). The very lucrative cruise ship business also pulled out and the universal tragedy of 9-11 certainly didn't help anything.

One thing that's been a constant throughout the economic problems, though, is the incredible reggae music on St. Croix. Laurent "Tippy" Alfred - a musician and producer for I Grade Productions, a company releasing outstanding cutting-edge roots - helped explain the music and the island.

"Throughout our island's history," said Alfred, "we've always had a heritage of domination and resistance. They teach us in school that we have been controlled by seven different flags, and were sold to the US for 26 million dollars in 1917. But we also have a fierce resistance tradition - like when a former slave woman named Queen Mary led a rebellion that burnt down the entire town of Frederiksted. And we have a long tradition of Rastafari livity and culture - especially in the west of the island. So you have something like a clash happening in St. Croix right now - the domination and resistance are fighting again, right now, through the reggae music. I feel like the rebel music of Rastafari - which is what true reggae music is - has thrived here because of this clash. True rebel music must cry out when faced with iniquity, and thatís what our roots movement is really about.

"Donít forget that the Virgin Islands is a colony, and like all colonies, its function is to serve the colonizerís interests - as a key military location, a playground for American tourists and a market for American goods. Our government has long since abandoned supporting large-scale agriculture as a way to feed our people, so we end up importing nearly all of our food at ridiculous prices."

Even though Alfred is disgusted with the government, as are many Cruzans - he's right in the middle of a burgeoning reggae scene that's beginning to take the world by storm. At the forefront of this explosion is Midnite, the band that in my mind is the most crucial band to come along in years. In a righteous interview with their lead vocalist and lyricist extrordinaire - Vaughn Benjamin - we started off by talking about why the reggae artists on St. Croix all sing conscious lyrics.

"Of all the artists that come out of St. Croix," started Benjamin, "we haven't lost one yet to slackness. To me, it's just a messianic vibe in the air. People know that things have played themselves out. Like violence, it's played itself out. Violence has peaked, worldwide, because of the existence of the possibility of total annihilation. We have come to the realization on this little island here that the redemption of ourselves is going to depend upon how we see ourselves and how the children see themselves. It's just that serious.

"That's why when it comes to a lot of man on the scene singing this music, they all chant the correct ideological perspective in terms of good examples for children and our economic community, ya know?"

For anyone that's heard Benjamin's lyrics and unique, dynamic delivery, he's truly one of a kind. I asked him how he writes such intense, thought-provoking tunes.

"Well, I don't know what to tell you there," he stated. "I follow this principal that says 'blessed is the man that walks not in the counsel of the ungodly nor stands in the way of the sinner, which is you don't block a man from being what he wants to be, and then don't sit in the seat of the scornful either, which is you don't think you're better than that man, either. But you delight in the laws of Jah and in these laws you meditate day and night.' That's how my songs write. I meditate in the laws of the earth. Not the legislation - that is not law - the law I meditate in is that the sun rise in the east and sets in the west."

I proceeded to mention how one of Midnite's unreleased classics, "Love Jah," really struck me as having some very humorous and clever lyrics: ["Rastaman no beef with no one, no. Rastaman a vegetarian so Rastaman no beef with no one"]. Benjamin elaborated. "True. It is funny. See, because the human being is designed in this way. The human being does not want to be depressed just because we have to make a change. Just because we have to make an adjustment and grow doesn't mean we have to be depressed, no. So we re-institute humor and the total balance of humanity that we must work as well as play.

"You see, our songs are for a good cause, truly. Whoever try to find an ugly undercurrent or try to find something different from what we're saying inside the subliminal content of the music - they will not find it. We have to really, really make a stand to try and get to the generation, because there is something the scientists of Babylon know. They call it 6 degrees of separation. What they are saying is that everyone in the Earth knows someone else or is connected to someone else anywhere in the Earth by 6 degrees. I know this already, I didn't need them to tell me. And because we know this, we know that not even mass media, not even the systematical blackout of our music, can stop this music. Because word of mouth will do it, believe me."

I then asked Benjamin about the connection between St. Croix and Jamaica.

"Well, let me tell you," he continued. "There are man here in St. Croix, who simultaneously - believe it or not - when the movement was trodding out in Jamaica, there were man trodding out the same way, without knowledge of the Jamaican movement. And years back, there's a man from St. Thomas - Edward Wilmot Blyden - this is who Marcus Garvey followed. So the Virgin Islands has always been in the front line. In the front, front line. A man called Hubert Harrison from here in St. Croix, was the man who was the intellectual mind thrust underneath the Harlem renassaince. He also really freed culture among black people in America and made us be recognized. People like Duke Ellington, recognized for musical genius.

"Now today, they want to claim that we're just discovering. But we have not just discovered nothing. These man were in the front line from the start. A lot of people want to claim we have no footing to stand on, like we are wagonists, jumping on someone's bandwagon. But if you look into the lyrics and compare the work, you will come to your own conclusion."

