Rasta hardliners are often slow to recognize anyone who doesn't embrace the outward trappings of the culture, especially a thirtysomething white guy closer in appearance to Peter Brady than Peter Tosh. Having been a fixture in Northeast Ohio reggae circles since the late '80s, Mann has often provoked the ire of scene diehards with his nontraditional look and sound, a pastiche of bright pop, light rock, club beats, and reggae rhythms.
"The reggae world is fickle," Mann says outside the studios of Akron radio station WAPS-FM 91.3, The Summit, where he's hosted a reggae show for the past 13 years. Dressed in black like a suburban Fonze, he talks in a deliberate drawl. "You get some people who are ignorant, who think it's supposed to be about dreadlocks or whatever. Most reggae artists today, for the last 20, 25 years, haven't sung about rasta or dreadlocks. A lot of it is love music and dancehall. It's great that some people want to be protective of that type of element, but that's not the whole scene of reggae, it really isn't."
Since 1989, Mann has self-released 15 albums. His breakthrough disc, 1999's Energy Man, sold over 20,000 copies worldwide, and he's moved another 50,000 records since then. He's had four number one hits in eight different European countries, and he recently appeared on the first-ever Peter Tosh tribute disc, alongside such reggae luminaries as Toots and the Maytalls and Big Mountain. He even has his own merchandise line, which hawks everything from lunch boxes to thongs.
Mann also acts and performs in Ask Gilby, a kids' television program produced with Akron Public Schools that's shown locally on Canton's WOAC and is spreading to markets nationwide. Mann often visits schools to speak about life as a musician.
At his shows -- he logs 200-plus gigs a year -- Mann runs sound, sets up all his own equipment, then performs for four hours a night. He prefers to play nontraditional venues, eschewing clubs for the party-hard crowds at places like Lyndhurst sports bar Scalpers and Scorchers in Lorain. Many of the venues he plays don't even have P.A.s, so Mann has to bring all the gear, establishing himself as one of the hardest-working acts in the area.
And he's been doing it since grade school. Born in Texas, Mann moved around frequently as a child, living in South Carolina for a time before his family eventually settled in Akron. He first broke into radio at age nine. "My grandfather was a preacher, and he had a radio program in West Africa and the West Indies," Mann says. "He needed a second hand, so he taught me how to operate the board.
"He would send Bibles to listeners who would request them, and they would write letters back, talking about their family and things," Mann continues. "He put me on the air to read the letter of the week. It turned into a personality thing where listeners knew me as that, and they would send me letters and tapes of music. I had no idea what it was -- and it was reggae. It just grew on me and grew on me. Through my teenage years, I purchased well over 5,000 records."
A burgeoning reggae singer, Mann began winning local talent contests in junior high while learning how to play trumpet, guitar, keys, and drums. Beginning in '91, he fronted The King ov Heartz, a local reggae-pop troupe, before getting his big break in '95, when he was asked to front for Island recording artists Identity, a cult reggae troupe that sold close to a million records and gave Mann a boost in street cred.
"Before the Identity thing, before the Island Records days, I did have a hard time, because most people were into First Light or Ital before that," Mann says of Cleveland's popular reggae groups of the time. "That was the only reggae music people knew, so they had the preconceived notion that to be authentic reggae, you had to look a certain way, sound a certain way, and it all tied in with Bob Marley. So sometimes I'd get snickering, sometimes I'd get comments, and it was from people who didn't really know that much about reggae or didn't know that most Jamaicans don't have that type of racist chip on their shoulder. It's like one big family. It's pretty deep."
After spending a little over a year in the band, Mann left the group to focus on his own music, which was less traditional and decidedly more uptempo.
Mann's music isn't as deep as it is danceable, with slick beats and oversized pop hooks. His latest LP, Kaleidoscopes Part 1: The Pop Songs, which he wrote, recorded, and produced himself, is his most varied yet, interspersing agitated sax, squealing guitar solos, light scratching, and techno beats with Mann's velveteen pop croon. When toasting on the mic, Mann sounds a bit like an albino Shabba Ranks, bobbing and weaving over radio-friendly rhythms a turnip could dance to.
In between originals, Mann works in covers by artists as varied as Prince, Depeche Mode, and UB40. It's far from conventional reggae (though Mann is currently working on a hardcore reggae release, Kaleidoscopes Part 2, due out this spring), but with the recent success of artists like Shaggy, Sean Paul, and No Doubt, who intermingle dancehall with rap, pop, and alt rock, crossover sounds have never been bigger.
"All of a sudden, everybody's knocking on my door right now," Mann says. "In '95, '96, '97, I had a dozen record labels come out and see me in different places and different states, and their whole thing was that they loved what I was doing, they said it was original, it was refreshing, but there wasn't a sound like it out there, and they just didn't want to take the chance. Now, since No Doubt and everything, it's just hot."
And so is Mann. He's currently being courted by a pair of labels (Something Entertainment, a collection of labels run by Nile Rogers, a guitarist-producer who's worked with everyone from Madonna to David Bowie, and Canadian American Records, run by Joey Bell, from Bill Haley and the Comets). He was offered a lucrative gig as a resident act at a hotel in Vegas, but turned it down because he didn't want to be limited to one place. Mann has since signed on to be the house act at the Westbay Inn on Kelly's Island this summer, where he'll perform 10-15 days a month, from May to September, rocking tourists and further Irie-tating scene snobs.
"My whole angle is to open reggae up to new people," Mann says. "As the years went on, I made a conscious decision that I wouldn't try and be a Bob Marley rip-off, I wouldn't try and be something I wasn't. I would do the music that I loved, but I would be myself in it. I felt that as long as some of the hardcore people knew that I was sincere, that they understood that I wasn't trying to rip off what they were doing, that I could be accepted. And that's how it's turned out. Just because somebody has dreads, that doesn't mean anything."