Reggae music blew up with a bang to the resistance movement against imperialism in the 1960s. It started in Kingston, Jamaica, and has conquered the world and acquired an emblematic Rastafarian character, but an understanding of its fundamental nature is still lacking.
At each phase of its evolution, music inescapably matches the biographies of those who make it and those who respond to it. Nonetheless, not too long ago, reggae music was condemned to the precarious periphery, almost out of the social sphere. The anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss1 firmly defended the idea that music prevails upon the core of mythology and, therefore, composes a capital societal aspect. In this sense, the function of music simultaneously epitomizes a relevant form of prediction and communication. Hence, here is an outlook on reggae music, which has flowed out of Jamaica for about 50 years, as a vigorous force for dialogue.
The underpinnings of reggae are of a unique sensibility and broadcast an unprecedented state of mind, harshly opposed to despotic prejudice and race riots.
Reggae resonates with Rastafari, a spiritual resistance nucleus and Back-to-Africa identity which has been a triggering factor for the music. However, at the twilight of decolonization in the 1960s, reggae matured in the Kingston ghettos from a synthesis of poignant sounds of African and Afro-Caribbean rhythms.
Originating in Jamaica in the 1930s, Rastafari thrived as a popular protest of the black cultural resistance movement and flourished in later decades. It has been strongly nourished by the guidance of messianic preachers, such as Leonard Howell, and the pathfinder, Pan-African Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Rastafari pledges a response to African heirs to recover and rebuild their culture, which was suppressed by brutal, stultifying European domination. It is an attempt for the survival of African culture and an upfront anti-slavery, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle.
Rastafari is derived from Ras Tafari Makonnen, the pre-regnal title of Haile Selassie I before his coronation in 1930, when he became the last Emperor of Ethiopia, Elect of God, known as Jah. The Rastafari movement began with his crowning, and was deemed as the fulfilment of a prophecy of deliverance. It has since evolved into a philosophy and way of life rather than a strictly organized religion pertaining to the Old Testament.
Although the pugnacious Rastafari resistance is emblematic of the strong social and cultural attributes that characterize Jamaica, it did not confine itself but flew throughout the Caribbean and Diasporas, notably, into England with the Jamaican exodus. Thus, its origin reveals itself to be secondary to the vital role it is playing.
The abolition of slavery did not launch the end of colonialism and, in itself, did not upgrade conditions of life. The exploitation and dominion merely took on new dimensions. Struggles have been changing the dynam.ics of fights for rights and battles for freedom. These fresh, unusual developments have brought to light the people's demands for self-recognition, socio-economic upliftment and political determination. Reggae music has been set up to exteriorize these discontents.
Music asserts a social stance. Each style is connected to the particular cultural location of its origin. Rastafari has swayed reggae, itself heir to the way in which the oppressed people use music to escape their affliction. It turned out to be a stunning trademark, well known in the 1970s, reacting to the bygone socio-political realities of unemployment, lack of national identity and poverty. Reggae is thus mainly a socio-political avenue used to transmit ideas, affirm values and express expectations. It blatantly highlights the bitter questions of discrimination, humiliation and subordination, and provides an opportunity to combat villainy.
Proclaiming to be Rasta, most reggae artists personify the symbols of the anti-prejudice process in all its forms. In denouncing unfair enslavement, racial intolerance and miserable life conditions, these musicians appear as living witnesses of popular memories, historical narratives, contemporary revolts and expected transformations. They are producers and products of their own culture. They hold a great ability to renew, transmit, revitalize, and recharge their style. In this sense, reggae accredits the means by which it promulgates an identity and implants a distinct view between groups: us and them. Each sets limits to leave a decisive mark and forge distance from others. The mutual recognition goes together with thinking of oneself and others, consequently enabling the articulation of differences and expectancy.
The impact of reggae in cultural practices is unquestionable. Both the social and entertainment aspects incur equal repercussions. Lyrics and sounds combine a powerful medium of communication and display a culture that makes people relate to reggae. This significant device reflects identity and relations in the social sphere.
Hundreds of Rastafarian messengers have emerged since Bob Marley, the Jamaican born world ambassador of reggae. Although initiators of reggae have been marginalized, they are not necessarily outsiders on the borders of their society. Marginalization has mutated into a tag giving artists a universal language. Reggae claims to be rebellious music. Among its musicians, some are proverbial while others have gone unheard. Several who began putting on shows in the 1970s still perform today. Their stories reflect ideas of freedom, the continuity of crusades, and strive for human rights brought forward from the 1960s. Since the early years of reggae, songs have been impeccably carried by the singer's charisma, endowed with a keen sense of the power of speech. They deliver far-ranging messages of unity, self-sufficiency and empowerment.
The primary compositions are inextricably bound with the atmosphere of the slums that nurture them. In later decades, they evoked local and global preoccupations. Furthermore, the majority of thousands of reggae songs utter Rastafari with the image of Haile Selassie I (Jah), the symbols of Africa with the accusation of Babylon (unjust inhuman society), the idealization of a return to Zion (African homeland), and the descendants of the slave trade (Israelites). Biblical poetry brings a beam of aspiration to alleviate fights such as in Jah Works (1978) by The Gladiators or Children of Israel (1978) by Dennis Brown.