This work can be found at the current time on seven different labels releasing outstanding roots music on St. Croix - Afrikan Roots Lab, DSP Muzik, Glamorous Records, I Grade Records, Iyah Ites Productions, Sound V.I.zion Records and Dub Rise Records. There's also Mt. Nebo Records based in the U.S. which has released some outstanding V.I. recordings. Talking with Alfred again from I Grade records, he mentioned that "the emergence of the roots movement owes a lot to Midnite. As the top roots band in the world for most people who truly know reggae music beyond its surface, Midnite has brought exposure to other artists in the V.I. - like Dezarie and Ikahba. When Midnite moved back down [to St. Croix] in 1999 to live and record, that brought a big strength to all the local artists and musicians."

I asked Benjamin to talk about the above-mentioned return from the East Coast (they moved to Washington D.C. in 1994 and stayed for five years).

"Well, we came back home," said Benjamin, "because all of the concepts of family and togetherness - all the things we sing about - it would be hypocritical and in vain if we don't institute them among our own. We needed to begin from the place where we ourselves began. And we wanted to keep on the idiom that say 'charity begins at home.' It's just that simple. See, our people are in disarray, that's why this music is on to the black nation first. Because we are in trouble. We are therefore not qualified to speak to anyone else until we clean our own house first."

He went on to talk about the first releases which were truly the beginning of the scene...

"'Eastbound' [a fantastic compilation on Iyah Ites] was the album that really, really set things on fire. The song 'Mama Africa,' though [from Midnite's debut], really set the whole scene. Then after that, 'Eastbound' came, which had songs by Army, Sabbattical Ahdah, Cripleton and man self. The tune '[Mama] Africa' was first released in Namibia. Then everything just took off from there."

Some of the other recordings, according to Alfred, were "in this beginning period - around 1999 and 2000. You had other compilation CDs like 'Homgrown Vol. 1' and 'Culturellenium 1' hitting the streets, and bringing the messages from a whole new set of artists like Apostle, Batch, Ras Attitude and Ika. Midnite has recorded five CDs on St. Croix. There are solo CDs available from Sabbattical Ahdah, Danny I, Dezarie, Army, Apostle and Ras Attitude.

"There are also more recent compilations available: 'Eastbound 2,' 'Culturellenium 2' and three compilations soon to be released: 'Judgment,' 'Weep Not' and 'Culturellenium 3'. Also a forthcoming solo CD from Dezarie is in the works, entitled 'Gracious Mama Africa' as well as a disc called 'Trodding To Zion" by Ikahba."

When asked about concert venues and record shops on St. Croix, Alfred offered the following information.

"Well, right now, there are only a few clubs in the area for live music," said Alfred. "Of course, there's the Paul E. Joseph stadium where the Reggae Fest will be held, but besides that, there's not a lot a lot of places to play. Concerning record shops, though, we're a small island and getting the music out to the world is the biggest challenge to sustaining our music industry. With a population of just 100,000 in the VI - we have to have our music abroad to sustain a movement. There are a few small stores on the island, but the foremost distributor of local reggae music is Ras Shalom at Natural Mystic. He carries all of the local releases."

Concerning local radio, many St. Croix artists don't get much airplay at home. I asked Benjamin about this, as well as about the lack of live shows in the area.

"Well, people pick out what they think is a commercial tune," said Benjamin. "and because the playlists of the whole Earth are controlled by the same monsters, the playlists are guarded to make sure that nothing they have not screened can get through. This I 'n I know. But I 'n I don't worry about them. I 'n I go straight to the streets because just by word of mouth from St. Croix to Lebanon this music will reach and no one can do anything about it. From Jerusalem to Amsterdam to Cairo to Vienna. That's where this music will be.

"There's not much live music at all, though. You're right. But there's a massive explosion of reggae music here. I mean, endless youth. Because of that explosion it seems the children's hearts are directed onto Haile Selassie the Most High. The youth, it seems, have lost interest in any music which is decorative, ornamental and vanity-based. They want reality music. We just don't know what's going to happen, but it's going to be big. I personally am just doing the Almighty's work, which is to tell a very good truth, which is a practical truth, that can be utilized in a social-economic cycle, in a logical, political setting, for the betterment of whole groups of people. That's what I'm about and let the financial chips fall where they may.

"Whether or not the Earth wants to agree that the Most High exists, they must agree that there is symmetry, there is form, there is balance and there is equilibrium and there is speech in this Earth. And there must be an origin point for these things."

Benjamin continued on, with some powerful words about Haile Selassie.

