Words by Genice Phillips
A thunderstorm was brewing on a humid July night in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Despite the impending storm, I made my way to one of the oceanfront’s music hotspots, Shaka’s Live, to interview Adwela and the Uprising, an up-and-coming reggae band.
Although reggae music might not register as a likely source of Virginian culture and history, it’s been steadily growing around the Commonwealth for over 40 years. And with the recent success of the reggae group, SOJA (a native DC/Virginia band), the industry is making space for a crop of new bands. Adwela & the Uprising may be next in line.
They’re a young, 7-piece band that assembled in 2014 after frontman and lead vocalist, Adwela Dawes, performed in a hometown talent show in Culpeper, three hours north of VA Beach.
“I wasn’t even in music [career-wise],” Adwela shared. “I was coaching football professionally and a friend of mine dared me to be in the local talent show. Me and my rhythm guitarist at the time, linked up and did an open mic. I wasn’t really expecting anything, but we got through the first round, and made it to the semifinals.”
Over 700 people would attend the show. Although Adwela and his guitarist, Alex, didn’t win or place, attendees were supportive, and bestowed them the title of “Fan Favorite”. Many called Adwela afterward to ask about doing more performances.
“I thought that was it. Let me go back to coaching football. But the crowd response was more than what I thought it was. I realized I had to take this seriously.”
Almost 3 years later and Adwela & the Uprising are steadily attracting audiences across the U.S., and contributing to a thriving reggae scene in Virginia. They proudly identify themselves as “Reggae Ambassadors,” a nod to the legendary Jamaican reggae band, Third World, one of their biggest musical influences.
Samanah “Keysie” Brown, keyboardist of the Uprising and one of the longest tenured members, sharpened his piano skills under the tutelage of Third World founding member, Michael “Ibo” Cooper, while attending Edna Manley College, a visual and performing arts school in Kingston, Jamaica.
“[Ibo] was my piano teacher. I studied under him,” said Brown. “I did music in general, so it wasn’t just reggae. All genres of music we had to know.”
In 2015, the Uprising opened for Third World and the Wailers, a proud moment for the young band. Adwela acclaims Brown’s musical ear and the significance of Third World to the Uprising’s distinctive sound, which bridges traditional roots reggae with funk, R&B, ska, and gospel.
“We really owe a lot of it to Keysie [Brown], and Third World is one of our influences by default, just because he’s [Brown] been taught by Third World,” Adwela explained. “If you look at the root and take the keys out of it, it’s [our music] still has that hard, gritty, roots rock reggae. But it’s a range. If you hear our finished product, with keys layered, it’s a range, it’s composed, it’s orchestra behind everything. It’s a different kind of sound, but the root is still the same. We don’t want to stray away from that.”
Songs they’re known to perform on the tour circuit, such as “Warrior” and “Shackles and Bondage”, affirms their foundation in the roots reggae genre and aligns with the tradition of socially-minded messages. Considerably, their message is deliberate. Economic and social concerns are answered with lyrical declarations of resilience and mental liberation. Their musical nerve is reflective of their band name, and their ethos – using words as weapons against injustice – is branded in the image of a shackled brown fist springing from the ground, holding a lion-headed scepter with a Pan-African flag (in the colors of red, gold, and green) splashed as the backdrop.
“[Uprising] That’s my favorite Bob [Marley] album and that’s the band really,” explained Adwela. “You look around the world, especially the Western Hemisphere, slave revolts, and people who overthrew corruption and injustice, it started with one person or a small group of people. It started with disobeying a law or system. Nat Turner [rebellion] and Haiti, happened with one person saying this is enough and overthrew a system that was not right and not just. The same thing is with our music. We can be very forceful at times, but we ain’t hurt a soul yet.”
As part of the millennial generation of roots reggae, the Uprising wants to be purposeful and make vital music with a unique sound, but they also understand their role as contemporary artists, collated with their reggae predecessors who have garnered legendary status.
“The foundation of reggae is the reason we are here. This is a gift to us. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, but to take the torch and write our chapter in the book,” said Adwela.
A strong fan following and support from Virginia’s reggae community has been the response to their musical presence and vision. In the span of 2 years, they’ve played in every major city across the U.S., and are considering a Caribbean tour in the future. Rockei Henry, co-vocalist and one of the initial members of the Uprising, credits their accomplishment to home support.
“We consider VA our home and we’re appreciative of the support here of the [reggae] movement,” expressed Rockei. “We wouldn’t have been able to go to the West Coast [on tour]. All of that is funded by the stuff we do here [in VA]. So we’re eternally gratefully.”
As they continue to perform around the country and build their fan base, they hope their sound and message will continue to uplift and resonate with a new generation of listeners and those that already enjoy reggae music.
“We want to lay the groundwork so people can get a taste of our sound. It’s the “tree falls in the forest” adage,” said Adwela. “Everything we create, we have a message in the music. So we’re trying to make a little noise so people can take notice of what we’re trying to do.”
Unfortunately for me and the many fans who had concert tickets, the storm caused a power outage and cancellation. Adwela & the Uprising has since returned to Shaka’s Live and performed to large crowds (with the power on).
Their debut album, The Road Less Traveled, was released February 3. To purchase, visit their Contact Us page.