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Kevin Cullen

Reggae icon Shaggy steps up for his military brothers and sisters

The musician Shaggy at an event in North Carolina last month. Jeff Hahne/Getty Images for Pandora Media/File

I once read that Shaggy, the reggae artist, had suggested that instead of liquidating the psychopaths of ISIS, we should shower them with weed and reggae albums so they’d be too chill to kill.

I immediately deemed him a genius.

I only recently learned that Shaggy, aka Orville Richard Burrell, is ex-military. He was a Marine during the first Gulf War and credits waking up to garbage cans bouncing off hard floors during boot camp and surviving a combat deployment with preparing him to thrive in the often harsh and unpredictable music business.

“The military saved me from the street,” the Jamaican-born singer told me Thursday, while in Boston for the Home Base gala. “I’d do anything to help my brothers and sisters in the military.”


Home Base, run by Massachusetts General Hospital and supported by the Red Sox, treats active duty military and veterans and their families for the invisible wounds of war: traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress.

Shaggy will take part in Home Base Nation, a podcast hosted by Dr. Ron Hirschberg that will launch on Veterans Day. Besides Shaggy, podcast guests will include filmmaker Spike Lee; author Sebastian Junger; Bob Woodruff, the ABC anchor who was badly injured in Iraq, and his wife, Lee; Sergeant Kirstie Ennis, a Marine, Afghanistan combat vet, and paralympian; and Travis Mills, a soldier who lost his limbs in Afghanistan.

Twenty years after his breakthrough, crossover hit “It Wasn’t Me,” and fresh off his performance as Sebastian the Jamaican crab on ABC’s live version of “The Little Mermaid,” Shaggy has a devotion to the military as deep as some of his beats.

“I grew up in Brooklyn and was into everything I shouldn’t,” he said. “I saw my friends getting locked up for stuff I was doing. I needed to get out. So I went down to Flatbush Junction and signed up.”


He got mature, real quick.

“The street taught me how to fire a gun. The military taught me how to balance a check book,” he said. “The military prepared me for life. I remember being bitten by sand fleas and I couldn’t move. The military taught me how to be comfortable outside my comfort zone.”

He loves the diversity of the military, as it’s been ahead of the rest of society when it comes to integration and efforts to create that most elusive thing — a color-blind meritocracy. That said, that ideal was hardly shared by all. He shared a fighting hole in the Gulf with a white guy who got drunk and started throwing racial epithets around.

“The military has issues, just like the rest of society,” he said. “But it has real deep brotherhood, and sisterhood, too.”

When he got out of the Marines, Wayne Newton reached out to him, asking him to join a USO tour to play for the troops overseas. Newton had taken over the mantle from Bob Hope.

“I was like, I’m down,” he said. “I’m always for the troops.”

He worries that with Iraq and Afghanistan in the rear-view mirror, too many people think we’re done with those wars. Noting that special forces operators are still dying and bearing the brunt of ongoing combat, Shaggy wants more services offered to veterans who are struggling with what they did and saw in war.


“The first Gulf War was a cake walk compared to what these guys are going through,” he said. “That said, I saw some traumatic stuff. I can’t forget that. We can’t forget our obligation to help the vets who need help. I want to be part of getting that conversation started and ongoing.”

Besides helping vets, Shaggy’s philanthropy extends to a children’s hospital in his native Kingston. He’s giving back and paying it forward at the same time.

Years from now, in a different realm than this, if some higher power asks who didn’t do enough to help their fellow humans, Shaggy can hold up his hand and honestly say, “It wasn’t me.”

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.