"The chastisement that the Earth and the time has given to I 'n I is up, it's enough time now," stressed Benjamin with intense conviction. "Because man is coming to grips now that he has to re-instate righteousness into his doings. Our people have been accused of being barbarous and third world, but 72 nations of the Earth sent their top diplomats and their top envoy to a backward Third World nation called Ethiopia. Haile Selassie came to what was supposedly the just leagues of man, and Selassie came to them on the power of their own speech and on the powers of their own charter and as a member in full accordance with all rules of the one organization which was supposed to be for the greater good of all man. They all betrayed His Majesty and from that day until this day, when they should have learned - 1930 when His Majesty coronate - they should have learned that mass production on the assembly line and affluence of influence of power was about to come to the Western Hemisphere because of the assembly line and the industrial revolution. So His Majesty made the circle in the time of war. The ancient circle that all ancient emperors were to complete in wartime to prove, even in the coronation ceremony this was done to prove that man can return even in the time of trouble and conquest and war. Selassie came to the supposed just leagues of man in full accordance with all of the legislative apparatus and they betrayed His Majesty. World War II, according to Winston Churchill, was the result of the betrayal of Ethiopia. According to Winston Churchill, not Rastafarians.

"So therefore, His Majesty came and did not carry the same accusations we have been accused of - which is racism, barbarism, violence and lack of civilization. His Majesty came to the League Of Nations in full accordance without prejudice, without bias and without racism. His Majesty enlisted people from all of the axis powers, Germany, Norway, Sweden - within Ethiopia - because as a fair and just man His Majesty knew that anyone that have a gift or a talent and an ability to teach the people a better way to live, we must utilize them regardless of race, color or creed.

"This is why he could come and speak this way, and all of the regions of the Earth would've been united today, in maritime commerce, in ocean commerce, and in sharing of cultural skills - cuisine, cooking and every other thing we would have been sharing today had the mandate of Haile Selassie been followed. You see? This is important! This is imperative you put this in your article! We would be together. Black, white and regardless of what colors, we would be together today had they followed the hospitality, the dignity and the mannerisms of Haile Selassie I the First. We would be together today, but now we are at war.

"I'd also like to say that His Majesty is the master of what you call the social sciences. He is the architect, he is the builder, which is the internal governance of man's spirit and man's heartical place. As such, within his speech - glory to the word and to the sound and to the power - but in his speech it was in such high social scientific proportion, that the Western power structures underestimated such speech and went against it to their detriment, not knowing how great a mistake this was. You listening to me? Listen to what I'm gonna tell you now. This is serious!

"His Majesty say 'until the philosphy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permantly discredited and abandoned' everywhere will be war. The word until is a conditional word that nullifies all other other words that come after. Unless the first word is met conditionally - and the Western powers have not met any of these conditions, so the word until has not even been - they've not even gotten past the word until - in His Majesty's speech that Bob Marley then picked up and sang. The geomancers of the Earth who consider themselves to be the social science builders of infrastructures, roads, bridges and aquaducts - as well as communities and peoples - these builders, because of their false vanity, they overlooked the solution because it was too simple and too humble.

"Now the situation we are in today is because of the abberations and these shortcomings of people who have been put in the position to caretake the Earth. We are not here to criticize leaders. This is important, too. We are not here to criticize leaders. But they have forced I 'n I to speak in this way, because they are costing us too much pain. Too much suffering, too much blood, too much racism, too much prejudice, too much hatred, too much animosity, too much separation. It's costing us too much. So this is the reason we have to speak now. We are fully aware of how we must respect such dignitaries, but this is why we have to speak now."

Vaughn Benjamin is possibly the most intense and passionate man I've ever met. This humble Rastafarian is incredibly articulate and intelligent and it was a true honor to interview him. He finished things off with some words about the "V.I. Reggae Fest 2002."

"Well," concluded Benjamin, "the whole end of the millenium has the feel of a rebirth vibration-wise. Not in terms of, ya know - the Earth's problems seem to be escalating - but in terms of the positive pulse, it seems to have increased in a massive way. There's a new vision, because a lot of things have been hidden away and held away from people, possibilities and potentialities, and now they're being opened up to their own eyes. At the same time, they're telling us that the Earth's situation is just escalating into greater and greater violence.

"The violence can not overpower the good feeling that the people have right now, though. It can't do it. The people feel good. Their capacity for creating just has infinite possibilities now, from creation, and that's what this Reggae Fest is really about."

As the day of the show arrived, I talked to the event's organizer, Osbert Potter, who explained to me that "we took the entire U.S. Virgin Islands - St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix, as well as Tortola in the British Virgin Islands - and wanted to bring a big event here. We plan on it being an annual show but instead of having it on Saturday, we plan to change it to the Sunday before Labor Day." While talking to him, I realized the importance of the show for the island of St. Croix. "Things have been slow" said Potter. "We're hoping this will help the economy as well as showcase our great talent here."

