Memphis punk and reggae musician Omar Higgins dead at age 37
Higgins was a beloved figure in the local music community, both for his work on stage and off. In addition to his bands, Higgins was also a church youth leader and praise tam music director, a musical ambassador for Le Bonheur, and an activist on the front lines of anti-racist and anti-fascist efforts in Memphis.
OMAR HIGGINS: 5 things to know — and 2 songs to listen to
Earlier this month, Higgins was admitted to downtown’s Methodist Hospital where he was diagnosed with a small stroke, a staph infection and issues relating to his kidneys. Friends and fans quickly rallied around Higgins, setting up a GoFundMe page to help defray his medical costs — which raised over $20,000 – and announced a benefit concert for him at Midtown’s Growlers in late-May.
A native of Brooklyn, who came up playing punk rock, Higgins moved to Tennessee with his family in the late 1990s, eventually enlisting in the Army, where he did two tours of duty in Iraq. In 2004, Higgins began making music locally, moving between genres, forming the punk outfit Downfall of Humanity and the reggae combo The Soul Enforcers.
In 2010, Higgins would go on to form Chinese Connection Dub Embassy along with his brothers Joe and David Higgins. The reggae-rooted combo would become one of the most active bands in the Bluff City, establishing several popular nightclub residencies and releasing their debut album “The Firm Foundation” in 2013.
More recently, Higgins formed the black hardcore punk outfit Negro Terror, and the group released a striking demo recording, “The Bootleg,” in 2017. As Higgins noted in an interview with the Commercial Appeal last fall, the idea behind the band was to destroy existing stereotypes about African Americans and punk rock.
“Coming up playing this music, people looked at me funny. They’d say, ‘That’s white-boy music.’ But music doesn’t have a color,” said Higgins. “And it’s not about being an ‘all black’ punk band either. The whole idea is for young African American kids to feel comfortable doing whatever it is they want musically. [Negro Terror] is about destroying those old ideas.”
Negro Terror – and its powerful, highly politicized music – became the subject of an award-winning documentary film by director John Rash. The doc won the “Soul of Southern Film” honor at the 2018 Indie Memphis Film Festival and continued making the rounds of the festival circuit earlier this year.
Negro Terror’s much-anticipated official length debut, “Paranoia” – produced by Lucero’s John C. Stubblefield – is done and scheduled for release this year. Stubblefield said that Higgins was “a total character and an undeniable force of positivity” in Memphis. He added that Higgins’ “care and concern for unity in the Memphis music scene was absolutely contagious. He [made] Memphis a better place.”
Other friends and musical colleagues took to social media on Sunday morning to remember and praise Higgins. “It tears me apart to know he is gone because his impact on my life will be forever lasting,” wrote Negro Terror documentary director John Rash. “It feels like the world lost a movement not just an individual. Today I cry with countless others as we stare into this new hole in our universe … I hope the film we made together will let others know you and your vision for generations to come. Your legacy will not be forgotten.”
Memphis-based singer-songwriter and Soul Coughing founder Mike Doughty agreed. “Omar was a magnetic performer; I was in awe of him, I always wanted to play with him,” wrote Doughty. “I didn’t know him, but I will miss him. Rest, as they say, in power; my prayers (actual prayers) to those who knew and loved him.”
Funeral plans for Higgins are pending.