He got encouragement from Johnny Cash, convinced Eurythmic Dave Stewart to produce him and has been called "the most important Jamaican artist since Marley" by U2 frontman Bono.
Now roots singer-songwriter Abdel Wright hopes his self-titled debut can complete his climb from orphanages, homelessness and prison to music stardom. Much of the album, due August 16th on Stewart's Weapons of Mass Entertainment imprint (distributed through Interscope), was written during a five-year sentence for firearm possession.
"When I got out, I said, 'I'm not going back to prison. I don't have the money for school. The only thing I have left is my musical skills,'" recalls Wright. "'I know it won't be easy, but I'm just going to try.'"
Little in life has been easy for Wright, taken from his mentally ill mother as a baby and raised in several foster homes. One of them was the SOS Children's Village in Montego Bay, where Wright got to see Cash -- a major contributor to the facility -- perform at the annual Christmas concert.
"I knew about Johnny Cash because I loved country music," says Wright, who met the late singer and his wife, June Carter, backstage. By then, the teenaged Wright had gotten his first acoustic guitar.
But after reaching adulthood, Wright became homeless and turned to petty crime, stealing corn and sugar cane from the fields to eat. During a "robbing spree" at the end of 1996, Wright's gun was discovered during an arrest. "The cop put it back on me and kicked me down," remembers Wright. "That meant I was supposed to die."
Another officer intervened, however, before Wright could be shot. "It was definitely some kind of divine spiritual intervention," he says. Instead, Wright was sent to prison, where he won daytime freedom to give music lessons through a work-release program.
In his cell, Wright began composing songs that would appear on his debut, including "Quicksand" and "Ruffest Times." But when he was freed in 2001, his acoustic-based style made him a hard sell locally. "There's very little reggae in my music, and I'm not a sugarcoated person," he says. "I speak it raw. So it was a turn-off for producers."
However, one producer, Brian Jobson (No Doubt), was intrigued and introduced Wright to Stewart, a part-time resident of Jamaica. Wright's direct approach resonated immediately with Stewart. "I really understood what Abdel was saying," he says. "And what he was saying had so much depth -- it was clear that this was something special."
Stewart agreed to executive-produce Wright's debut, helmed by Jobson and featuring folk-based protest tunes such as "Loose We Now" and "Dust Under Carpet." He also played Wright's songs for friends such as Bono and Interscope's Jimmy Iovine, who watched the Jamaican singer play a rooftop gig at the label. "Within the first forty seconds, Jimmy turned around to me and said, 'This is the real thing, isn't it?'" Stewart remembers.
Bono and Stewart also invited Wright to perform "Long Walk to Freedom" -- the last song Joe Strummer wrote before his death -- at a 2003 South African AIDS benefit hosted by Nelson Mandela. Wright joined Bono, U2 guitarist the Edge and Stewart for the number, and confesses to being incredibly nervous.
"To perform before the biggest rock stars in the world, in front of 40,000 people -- that ain't easy," Wright says with a laugh. "But after I did the song, I heard Bono jumping and screaming, 'Yeahhhh!' He was behind me all the way."