And let me tell you, there is some serious talent on the island. As they played deep into the night, many of the artists were impressive, as they were backed by the Gravity band then the extremely talented DUB 340, led by bassist Dean Pond. Notables were Army (who sounds like a cross between Freddie McGregor and Frankie Paul) and the seven vocalists who comprised the Star Lion Family from St. Thomas.

At about 4:30 a.m., I was beginning to fade, but this was the part of the show that I was really looking forward to, so my second wind began to kick in. Midnite (without Vaughn on lead vocals) was going to back up Ikahba and Dezarie, then play a set themselves. With Ron Benjamin (Vaughn's brother and the band's musical director) on keyboards, Phil Merchant on bass, Dion Hopkins on drums and Ras Abijah on guitar (and for this event their old friend - Shamie - on bongos and congas), these guys comprise, to these ears, the best and most original band in reggae music today. So needless to say, my anticipation level was through the roof.

A few minutes later, with flashes of lightning in the distance, Midnite hit the stage followed by Ikahba. They started off with a scorcher on their "Jah Ova" rhythm, and I was blown away. Ikahba then said "run it, don't waste no time" (as the show was already hours behind schedule), and with that they jammed a second tune. And that was it. Way too quick and kind of a drag, but with Dezarie on deck I figured no problem.

Resplendent in a long flowing dress, the barefooted Dezarie came on stage and proceeded to knock me out for the next 30 minutes. She has one of the most gorgeous voices in any genre - an angelic sound spitting out intensely crucial lyrics - and backed by Midnite she was simply incredible. She truly has the talent to be a major star. This young and incredibly gifted vocalist started off with the slow roots sounds of "Most High," then sang six more: "Gracious Mama Africa," "Woe," "Law For The Outlaw," "Slew Dem," "Fya" and then encored with "Justice."

During Dezarie's finale, Vaughn came out and began playing the bongos. What a sight! He truly has the most captivating presence I've seen in years. You can barely take your eyes off of him. He's that intense. He continued on the bongos as the MC introduced Midnite at just after 5 a.m. with Ron kicking things off with the lead vocals on "New Life" from their outstanding release, 'Seek Knowledge Before Vengeance.' I was once again completely mesmerized by this band. Vaughn then took over lead vocals and, sounding as strong as ever, ran through incredible versions of "Bushman," "Bless," "Grapes Of Wrath/Merciless," "Batter Ram Sound" and "Late Night Ghetto."

During these songs, Bob Marley's lyrics from "Trenchtown Rock" really hit home. As my legs and back were really tiring, I was into the music so much that it definitely was true: "when it hits, you feel no pain." The music hit and it was truly healing.

All of a sudden, after "Late Night Ghetto," Ron said that "we have a flight to catch at 6 o'clock" (they had to fly all day to somehow play at the Monterey Bay Reggae Festival that evening). With that announcement, I was stunned. They rocked out on "Ras For A Reason," then flew through three songs, "Love The Life You Live," "Due Reward" and "Mama Africa," in about four minutes, having to halt things in the middle of the last tune. They obviously wanted to continue, but couldn't. It was quite a deflating ending.

Even though it was a major disappointment that they ended so abruptly, Midnite still proved to me that they are the hottest reggae band on the planet. As was previously mentioned, the musicians are outstanding, but when Vaughn takes over lead vocals he just takes it to the next level. He's as original as anyone's ever been, has some of the most incredible lyrics you'll ever hear and truly has one of the coolest voices of all time. If you ever have the chance to witness them live, do not miss it. You won't be sorry.

Although this initial event was marred by some problems, it was still a great idea. It was disappointing that a few of the scheduled artists didn't perform (most notably Sabbattical Ahdah and Apostle). In fact, the line-up didn't really do justice to the truly outstanding talent that's found on the V.I., with artists such as Junior Daniel and Yah Shiloh I not even on the bill.

For the most part, though, it was a fantastic time. There are plans - as was mentioned before - to make this an annual event on the Sunday before Labor Day. And it could easily happen, as there are more than enough talented artists to represent the area. When they eventually get everything ironed out, the "V.I. Reggae Fest" is guaranteed to be one of the brightest reggae showcases anywhere in the world.

At the present time, however, the roots reggae scene on St. Croix is still in its infancy. If you plan on going to the island, remember it's fairly quiet, charming and quaint. Right now it's more of a recording scene than a live one. But if things progress as they are now - and more bands and venues appear - keep your eyes and ears open. St. Croix may just become, in a few short years, the roots reggae capital of the world.

Check out Skank Records. Crucial cds available...SKANK RECORDS

Midnite's home page...MIDNITE

I Grade Records' home page: I GRADE

Mt. Nebo's home page: MT. NEBO

Sound V.I.Zion's homepage: SOUND V.I.ZION