Durango has many colorful characters. Rasta Stevie is certainly one of them.
Rasta Stevie moved to Durango in 1996, and right away, started his reggae-centric radio show “Heart Beat of Zion” at Fort Lewis College’s community radio station KDUR. It’s still a regular mainstay on the airwaves 6 to 8 p.m. every Friday.
But the past couple weeks, some avid listeners might have noticed that although reggae music continues to roll in the timeslot, there’s been a different DJ behind the music. That’s because Rasta Stevie has been receiving cancer treatment at a care facility in Reno, Nevada.
“I’m not scared of death, but when you face your own mortality, it’s not easy,” he said. “But the hardest thing on a cancer patient is dealing with the people around you that love and care about you.”
But before all that, how exactly did Steven Winston Smith, an upper-middle class white kid from West Texas, go on to become the dreadlocked, dedicated Rastafarian everyone knows as Rasta Stevie?
“I wouldn’t be Rasta Stevie if it wasn’t for LSD,” he said. “Hallucinogens and marijuana showed me another world. It was the ’70s. Everyone was being a hippie, and I wanted to be part of that hippie movement.”
Rasta Stevie, 58, grew up in San Angelo, Texas, in a typical suburban upbringing, he said. But from an early age, he realized he was a little “out of the box.” In the ninth grade, for instance, his school didn’t allow students to have long hair, so he bought and wore a short-haired wig to hide his long locks.
The real transformative experience, however, was in seventh grade when he tried LSD and marijuana for the first time. It opened his mind, he said, and he realized that the life in West Texas was not the life he wanted.
“It removed me from the system that was holding me down in oppression,” he said. “I couldn’t physically leave the situation I was in, but I could see it from a different set of spectacles.”
Rasta Stevie did leave Texas, eventually, and headed out to Boulder for college. But it wasn’t all drum circles and jam band shows.
Growing up, the boy who would eventually become Rasta Stevie was actually deep into metal music, a self-proclaimed “metal head.” In 1982, he began his first radio show, “Blood Cold Steel” under the DJ name “Sarsen Kitch.”
But Rasta Stevie’s eventual descent into reggae was an unstoppable force. A friend told him, “as much weed as you smoke, you have to check this music out” and gave him a pile of records that included The Rastafarians, The Gladiators, Culture and Gregory Isaacs.
His immediate love and connection to reggae music translated into his strong belief in Rastafarianism.
“Rasta took my life,” he said. “It’s a way of life. It’s what I eat, how I talk, where I live, the community I’m involved with. That’s what makes it not a religion. It’s ‘livity’ every day of your life.”
Rasta Stevie moved to Telluride, starting his Heart Beat of Zion show in 1984, which has been going on more than 35 years. It was at this time he also became known for his part in the 1988 popular ski film “The Blizzard of Aahhh’s” and serving on the Telluride Town Council.
At some point, someone gave him the name Rasta Stevie, likely because of the red, green and gold ski gators he wore. And it stuck.
“When you move to Telluride, everyone gets a nickname,” he said. “It could be Drunk Bob or Moocher Mike. These are real names. Do you really want to be Drunk Bob?”
In 1995, he met his wife, Feather Smith, who ran a shop in Durango, and the couple moved here full-time the next year. Despite traveling and playing music all around the world, Rasta Stevie considers Durango home.
“Durango’s home because I recognize what I have here,” he said.
Bryant Liggett, who became KDUR station manager in 2009, said Rasta Stevie’s show is a staple on the community station. Friday nights on KDUR have featured a reggae show since 1991, and it was only fitting for Rasta Stevie to take over when he moved to town.
“If I turned on KDUR on a Friday and didn’t hear reggae, it would be awkward to me,” he said.
Liggett said the Heart Beat of Zion show is unique in the fact that Rasta Stevie is constantly trying to find new music and artists in the reggae scene. He can’t remember the last time he heard Bob Marley or Peter Tosh on the show.
“He just walks and talks and breathes reggae music, and that’s a real dedication to the cause,” he said “And when I think about the 40-some years KDUR has been here, we’ve had thousands of DJs, and Stevie is one of the most colorful and fun DJs this radio station has had.”
Tami Graham, who is now director for KSUT, served as station manager for KDUR from 1990 to 1997. After learning Rasta Stevie put down roots in Durango, she immediately tapped him to run a show.
“He’s just a larger-than-life character, and still is,” she said. “I’m thrilled he’s still hosting his show on KDUR and is still in our community, active and involved as ever.”
But in recent days, it’s the community of Durango that’s been giving back to Rasta Stevie.
In February 2018, Rasta Stevie was diagnosed with HPV-caused squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil, a type of oropharyngeal cancer. Without health care coverage, he asked for support in funding for treatment at the Forsythe Cancer Care Clinic in Reno, and a GoFundMe campaign has raised nearly half of its goal.
“The support, I’m awestruck,” he said. “I’ve always been a great giver. But going public (with my illness) has taught me how to be a grateful and graceful receiver. That’s a new me.”
Rasta Stevie says he’s not battling or fighting cancer. He’s taking a holistic approach. He says his Facebook wall is like reading his obituary, but fortunately, he’s alive to read it.
“Overall, I feel good,” he said. “I’m motivated, positive. And that’s one of the biggest things with cancer treatment, is emotional poise. If you’re stressed, it’s hard to heal. I’m the opposite of all that.”