“African Sounds”: UB40’s reggae-based anthem for a free South Africa, “Sing Our Own Song”

By on October 9, 2018

Like just about everyone else, we were a little surprised to hear UB40’s name in the news again, decades after the band’s prime, but it sent us back to the archives again for another look and listen to our “African Sounds” episode, which featured their rhythmically-persuasive reggae-based anthem for a free South Africa, “Sing Our Own Song.”

Watch this specially-curated musical safari over on Night Flight Plus.

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“If you’re familiar with UB40, you be at least forty,” quipped CBS late night talk show host Stephen Colbert after the news broke, then he added:

“UB40! Nothing could be more stereotypically college in the 1980s. What’s next? Kavanaugh teamed up with James Spader to steal Molly Ringwald’s underwear and throw it into the pool where Phoebe Cates is sunbathing while John Cusack holds up a boom box over his head screaming ‘I want my MTV!’?”

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If you haven’t been paying attention to the news headlines lately, it was recently revealed that newly-sworn in supreme court associate justice and sexually-assaulting prep-schooled frat boy liar Brett (“I like beer”) Kavanaugh — according to reporting by the thriving New York Times — was involved in a 1985 bar fight when he was a junior at Yale University.

The decades-old altercation was brought to light by Chad Ludington, one of Kavanaugh’s classmates at Yale, who says the fight took place after a UB40 concert when Kavanaugh and his drunken pals were attempting to discern whether another person at the bar was UB40 singer Ali Campbell.

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“Sing Our Own Song,” UB40’s 1986 single — the ninth and final track on their sixth studio album, Rat in the Kitchen — was an anti-apartheid song that charted eight years before the end of nearly five decades of racial segregation in South Africa (where the song was censored heavily).

The lyrics — “We will fight for the right to be free, and we will build our own society” and “Forward Africa run our day of freedom has come, for me and for you, Amandla Awethu” – feature the Zulu-language words meaning “power is ours,” which was the African National Congress’s rallying cry.

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The protest song reached #5 on the UK’s single charts (where it remained for nine weeks), and actually scored the band a #1 hit on the Dutch charts the same year it was released.

Read more about UB40 below.

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UB40 — whose name comes from Unemployment Benefit, Form 40, issued to people claiming unemployment benefits from the UK government’s Department of Employment — are a multi-racial band from Birmingham, England, forming in 1978. Their membership hailed from English, Scottish, Irish, Yemeni and Jamaican parentage.

Over the next ten years the band worked tirelessly to promote reggae and ska music because of their love and respect for those two genres, charting more than fifty singles in the UK over their long career.

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The original lineup — brothers Robin (lead vocals/guitar) and Ali Campbell (lead vocals/guitar), Earl Falconer (bass/vocals), Michael Virtue (keyboards), Brian Travers (saxophone), James Brown (drums), and Norman Hassan (percussion/vocals) — were originally joined by reggae toaster “Astro” (Terence Wilson) to record two tracks, “Food for Thought” and the Martin Luther King tribute “King,” for their UK Top Five debut single in March of 1980.

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The band’s debut album, Signing Off, followed, helping to build a loyal British following among fans of the 2-Tone/ska music scene.

Before long the band were forming their own label, DEP International, releasing “One in Ten,” a protest song about unemployment which landed them once again on the charts, in the UK Top Ten.

Their next album, Labour of Love, comprised of cover songs, was a more mainstream effort, and gave them their first #1 hit song, a cover of Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine,” in 1983 (the song had charted as a reggae hit for Tony Tribe in 1969).

The album also featured covers of songs by Jimmy Cliff, Winston Groovy, and Eric Donaldson.

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Their next album, Geffrey Morgan…, was a UK #3 charting hit, and gave them yet another Top Ten single, “If It Happens Again,” which they followed up with a duet cover (with Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders) of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.”

UB40 & Chrissie Hynde followed this hit up again in ’88 with a revival of Lorna Bennett’s 1969 reggae hit “Breakfast in Bed” (#6 UK, 1988) which along with the #3 hit “Don’t Break My Heart,” was featured on 1985’s Baggariddim feature film.

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The same year that our African Sounds” episode aired (on December 9, 1988), UB40 had performed “Red Red Wine” at the 1988 Nelson Mandela Concert at the UK’s Wembley stadium, which led to the single charting in the UK once again at the #1 spot.

Over their career, UB40 have sold over 70 million records, and they’ve been nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album four times. In 1984, they were also nominated for the Brit Award for Best British Group.

Singer Ali Campbell left the band in 2008 after thirty years fronting UB40, and he has since released four reggae-themed solo collections.

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For more UB40 on Night Flight, check out our look at the ’80s British Ska Revival videos in our “Video Vault“episode from September ’86, featuring videos by Madness, the Specials AKA, Fun Boy 3, English Beat, Bad Manners, Fine Young Cannibals and more!

African Sounds” — which also features music videos by Fela Kuti, Touré Kunda, King Sunny Adé, Juluka, Stewart Copeland of the Police, Specials AKA, Hugh Masakela, Paul Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Colin James Hay of Men at Work — is now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.