Born Winston Foster, Yellowman grew up an orphan, after being abandoned by his parents as an infant due to his albinism. Yellowman went from living in children’s homes to being renowned as one of the greatest deejays to ever grace dancehall, his story is one of the most powerful rags to riches stories in all of Jamaican music.
Born in Kingston on the 15th of January 1956, Yellowman was abandoned by his parents as an infant, growing up in children’s homes in Kingston and St Mary. Yellowman also spent time at the Alpha Boys School in Kingston, which was established in 1880 as a ‘school for wayward boys’ and has become renowned for both the effect it has on those that study there and some of the great musicians that is has produced, including obviously Yellowman, Leroy Smart, four founding members of the Skatalites and Leroy Wallace to name a few.
Yellowman was often shunned as a child due to his albinism which carried a strong stigma in Jamaica, his white skin made him standout as a child and he was often scorned by his peers.
Yellowman’s career began as substitute deejay for Gemini Sound System, influenced heavily by deejay toasters like U-Roy, Yellowman dedicated himself to rhyming. Around this time, he began using the name Yellowman going on stage in a bright yellow suit and featuring jokes about his skin colour and tales of his ludicrous sexual conquests in his act, which would later become hallmarks of the deejay.
Yellowman’s first major success as a deejay came in 1979, as he featured in the Tastee Talent Contest, he went on to finish third behind Nadine Sutherland and Paul Blake,this was all the deejay needed to launch his career and he never looked back. Due to suffering with albinism, he became some what a dancehall novelty and a favourite at sound systems around Jamaica, most prominently with Aces International in St Thomas.
In 1981, Yellowman released his first full length album ‘Them A Mad Over Me’ which was recorded at Channel One, the title track became a hit across Jamaica.
In 1981, Yellowman also had success with a slew of singles including ‘Operation Eradication’ and the controversial ‘Shorties, which was condemned by many at the time (including Peter Tosh) as being degrading towards women.
Although enjoying local success, Yellowman would not begin to hit his stride until teaming up with the groundbreaking producer Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes and his Volcano label. This collaboration was kicked off in 1982, with the legendary album ‘Mister Yellowman’, which is often credited as Yellowman’s best work, with ‘Yellowman Getting Married’, ‘Mr Chin’ and ‘Lost Mi Love’ all being standout tracks. ‘Mister Yellowman’ began to break Yellowman internationally with the album enjoying success in the US and UK.
In 1983 as Yellowman was growing in popularity he released his Zungguzungguguzungguzeng album, which cemented his reputation internationally. Leading to the deejay signing with CBS Records, becoming the one of the first dancehall artist to sign to a major American label.
The sole album released under this deal with CBS Records came in 1984 with ‘King Yellowman’, which was not as commercially successful as CBS Records had hoped, some blame this on the number of musical styles attempted by the deejay on the album, as it featured everything from his traditional slack toasts to R&B and even some pop flavoured crossovers, even including covers of ‘Sea Cruise’ and ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’. ‘King Yellowman’ was forward thinking but failed to take off with Yellowman’s core fan base. The album went on to be nominated for a Grammy in 1985 for best Reggae Album.
Around this time, Yellowman had increasing issues with his health. He was originally diagnosed with skin cancer in 1982 and was initially told that he only had three more years to live. This prognosis proved to be inaccurate and after several surgeries Yellowman was able to continue his career and the cancer appeared to go into remission.
Following his relatively unsuccessful stint at CBS Records, Yellowman began to release music on Shanachie Records, which was based in New Jersey. On Shanachie, Yellowman released 1984’s Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt, 1985’s Galong Galong Galong, 1986’s Going to the Chapel and 1987’s Don’t Burn It Down. ‘Don’t Burn It Down’ saw the deejay delving more into social consciousness, the title track being a pro-marijuana protest song, ‘Stop Beat Women’ condemned domestic violence and ‘Free Africa’ criticised apartheid.
In 1986, it was diagnosed that the cancer that was previously diagnosed as in remission had spread to Yellowman’s jaw. In order to remove a malignant tumour Yellowman underwent very invasive jaw surgery, this surgery permanently disfigured Yellowman’s face as a large portion of the left side of his jaw had to be removed in order to successfully remove the tumour.
Amazingly Yellowman returned to making music the next year beginning his comeback with a cover of ‘Blueberry Hill’ by Fats Domino.
Yellowman then moved to Ras Records and recorded ‘Yellow Like Cheese’ with Philip ‘Fatis’ Burrell, which was released later in the year and was well received by Yellowman’s fan base. Yellowman continued the social commentary which was becoming increasingly important in his music with Gaze and Budget, Yellowman also takes aim at the current crop of dancehall deejay’s on the album with ‘Na No Lyrics’ and ‘Ain’t No Meaning’.
Yellowman’s popularity at this point had begun to decline, due partially to his less consistent content but also due to the emergence of a new legion of dancehall artists. At this point Yellowman totally rethought his approach to music, and devoted himself to social concerns which had already become an increasing focus of his music.
These releases continued on Ras records with 1994’s Prayer being his first effort in this new direction, 1995’s Message to the World quickly followed and 1997’s Freedom of Speech continued this social and spiritual focus which Yellowman had now adopted.
In 1999, Yellowman moved labels once again, this time to Artists Only, releasing Yellow Fever in the same year which again focused around social and spiritual issues. Yellowman’s final two albums came in 2003 and 2005 with New York and Round 1.
In 2018, Yellowman was awarded the Order of Distinction (Officer Class) by the Jamaican Government, Yellowman’s story is one of triumph through adversity and continuing to let his talents shine and influence others. Yellowman’s versatility and rhyming ability really set him apart from his peers and placed him among the greatest deejay’s to ever grace dancehall. He should be acknowledged as not only a pioneer of dancehall but music worldwide as his music has influenced so many, being sampled by 2 Pac, Eazy-E and Kanye West to name a few, something which like many Jamaican artists Yellowman is not given enough credit for.
To here some of Yellowman’s best work, listen to the Spotify playlist below