IT SEEMS LIKE anyone who has a hit single these days is invited -- even required -- to spout their political opinions in print interviews and on talk shows. This sort of thing leads to the likes of Debbie Gibson proferring her views on foreign policy, and Vanilla Ice holding forth on race relations. Eeek.
Of course, there are some pop musicians who have something to say, and the experience to back it up. For nearly two decades, the veteran reggae trio Israel Vibration, for example, has been singing and living its beliefs. On albums such as "Strength of My Life," and their most recent offering, "Praises," spirituality and politics and music are inextricably combined.
The group's three members proclaim themselves "torchbearers of Bob Marley's musical and spiritual legacy." Quite a claim, but in this case, not one idly made. So it's fitting that they are performing -- backed by Jamaica's Roots Radics band -- in the third annual birthday tribute to the late reggae superstar Sunday at Kilimanjaro. Marley, born Feb. 6, 1945, died in May 1981. The event will also commemorate the first anniversary of the release of anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela.
A harmony trio in the spirit of the Wailers and the Heptones, the Israel vibe is roots reggae -- what they call "culture music" -- a politically and socially conscious and conscientious form of reggae, raw yet still sweet. In town earlier this week, Israel Vibration was putting finishing touches on its next album called "Forever," the group's third album with D.C.-based RAS (for Real Authentic Sound) Records, to be released in June.
Though the singers and their families moved from native Kingston, Jamaica, to New York in the early '80s, they do all their recording at Washington's Lion and Fox Studios, which producer/manager Gary Himelfarb (a k a Dr. Dread), who reunited the trio after 10 years of solo projects and relative obscurity, says has "a very similar sound to the studios in Kingston, there's just a vibe about it."
The three Vibes -- Cecil Spence (nicknamed Skelly), Albert Craig (a k a Apple) and Lacelle Bulgin (Wiss) -- have been friends "from little baby days," says Apple, who's been elected spokesman, because he's the most talkative of the bunch. "We had polio when we was little babies, and it leave us disabled. Because we realized ourself as Rastafarians and became open with it and lived that way, we was rejected from the institution that we were in. And so we end up in the bush, and suffer for months and years, have to struggle hard. But nothing wrong with me. We're healthy and fit other than that! We don't move exactly in every form like able-bodied person, but we can get around."
Ten years after Marley's death, Israel Vibration maintains a deep connection to the man's message and music. "Yeah, Bob Marley is I and I," Apple says, using a common Rasta expression meaning at once "I and God," and "we, rather than a selfish me."
"He was a musical prophet, and through the music he is still right here with I and I, you know, like he don't gone," Apple says, noting that he and his compatriots see themselves as continuing down Marley's righteous path.
While the charismatic Marley commanded the international spotlight, Rasta culture, music and philosophy were broadcast to the world as one of Jamaica's major exports. But Apple says that in the years after Marley's death, Jamaica's conservative powers-that-be gradually returned less disturbing forms of reggae music -- what Apple dismissively calls "dibby-dibby music" or "slackness" -- to dominance on the country's airwaves.
"We couldn't do well with music in Jamaica because we get a fight down there from the system and the society," Apple says. "And after a while it did get so bad that our music wasn't even playing on the radio hardly, like once every six month you hear one song off the album. It was just shut out."
Their career at a standstill, Israel Vibration decided to move to the United States.
"Here, more people can find the time to listen to culture music," Apple says. "In Jamaica, life and system so hard that people can hardly find the time to listen culture music. Then they play the dibby-dibby music so long for so many years now that it becomes part of the people that they don't want to hear nothin' else but the dibby. And it's some kind of wrong thing going on down there with the people. They're playing with the people's spirit."
Apple says he is encouraged by the response from his new American audience.
"People really looking for the right thing," he says. "And that's really something to admire in a culture like America, where it's full of so much fantasy and things -- there are thousands of people still out there looking for the right thing. All the fantasy and things like that don't really change them. In other words, live with the system, and live with what's happening, but deep in them spirit and mind, them looking for the right thing. And when they hear it, they respect it and will it."