Yellowman was born Winston Foster in Negril, Jamaica, in 1959 (some accounts say 1956). An early target for abuse because of his albinism, he grew up in an institution in Kingston, with little to keep him company besides music. Influenced by early toasting DJs like U-Roy, he practiced rhyming and got a job with the Gemini Sound System as a substitute DJ, christening himself Yellowman and dressing in a bright yellow suit. In 1979, he won a landslide victory at the well-known Tastee Talent Contest, and within months he had become one of Jamaica’s top concert draws.
Yellowman recorded prolifically in the early ’80s, at one point flooding the Jamaican market with more than 40 singles. Despite this success, Yellowman didn’t truly hit his stride on record until he hooked up with groundbreaking dancehall producer Henry “Junjo” Lawes. The 1982 LP Mister Yellowman kicked off their collaboration; released internationally by Greensleeves, it started to break him in the U.K. and U.S., and is still often acclaimed as his best album. It also launched a series of Jamaican hit singles over the next few years that included “Yellowman Getting Married” (a rewrite of the My Fair Lady number “I’m Getting Married in the Morning”), “Mr. Chin,” “Who Can Make the Dance Ram” (a rewrite of “The Candy Man”), “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng” (sampled by several hip-hop acts), “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” “Soldier Take Over,” “Nobody Move Nobody Get Hurt,” and “Wreck a Pum Pum,” among others. Many of his recordings during this era featured vocal contributions from fellow DJ/toaster Fathead, whose specialty was punctuating lines with animal noises (“ribbit” and “oink” were his favorites).
Yellowman’s recording career continued apace. His popularity had slipped after 1985, due in part to less consistent material, and also in part to the emergence of a legion of new dancehall artists, many of whom harked back to his early material for inspiration. Things changed, however, after an early-’90s bout with skin cancer. Greatly shaken after this second life-threatening illness, Yellowman completely rethought his approach to music, and thereafter devoted himself almost exclusively to spiritual and social concerns. 1994’s Prayer album (still on Ras) was the first effort in this new direction, and it was followed quickly by Message to the World in 1995. 1997’s Freedom of Speech continued in a similar vein, after which Yellowman switched over to the Artists Only label. His first effort was 1999’s Yellow Fever, which concentrated on conscious reggae but also featured some good-natured party tracks. Following the 2003 release of New York, Yellowman entered a lengthy recording hiatus, though he continued to perform live.
In 2019, 16 years after his last album, he returned with No More War. The LP was the inaugural release on Yellow Baby Records, a label launched by Yellowman’s daughter K’reema, with whom he also collaborates.