Over the last two decades, reggae music has had worldwide impact. Although it originated on the small island of Jamaica, this musical genre has catapulted into the global music markets and has spread to all continents. It is not surprising, therefore, given its massive reach, that reggae is sometimes decoupled from the socio-historical setting of its origins. Reggae is known as protest and social awareness music, but it has also acquired a certain commercial character related to a tropical imaginary that is closely associated to beach culture. A better understanding of the origins of this musical genre is deserved.

Reggae emerged in Jamaica in the second half of the 1970s as a musical successor to ska and rocksteady. It was distinguished from its predecessors by, among other things, having a slower rhythm and less prominence of wind instruments. What really separated it from earlier forms of Jamaican music, however, was its more explicit social and political protest. There are many reasons for this. The first is the social and historical context in which reggae emerged. For the Jamaican people, who had recently gained their independence from Great Britain in 1962, the 1970s were a turbulent period disrupted by internal population movements, growing socio-economic inequality and governmental repression of marginalized sectors. As part of this social scene, music became an economic alternative (and certainly an outlet for expression) for the country’s destitute sectors. A significant influence on ska, rocksteady, and later on reggae, came from the marginalized areas of the capital, Kingston. It is no coincidence that reggae songs of the 1960s and 1970s make reference to the poverty and the urban social crisis the country was experiencing. Tenement Yard (1975) by Jacob Miller and the group Inner Circle and I Need a Roof (1976) by the Mighty Diamonds are songs that display this clearly.

Beyond its urban content, reggae also came to represent the particular ideology of a social group located in the ghettos of West Kingston. Beginning in the 1970s, governmental repression led the Rastafarian movement to leave its rural communes on the outskirts of the city to settle in the poor areas of the capital. With this mobilization, the socio-religious movement known as Rastafarianism, which had emerged in the 1930s, gained greater social and urban visibility. Through these developments, marginalized groups, the Rastafarians and the center of Jamaican musical culture came to share the same space.

Reggae music produced in the 1970s (which is today known as roots reggae) referred not only to the setting of the ghetto, but also to those who lived there and their ideology. Songs such as Positive Vibration (1976) by Bob Marley, Exodus (1977) by Bob Marley and the Wailers, and Legalize It (1976) by Peter Tosh, and many others, show various aspects of the Rastafarian culture and ideology. Famed reggae singer Burning Spear has written several songs that refer to political and social leader Marcus Garvey, one of the predecessors and ideological pillars of the Rastafarian movement. In addition to identifying with particular social groups, reggae music also dug up these groups’ past to create a historical document of the racially oppressed. The history of slavery in Jamaica and the Caribbean is not only found in books, but also in many reggae songs. Moses Children (1977) by Bunny Wailer and Slavery Days (1975) by Burning Spear make clear references to the harshness of the work under the system of slavery. The lyrics of the latter song encourage the listener to remember the past: “…how they used us, till they refuse us […] With shackles around our necks.” The singer also tells of the lives of escaped slaves in the lyrics of the song Man in the Hills (1976).

The local and global political context of the 1970s also influenced the musical production of reggae. Many songs refer to the battles between the political gangs of the Peoples National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party (Tribal War [1977] by Third World), the country’s social and political instability (Rat Race [1976] by Bob Marley), and the local and global dilemmas that Jamaica and its people were involved in, one way or another. The independence of African nations during this era was one of the international events that caught the attention of the Jamaican people and some reggae singers, and led to Bob Marley’s participation in the celebration of independence in Zimbabwe in 1980.

In summary, reggae music in Jamaica was, in all senses, a social barometer of the country and a historic witness to its past and present, as reported in songs. In the same tradition, Jamaican dancehall music emerged in the 1980s and, during the 1990s, also came to be a form of witness to the country’s social, cultural and political life. Similarly to underground rap or reguetón in Puerto Rico, dancehall’s lyrics present the culture of urban life in Kingston, the explicit sexuality of Jamaicans and the rivalries among sectors of society. Roots reggae, though still alive in Jamaica, has given way to dancehall, which is now most popular among young people.

At the global level, however, the traditional reggae of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s has given rise to a significant number of performers and followers in the Caribbean, throughout the Americas, and in Europe and Africa. In the western Caribbean, in Puerto Rico and Cuba, various artists and musical groups are reproducing the rhythms of reggae, including Nelly Stharre (Dominica), Cultura Profética (Puerto Rico) and Remanente (Cuba). In South America, Edson Gomes in Brazil has become well known for his Brazilian reggae songs while in Europe numerous reggae groups have emerged in France and, of course, in the United Kingdom, Jamaica’s former colonial ruler. In Africa, Alpha Blondy in the Ivory Coast and the late Lucky Dube in South Africa are exceptional reggae singers. Reggae’s popularity and its spread around the world are more evidence of the global and transnational nature of Caribbean history.

Author: Jorge Giovannetti
Published: February 21, 2012.

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