By Peter Vankevich
For years, islanders have seen – and many have gotten to know — a constantly smiling, charming person of a stunning appearance: trim, about 5’6,” dark-skinned with a thick mound of wrapped dreadlocks.
He walks around shirtless and in flip flops and sports just a pair of short shorts.
He is Lister Hewan-Lowe and he is a native of Kingston, Jamaica.
Lister learned of Ocracoke many years ago from his sister Karlene, a pathologist in Greenville, who encouraged him to visit the island, and he immediately fell in love with it.
“The first thing I want to do when I arrive is to head to the beach,” he said.
He is also one of a few responsible for making Jamaican artists, such as Bob Marley, and reggae music part of America’s mainstream.
Lister emigrated as a teenager with his mother and sister in 1968, residing in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. When he arrived, he brought his love of Jamaican music and a mission to popularize reggae music in his new country.
He had his work cut out. Even in the music business, people had not heard this music. He pitched a reggae music program to several New York area radio stations and never got a response.
His first big break came after enrolling at Stony Brook University on Long Island. There he pioneered the genre with a music show on the university’s radio station WUSB, 90.1 FM (the same frequency as Ocracoke’s community radio station, WOVV).
After all these years, his 1 p.m. “Saturday’s a Party” is the world’s longest-running reggae radio show.
He also has weekly reggae shows on WBAI and upstate New York on WTBQ, an independent commercial radio station.
Reggae music became popular in Jamaica in the late 1960s.
A single in 1968 by Toots and the Maytals, “Do the Reggay,” was the first popular song to use the word “reggae,” effectively naming the genre and introducing it to a global audience.
The origins of the word are unclear, but according to Lister “reggae” comes from the Jamaican patois word “straggae” which means a slacker, someone rude or loose.
Reggae is strongly identified with Rastafarianism, a religion that developed in Jamaica during the 1930s, and its ritual of smoking ganja, a term derived from the ancient Sanskrit language for marijuana.
This is in large part due to Bob Marley, its spiritual icon whose album “Rasta Vibrations,” released in 1978, was a major hit.
Lister’s relentless efforts to promote reggae eventually caught the attention of the record industry, especially after the 1972 movie “The Harder They Come,” starring Jimmy Cliff and with a reggae soundtrack, became a huge hit.
One day while promoting a reggae concert, Lister had a chance meeting in an elevator in Carnegie Hall with Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, considered to be one of Britain’s great independent labels. The label was already beginning to promote reggae, having already signed Bob Marley and the Wailers.
“When Blackwell heard my name, he said, ‘Wait a minute, are you Lister? Are you the Lister I’ve been hearing about for years and years? Everybody in Jamaica and England says you got to get hold of this guy, to make your records happen because all they’re doing in New York and in America is pirating your records.’”
By the time they reached the ground floor, Blackwell had offered Lister a job at Island Records.
So, after four years at Stony Brook and 12 credits short of a degree in applied mathematics, Lister left the university but continued doing his radio show.
Responsibilities at Island Records included doing PR for many of the Jamaican artists that included Marley, Max Romeo, the late Lee Scratch Perry, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru and Steele Pulse. He also helped promote Grace Jones, U2, Marianne Faithful, the Chieftains and Robert Palmer.
After several years, he left Island Records to form his own indie record label in 1980 called Clappers Records. He released the first political hip hop song in 1980 — Brother D’s with Collective Effort “How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?”
Long out of production, many of the albums from the Clappers label are today sought after by many record collectors.
Lister lectures on the history and cultural impact of reggae music.
To say he has strong feelings about reggae music and how it is marketed to the mainstream would be an understatement.
“The whole concept of reggae music is about struggle and oppression,” he said. “It became the voice of the voiceless. It had absolutely nothing to do with religion. That whole religious stuff came later that they interjected into it.”
To Lister, reggae is international music.
“It’s not a nationalist music,” he said. “The people invented this music had the concept that this music is for the whole universe, and it goes beyond color borders and so forth because the concept is that there are no more borders. There’s just the universe and all humans are from the continent of Africa.”
Aside from his radio shows, he is mostly retired, though he continues to advise artists on an informal basis.
Lister has many friends, including those on Ocracoke.
“Every year, I look forward to seeing Lister,” said Elizabeth Dyer, who works at the Fish House. “He is so caring and always wants to know how I have been and what books I have been reading.”
Among his famous friends are Sinead O’Connor, Eric Clapton and Grace Jones.
It was natural for him to visit the WOVV studio on Back Road, and he watched a live news show on his most recent visit. A few years ago, he was a guest on Tommy Hutcherson’s Rockin’ Radio show.
“Ocracoke is special to me,” Lister said. “It gives me a peace of mind and a sense of freedom. It is the closest to being in Jamaica in 1960 and has real island people.”