At first Devon Brown doesn't attract much attention, standing in a dark corner of the Exedus II reggae club softly talking to musicians, a red cap pulled over his boyish face. But as he steps into the light, you notice his diamond earrings and chunky gold bracelet with letters spelling "Devon." Then he jumps onstage, dreadlocks flying, legs swinging, and voice soaring.
"People say, "Oh, he's crazy! Look at him jump on the wall!"' Brown says. "They ask me what I smoke, but I don't have to smoke or drink anything. What I do is natural."
What Brown calls "natural" is a dizzying stage performance that often includes acrobatic dancing and reggae ballads, dancehall tunes, and pop hits. His stage show has earned him the nickname "Fire Dread."
Brown can effortlessly croon Bob Marley's mellow "Three Little Birds" and stop mid-verse to hammer out a dancehall cut, then switch to a pop classic like "Some Guys Have All the Luck" a minute later.
But Brown says his shyness used to hold him back. "I couldn't wait to get offstage because it was so scary for me."
Growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, he sang bass in his family's church group, the Brown Brothers. His parents didn't allow him to listen to reggae or to watch TV or movies. He could listen to some American music, singers like Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, and Teddy Pendergrass, whose sweet singing style later influenced Brown's delivery. As a teenager, he started to sneak out of the house to hear the reggae played on public sound systems, a commonplace in Jamaica. Soon he started spinning records and rapping as a DJ. "One day I was on the sound system, and my parents heard my voice," Brown says. "I got beat that day, but that's how I knew I had a different voice. Everybody knew it was Devon."
In 1985, when he was 19, Brown moved to Chicago to live with his cousins and study music at Olive-Harvey College, but he got sidetracked by the burgeoning reggae scene. "My first show was at the Negril nightclub on Broadway," he says. "I sang "Too Experienced to Be Taken for a Ride.' I was perspiring. I just wanna get off that stage."
He gradually overcame his stage fright and developed a strong following on the local reggae circuit. But he still wasn't satisfied. "I used to sing and people say, "Devon, you got a beautiful voice.' But I never hear, "I love your performance, you got a beautiful show."' Brown's friend and sometime songwriter, Donnie Johnson, showed him how to model his stage persona after rock 'n' roll acts. "He was like my coach," Brown says. "He showed me how to talk to the audience, how to jump in the crowd. Now it's natural."
Since 1988 Brown has opened for such reggae stars as Third World, Burning Spear, Shabba Ranks, Yellowman, and Jimmy Cliff. He's done some commercials--one for Anheuser-Busch in the U.S. and another for Bubble Up soda in Jamaica. He's won Chicago Reggae Music Awards for best entertainer, best male vocalist, and best song.
He's started to tour with other acts and has won a lot of fans in Colorado, where Johnson moved recently. Locally, Brown plays at least once a week, backed by the band Indika. Though he's often considered a dancehall singer, he objects to being labeled. "I don't call myself a dancehall singer," he says. "I'm too versatile. I do house, R & B, jazz, blues. The sky's the limit for me."
Devon Brown and Indika play at 10:30 Monday and Wednesday at Exedus II, 3477 N. Clark. There's no cover Monday, but Wednesday's show costs $5. Call 348-3998 for more.