Late last year, 50 years after the first popular reggae song – Toots and the Maytals’s ‘Do the Reggay’ – was released, the musical genre was added to a list of international cultural treasures by UNESCO, meaning that the United Nations deems it worthy of protection and promotion. Since its founding, reggae music – and by extension Jamaica – has amassed an immeasurable cultural and social currency worldwide, yet largely speaking, it has not received the institutional and public recognition it deserves.
Marlon James’s novel A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2015 – by a unanimous decision made in less than two hours – making him the first Jamaican author to win the prize. James accredits reggae music – born out of the clamorous socio-political response to post-independence governance in 1970s Jamaica – for teaching him how to write. He appeals: ‘The whole idea of writing in the voice of the people, writing in the voice that comes out of my own mouth is a reggae concept. The idea that the voice that was in your mouth, that has always been called “broken English” as if it needed to be fixed, could be used to tell very complicated things. Stories that have no resolution, characters that you can’t just dismiss or outright condemn.. was something that reggae did.’ A Brief History of Seven Killings follows a symphony of fictional voices directly or inadvertently linked to the 1976 assassination attempt of Robert Nesta Marley, widely known as Bob Marley, in his home. Shot in the arm and the chest, Marley opted to leave the lead in his arm to save his ability to play the guitar. The Black Jamaican tradition is oral and so Marley’s ‘broken English’ was a distinctly Jamaican patois, his amplified voice and electric guitar penetrated international speakers making him one of the foremost musicians of the 20th century.
The wake of Marley’s success bore a generation of musicians and technologists who would articulate the pride and politics of the ever-turning island. The then 20 year-old emcee and DJ Sister Nancy recorded ‘Bam Bam’, a freestyle for her 1982 debut album ‘One, Two’. The anthem has been sampled over 100 times since by artists like Lauryn Hill, Kanye West and Jay Z but a poorly written recording-contract saw that Nancy didn’t receive any royalties until the song was used in a 2014 Reebok commercial when she decided to sue and after 34 years, her just dues were rewarded. But Jamaica is at a great risk of losing its status as the reggae epicentre to developed countries such as the USA and Japan – who have now acquired 90% of Jamaica’s vinyl catalogue. Wee Pow – who in 1972 founded Stone Love, one of Jamaica’s major sound systems – laments: ‘We did not see the value in vinyl, and so we were quick to sell them to the Japanese, and now they have all the gold.’
Rooted in the very unique pressures and principles of the Jamaica ghettos, reggae paved routes across the western hemisphere to Europe, Asia and Africa lighting a match to new genres and subcultures. 70s Western punk-rock and pop artists were not coy about their inspirations with Eric Clapton, The Police and Boy George all recording samples or covers. Taking heed from reggae’s remix technique, the 90s gave rise to drum and bass, jungle and garage. Much like the UK, the 1950s and 1960s saw hundreds of thousands of Caribbean immigrants to the USA many of whom settled in New York – where in 1973 Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc hosted a ‘back to school jam’ in the Bronx using reggae sound system culture to re-create a style of rapping known then as ‘toasting’ and beat-making that we recognise now as hip hop. In downtown Kingston, open-air street parties attracted large masses who otherwise could not afford traditional dances or personal radios; their appreciation for the music was loud and unreserved. This unexampled musical experience required creative sound engineering, improvisation, crowd participation, original dance moves and an emphasis on fashion-coordinated hoards of friends. There is a foundational connection and clear influence on these reggae stylistics and hip hop music. Jamaica’s modest global social-political status as developing country in the global South makes it easy to enjoy the fruit and ignore the tree.
If you play any of the numerous playlists on Spotify, it’s possible that Dennis Brown’s ‘Revolution’, or Jacob Miller’s ‘Tenement Yard’ will appear on the shuffle. The feeling is visceral and vibrational, some of the lyrics are potent and not easily translated. You locate the sound by its accents on the off-beat and you remember the bass of the riddim long after the song has ended. These work songs, protest chants, witty social commentary, proud declarations of Rastafarian ideals for liberation and self-identification, love ballads, affirmations of beauty and the other moments of sweetness found in life’s bitter leaves.
The University of Westminster’s Black Music Research Unit was launched in 2016 with GBP£500k funding to document and collect for the first time, Jamaica’s impact on British culture and music. This three-year project will be actualised by 2019 through a series of filmed oral history interviews oral histories, conducting archival research, an original feature-length documentary film, two conferences and a publication. Notwithstanding the lack of infrastructural support or funding and cheap imitations, the true essence of reggae remains with the people who created it, from which I come, and the enduring fight with authoritarian power over the issue of the space and the right to congregate in public, loudly and without shame. For the pleasure and profit of Jamaica, her inhabitants and her diaspora, the road to real musical independence and recognition for a small island with a big voice is a continued one.
Main image: Bob Marley and the Wailers, 1978. Courtesy: Pictorial Press and Alarny
Rianna Jade Parker is a writer, critic and researcher based in London, UK. She is a founding member of interdisciplinary collective Thick/er Black Lines and is a contributing editor of frieze.