Ari Up: Rebellious and confrontational singer with punk-reggae band the Slits

With her tumbling dreadlocks, mouthy righteousness and determined mission to mash down Babylon, Ari Up was the personification of 1977's Bob Marley song "Punky reggae party". Her later lifestyle was peripatetic, as she moved around the globe, but especially between London, Jamaica, Brooklyn and Los Angeles. Such journeying partially explains why Trapped Animal, the 2009 album by her group, the Slits, and the first since their 2006 reunion, should have been nominated in both the reggae and world-music sections for next year's Grammy awards.

The fact that she was only 19 when the five-year-old Slits split up masked the fact that Ariane "Ari Up" Forster had already lived a full and eventful life before the band even started. Her mother Nora Forster – who had long since split from her daughter's German crooner father – has been in a relationship with John Lydon since 1978, thereby making Johnny Rotten her stepfather: part of a continuum that had both Jimi Hendrix and members of The Bee Gees singing lullabies to this always almost feral warrior-child.

Ari Up's mother, a strikingly beautiful German blonde, was a promoter and player on the London music scene; she was also a publishing heiress. As the girlfriend of the guitarist Chris Spedding, Nora Forster was privy to his production of the Sex Pistols' first demos in May 1976, and therefore to a rapidly unfurling new musical world; Spedding had already encouraged Ariane's efforts at learning the piano.

Nora left Spedding, and her homes became refuges for assorted punk musicians including Joe Strummer, who gave Ariane guitar lessons. "He was like a guiding star", she told me in 2005. "He was like a brother to me. He never tried to come on to me, but was very protective and natural." (Later Ariane revealed that she was drink, drugs and sex-free until late in her teens.)

A synthesis of the militant feminism, strident anarchy and performance art of the zeitgeist, the Slits were formed by drummer Palmolive, previously a non-musician. Similarly creatively innocent was the 14-year-old Ariane Forster who, in the punk manner, renamed herself. "Her vocal stance," said Viv Albertine, who became the Slits' guitarist, "was almost like channelling sound." Dotted about Ari Up's increasingly reggae-influenced performances would be bird sounds and screams that seemed to derive from the darkest of nightmares. "Punk was meant to be honest and true, and that was Ari's voice," added Albertine. "It wasn't about entertainment, but moving the audience or waking them up. But it could be sexy and melodic as well."

Tessa Pollitt, who would soon become the Slits' bass-player, saw the group play at a Dalston cinema. "Ari wore a long mac which she kept flashing to reveal Union Jack pants worn over leggings. I'd never seen anything like it: it was very sexual. She had a totally unique look that has influenced Bjork and Madonna. She had an extremely rebellious spirit."

So rebellious was Up that she was prepared to play the occasional absurdist wildcard. "She pissed onstage," recalled Albertine. "She squatted down at the Music Machine, and pissed onstage. In the 1970s girls were supposed to be shy and wear pretty dresses. I think she was a real revolutionary."

Enrolled at liberal Holland Park comprehensive, Ari Up was allegedly attending the school while the Slits were traipsing around Britain in May 1977 as part of The Clash's White Riot tour – the writer Caroline Coon described her as "a Lolita-type". Their manager was Don Letts, the Rastafarian film-maker. As part of a cultural-studies course which would include indulging Up's desires to visit Jamaican blues shebeens, to study dancers, Letts took her to a meeting of the 12 Tribes, a branch of Rastafari.

When she endeavoured to take a lick on a ceremonial ganja chalice, she and Letts were cursed by the dread elders: this was no business for a woman. "She responded with some very choice language", Letts remembered. "We left: it was all quite frightening. Ari totally destroyed men with her conviction: the women of today with all this celebrity bullshit in which people are as deep as make-up could learn from her."

Famously, the Slits were the last original punk act to be signed, by Island Records. "They were unmanageable and scared the music business, and Ari frightened everybody," Letts said. In 1979 their masterly album Cut, produced by the reggae maestro Dennis Bovell, was released, to no great sales. Endlessly confrontational, the sleeve art consisted of a shot of the three girls, naked except for strategically placed mud and loincloths. At the end of 1981 they released a further album, Return of the Giant Slits; shortly after, the Slits split up.

For a time, Ari Up worked with The New Age Steppers collective under the auspices of Adrian Sherwood. But soon she moved to Jamaica, giving birth to twin boys, Pablo and Pedro, fathered by her boyfriend, Glenmore "Junior" Williams. After the relationship failed, she gave birth to another son, Wilton, in 1994. Tragically, the boy's father had been shot dead by the time he was born.

Although blessed with the finances for an uptown lifestyle, Ari Up preferred the edginess of the semi-ghetto area of Maxfield Avenue, where gunshots often ring through the air. Known in Jamaica as Madusa, she was a familiar figure at dancehall events across the island, the musical style informing her 2005 solo album, Dread More Dan Dead, as well as Trapped Animal.

Touring again under the group's name, with Tessa Pollitt and Hollie Cook, the daughter of Sex Pistol Paul Cook, her behaviour on their last set of dates was somewhat irascible; this was a consequence, it now seems, of an illness Ari Up had been doing her best to ignore. She died of cancer.

Chris Salewicz

Ariane Daniele Forster (Ari Up), musician: born Munich, Germany 17 January 1962; three sons; died Los Angeles, California 20 October 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
US comedian Bill Mahr
people
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Sport
football
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Life and Style
Models – and musicians – on the catwalk in Dior Homme for the men’s 2015/16 fashion show in Paris
fashionAt this season's Paris shows, various labels played with the city boys' favourite
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Ashdown Group: PHP Web Developer / Website Coordinator (PHP, JavaScript)

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: PHP Web...

Recruitment Genius: Estates Projects & Resources Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in London, Manchester, Br...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us