Peter Tosh in 400 Years (1972), Burning Spear in Slavery Days (1975) and Third World in Human Market Place (1977) mightily slap the cruelties of slavery, tackle the issue of captivity and relay the memorial speeches to a tyrannized people. This history creates a demand for redemption and repatriation to Africa as David Hinds, the sensational frontman of Grammy winning band Steel Pulse, a scion of West Indians from Jamaica who emigrated to England, advocates in Prodigal Son (1978).
Many tracks also document the years of struggle, thus furthering the heroes and immortalizing the martyrs. Third World, one of the major reggae ensembles, takes one back to the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865: 96 Degrees in the Shade (1977) which is a definitive remnant of this event in Jamaica's colonial history. In Great Men (1990), Burning Spear, a remarkable Rasta militant, remembers Paul Bogle, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X and Nelson Mandela. History is testimony to their significant commitments.
Some songs further recreate the burden and revolting conditions of life. Handsworth Revolution (1978) by Steel Pulse is among the best ever protest pieces which forcefully cast out racial, social and economic exclusion against Afro-Caribbeans in England. Three Babylon by Aswad (1976) and Youth of Eglington (1981) by Black Uhuru tune the same remonstrance against the continual harassment of young blacks. In the contemporary vein, the singer of Meta and the Cornerstones in Corner Stone (2008) punctuates the insoluble problem of high unemployment and corruption, handled almost unavoidably with drug trafficking, and in Somewhere in Africa (2008) denounces racial conflicts once again, gathering psycho-cultural distress for the youth.
Besides the recurring themes of poverty, discrimination and exclusion, the decline of love is frequently described as the only balm to keep up bravery. Lonely Lover (1980) by Gregory Isaacs is among these. In addition, for a long time rastamen have been accused of foolishness and mindlessness. Few songs so operate as vital for social censure. Since I Throw the Comb Away (1982) by The Twinkle Brothers perfectly reports the unequal treatment imposed on them and their cherished dreadlocks.
Music's dynamic nature aspires to serve various purposes, and reggae henceforth unfolds within unanticipated duties. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Steel Pulse released Hold On [4 Haiti]. The band sells signed guitars and shares the proceeds from the sale of its merchandise to help rebuild the island.
Although it was banished in its beginnings, reggae has progressed in an incredible and totally unpredicted way. Due to its association with the Rastafari movement, this popular music became representative of the world view of Afro-Caribbeans and all black people. It has survived and thrived without deviating too far from its essence. Today, technology has sped up the process of its migration and made it more common and prestigious. Notwithstanding, although reggae melody has moved to an international level, it is frankly questionable whether its perspicacious awareness has acquired the same fame. Many barriers have yet to be trespassed and numerous advantages must be conceded forthwith. Beyond its visibility, recognition of reggae's contribution is lacking. On the other hand, the tangible admission, gratitude and agreement towards how and by whom this music is represented goes unseen.
In spite of their telltale character, reggae artists are not considered to have made history. Nevertheless, they play a central role as they ensure the endurance of this genre. The absence of acknowledgement does not escape reggae's function in the development of social consciousness and in drawing an identity memory that bridges all black people. The reggae mind sets individual and collective assertions. It undeniably demonstrates how anger at injustice and goodwill could and even has to galvanize people for causes, even if the latest reggae output is surely tailored to the rhythms of a commercialized market.
Music and history are indivisible. Were it not for reggae, few people would have heard of Rastafari. This musical style shows up a positive concept of identity and fills the needs of the people it serves.
Because reggae culture is a vital clue to the understanding of the long history that has affected generations, it really is time to build an anthropology of reggae to track the complex Afro-Caribbean past, develop multifaceted frameworks that define Rastafari, as well as the relations with feeling, legacy and community. Reggae's ability to unify cultures, nations and causes is alive and well, and ready to march on.
Perhaps roots reggae is currently less palpable, but it remains a potent form of dialogue that challenges the hegemony of supremacy and racism. Inspired by Abraham Lincoln's words, you need only listen carefully to Bob Marley and The Wailers:
"You can fool some people sometimes
But you can't fool all the people all the time
So now we see the light,
We gonna stand up for our rights!"
1 Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1964, Mythologies, I. Le cru et le cuit, (Paris, Plon, 1964).
Discography by album.
Aswad, Three Babylon (1976).
Black Uhuru, Red (1981).
Burning Spear, Marcus Garvey (1975), Mek We Dweet (1990).
Dennis Brown, Wolf & Leopards (1978).
Gregory Isaacs, Lonely Lover (1980).
Meta and The Cornerstones, Forward Music (2008).
Peter Tosh, "400 Years" (1970) released on the album Catch a Fire by The Wailers (1973).
Steel Pulse, Hansdworth Revolution (1978), Hold On [4 Haiti], (2010) http://www.steelpulse.com.
The Gladiators, Proverbial Reggae (1978).
The Twinkle Brothers, Live at Reggae Sunsplash: "Since I Throw the Comb Away" (1982).
The Wailers, Burnin'; "Get Up, Stand Up" written by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh (1973).
Third World, 96° in the Shade (1977).