Levi Williams no longer has dreadlocks. This is not a random observation. It is not a simple comment on his physical appearance, either. It is a statement about where this tall, powerfully voiced reggae singer is in his life right now. Because for him, the scalp is a direct line to the soul. And in recent months, his soul has needed a cleansing.
“My lifestyle was not lining up with what I was looking like,” explains Levi, who prefers to be called by his first name only. (He considers Williams to be a “slave name.”) He is sitting on the balcony of Barnes & Noble in Ventura, the top of his newly shorn head concealed beneath a brown fedora, sipping an iced tea as he recalls the cycle of struggle and redemption that has so far defined his time on earth. When he committed himself to growing out his natty tentacles years ago, it wasn’t for fashion or because he thought it would help his “career” or any kind of aesthetic purpose. He was making a vow — a promise to walk a path of righteousness as steadily as any human being could be expected to. “At a point I found myself veering off the path,” he says, “so I had to shed the locks.”
He is quick to point out, however, that the decision to cut his hair was not an admission of defeat or an abandonment of the Rastafarian principals he adopted as a teenager. It was, he says, a way to wipe the slate clean; to start over. The mistakes of his past had burrowed into his follicles. His dreadlocks, then, became anchors filled with negative energy. By removing them, Levi felt a weight had been lifted off him, both physically and spiritually.
“I can’t be held prisoner to my own past,” he says.
And therein lies the main concept behind Rising Son, the group Levi has fronted since 2001 — the idea of transcending the pain, suffering and misfortune that defines humanity and moving along down the road toward self-actualization. A significant mile-marker on Levi’s own highway is not just beneath his hat but on the table in front of him: Take Root, the band’s first album, some five years in the making. It is a collection of forceful, strikingly authentic roots reggae, driven by the solid groove of the supporting musicians and fueled by the indelible passion of its singer. The disc is comprised mostly of songs written by Levi when he was 15 and 16 years old, but the themes are not marked with a timestamp.
“Ultimately, it’s positive, but it’s also reflective of reality, which involves not necessarily negativity, but struggle,” Levi says. “It reflects that a lot.”
Levi has known struggle for much of his existence. He was born in Los Angeles, but at the age of 5, after his parents divorced, he and his mother moved to Hawaii. At first, they lived in a van on the beaches of Maui, supported by the generosity of the locals. Eventually, they moved into a small studio apartment. With his mother both working and going to college, Levi found himself alone for much of his childhood. Music became his closest companion. “I had a boombox and a guitar, and that’s what I used to make some of my first recordings,” he says. “I tripped out on the stuff that came out. It was like there was this whole other entity doing it, and I was just a vessel bringing it forth.”
Despite his burgeoning creativity, by the time he reached adolescence, the independence he developed as a result of growing up a latchkey kid had led Levi to start running with a “bad crowd.” He seemed to be heading for disaster, so his mother, unable to discipline him, sent him to live with his father. In Los Angeles, though, the pull toward crime and self-destructive behavior was even greater. Plus, Levi discovered he had little connection to his father and, thus, little respect for his authority. “He expected certain things from me that I was not willing to do,” he says. “I was not interested in sports and I was not really into making money.” He began hanging around his cousins, who had ties to the Crip street gang, and within two years wound up in a juvenile detention facility. His dad bailed him out, but he had reached the end of his patience. He handed Levi “a banana and a plane ticket,” and sent him on his way back across the Pacific.
The experience in juvenile hall marked a turning point in Levi’s life. On the flight to Oahu, where his mother had relocated, he listened to a set of reggae mix tapes a friend had given him prior to leaving the island. It affected him immediately. “The rhythm was just pulsating, and there was something really deep behind it. I started to think outside the box.” Levi stepped off the plane wearing the Dickies and blue bandana he sported while running wild in the streets of L.A., but his mind had already undergone a change. He stopped drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and eating meat and began reading about Africa and Haile Selassie I, the Ethiopian emperor regarded amongst Rastafarians as the living incarnation of God. A few months after returning to Hawaii, he went on sabbatical in the mountains around the North Shore, with nothing but a Bible, a tent and a 1969 Valiant he drove around in during the day, blasting reggae from its stereo. There, in the wilderness, is where he made his full spiritual conversion. “It was like I was wearing a blindfold half my life and it just got removed.”
Two months later, Levi returned to civilization, determined to share his awakening with his friends and try to convince them to take off their own blindfolds. Some refused to listen. Others, however, took heed, and turned away from the activities that could have ultimately destroyed them. “Once I saw that I was having a positive effect on people,” Levi says, “I was hooked.” He knew then that music was more youthful entertainment; it was his calling.
Levi spent the next two years jamming with different musicians on the island. But after a while, he felt compelled to see more of the world, to go to a place where “you can go thousands of miles without hitting the ocean.” He came to California once again, but his plans to travel became bogged down by the grind of making ends meet. He did manage to record some solo demos and network with artists such as HR of legendary punk-reggae mavericks Bad Brains, but he could not get a solid band together. Perhaps as backup plan, he enrolled at UCLA, hoping to earn his teaching credentials. He wanted to teach African history, to correct the “lies” he believes he was taught in school.
“There are all these glorious things in Africa people never told me about. There’s more than starving and suffering in Ethiopia,” he says. “Through propaganda, they have destroyed some of these things … When I saw what they had done to Ethiopia, I took it as a call to action. There has been a global degradation of African people all over.”
Once he learned that he was going to be a father, however, his priorities shifted. He left the university to work full-time and, knowing first-hand that Los Angeles is no place to raise a daughter, moved with his then-girlfriend to the relatively safer environment of Oxnard. There, the pieces of what would become Rising Son gradually fell into place through a series of chance meetings: Levi ran into guitarist Teknique, whom he had met earlier through a mutual acquaintance, on the street; bassist Benji was spotted at the beach; and drummer Ezra Robinson became a permanent member after filling in behind the kit at an early gig. The group gelled quickly and landed a succession of coveted gigs opening for reggae icons such as Culture and Michael Rose, with Levi proving to be a fiery live performer.
Still, it would be three years before Levi would commit his songs to record. During that time, Rising Son migrated between several studios, but were never able to hit the mark before their finances ran dry. “I wanted a certain sound, and I was not hearing it,” Levi says. It seemed they’d only get a full album done without breaking their collective banks was to build their own studio. So that’s exactly what they did. By the time construction finished in summer 2004, the band was so familiar with the material, the actual recording process lasted only a month (getting the artwork and the packaging together, on the other hand, took another two years). “The music is representative of that do-it-yourself, independent spirit of just taking action,” Levi says. “Take Root is about planting the seeds that you have. The whole earth is the soil.”
Meanwhile, as the band prepared to release the album and continued to play live, the personal tribulations that plagued Levi earlier in his life began to reappear. Those struggles remain raw enough today that he is not yet prepared to discuss them publicly. But having disposed of his most recent set of dreadlocks, he is ready to begin anew. Refreshed and revitalized, Levi is now going about the business of promoting #Take Root#, although “business” is probably the last thing he wants to think about. At the same time, he realizes that he must make his music available to the widest possible audience in order to accomplish what he feels he was put here to do: inspire.
“I want to write music that could help somebody make a change,” he says. “If I’m just playing it around the house and no one was hearing it, I couldn’t make a difference. That became a burden on my mind. Not releasing these ideas I had for years, I felt I was going to explode. To see people singing the words of the songs, it feels worthwhile.”
“People have the power to make a difference for ourselves. If we can start with ourselves, we can realize how much power we really have. With this release, I can see that power does exist. And I want it to multiply.”