Exclusive Interview: Aswad
When you think of reggae music in the UK, you think of Aswad; a band akin with black culture. Aswad connected to audiences by creating an identity for youths in England whose parents had come from the Caribbean. Their most famous record to date Don’t Turn Around shot to number 1 in the UK and New Zealand in 1988. Set to perform at this year’s MVISA’s, Jsky chats exclusively to band member Tony Robinson.
How does it feel to be performing at the 8th Annual MVSIA Award Show?
Anytime we get to perform we’re happy. That’s what we do; that’s the path we decided to take in life. For us, no matter where we are it’s a joy. Being at the 8th Annual MVISA’s will be a pleasure.
The name Aswad means “black” in Arabic. How important is the name Aswad in terms of what you stand for musically and the message you want to put out there?
When we started out in England there wasn’t really anything that identified with us as black youths with parents that had come from the West Indies and Africa. Playing reggae music, which wasn’t the most economic and viable music to play, was us doing something that we loved…something that our parents had come over with, and something that we had picked up.
The name Aswad, meaning black, meant a lot. We were talking about life from our point of view as black youths growing up in England. And even though we are black, there other nations that can relate to it too. Even though the name came from a black point of view, it was meant for everybody.
Aswad have enjoyed long term success. My parents were huge fans and I’ve grown up listening to your music. What has been some of your personal highlights?
There are quite a few highlights. One of them that stands out is Aswad going to number one as a reggae band, just because we got to prove that reggae music in England was just as viable as any other music that was out there being played. Also, playing at Wembley Stadium for Nelson Mandela, meeting Bob Marley, playing with Bunny Wailer…
Don’t Turn Around was a huge hit and is still largely played today. What is your favourite song to perform live though?
For me personally I’m going to go back to a tune called Warrior Child. It was made for a film called Babylon; an English film that talked about sound systems and things from the early days and life in general. It was an instrumental so there were no vocals on it. In those early times people were saying that reggae music couldn’t be made outside of Jamaica, or outside of the West Indies. We had to break that barrier to say that reggae music could be made here in England. I think that Warrior Child was one of the first records that really helped our music to be respected and classed as the same as what was coming out of the West Indies. When people heard it, they didn’t know it came from England and because there we no vocals on it no one could recognise it as being from Aswad. People thought it was a tune that came from the West Indies or from Jamaica. It wasn’t until we released the song and put our name on it that people realised it was a tune that was made in England.
Would you say that there is room for reggae act like Aswad in the charts today?
There’s room for any reggae band or any reggae artist in the charts today. We don’t class it as being exclusive to us. Even before Aswad there were reggae chart hits. Reggae tunes like The Liquidator, and [sings] “To be young, gifted and black…” were pop hits. There’s been reggae hits. You’ve got artists like Johnny Nash, and I remember when Janet Kay went into the charts. There was Trevor Walters who did a cover of a Lionel Richie track that we actually made with him, and that went into the charts too. Not forgetting Musical Youth who regularly made chart hits. So yeah…there’s room. There’s nuff room! As far as we’re concerned a lot of the music that’s on the street right now has a backbone that is taken from reggae music. You can’t talk about drum and bass and not think about reggae music; that’s where it comes from, even the term drum and bass. As the generations have gone on they have taken reggae music and added different flavours to it. If we look back on the history of the music it has always gone through changes. It has never been the same thing constantly. There’s room for everybody.
What do you think of music today? What new artists are you fans of?
When you look at the charts now there are completely new names and that just shows how far we’ve come in time. There are artists like Busy Signal, Damien Marley, and all the rest of The Marleys…they’re the next generation of the music. You don’t hear about Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Culture or Burning Spear. The next generation has come and the next generation is out there working and touring the same way we do. It’s good to see, but not to discount the older music because that’s where the root of the music is. But yeah, personally I like Busy Signal. I like his attitude and I like most of The Marleys. They’re trying to push the music in a direction that we all still love. When we were new that’s what we were trying to do. We were trying to push the boundaries too, which is why we started using different forms of instruments. It’s great because when new people come, new ideas come and that’s what keeps the music fresh.
What advice would you give to a new artist that wants to emulate the success that Aswad has received over the years?
Well when we look at the business now compared to when we started out, it’s a completely different thing. The aims are the same it’s just how you get there is a completely different angle. There are different roads to take. In our day there was no Facebook and there was no Twitter. There was no online and there was no iTunes. There was none of that. It was all down to record companies and managers. Before you get on the road these days people want to know how many Facebook hits you’ve got. That’s a completely different direction for us and something that we’re trying to get used to now. The streams of how to get out there are actually a lot easier now. Someone could put something up on YouTube and that goes out to the world. In our day, unless someone had a lot of money to do the promotion and put up posters on the street and the rest of it, people wouldn’t know about you. These days you don’t even have to be heard on the radio because there’s the Internet. The youth of today have their eyes in a computer screen whereas we were walking out on the street. As far as new artists go, they just need to exploit the new media that’s out there. The reason why we’re still here after all these years is because we started off doing something that we loved. We didn’t start it to make money. It was something that we had a passion for and something that we enjoyed doing. Even now it’s something that we still enjoy doing, and we still get a joy out of going to the studio and trying to create something new. We still get a joy out of going on stage and playing live. That’s what’s kept us going.