Reggae is a complex Afro-Jamaican twentieth-century musical phenomenon that has profoundly influenced global popular musical culture. As a genre of modern black cultural production, reggae music dates from the 1970s, when it emerged from the musical confluence of ska and rock steady, two forms born in early postcolonial Jamaica. As a cultural practice in Jamaican postcolonial society, reggae was closely tied to subaltern representations of slavery, colonialism, history, and Africa. As a consequence in many instances reggae became a counter-hegemonic practice critiquing the formal Jamaican Creole nationalist project of political independence.
Ska was a 1960s musical synthesis that ruptured the Jamaican musical form known as mento, which emerged from the encounter between European colonialism, racial plantation slavery, and the slave African population. Mento adapted and morphed the harmonic structures, instrumentation, and melodies of European musical styles into indigenous sounds.
It added other instruments, in particular rhumba scrapers and drums, and wove melodic structures within the sound of the rhumba scraper to produce a unique rhythm to which many rural Jamaicans enjoyed dancing.
Profoundly influenced by African American jazz and big band swing music, ska broke with mento in two ways. It used different instrumentation, and it became an urban-based rather than a rural-based musical form. Ska was driven in part by two migratory patterns: the external migration to the American Eastern Seaboard and the internal migration between the island’s rural areas and the capital city Kingston, where impoverished young men and women not only wanted to carve out a future but also brought with them the culture of the rural folk. Particularly in Kingston’s western sections—Jones Town, Trench Town, and Denham Town—postcolonial popular Jamaican music found its moorings. This rural-to-urban shift in Jamaican society is visually captured by the opening moments of the film The Harder They Come and Jimmy Cliff’s driving lyrics of the song: “You can get it if you really want.”
In addition to ska, the cauldron of west Kingston gave birth to the sound system, the early recording industry, rock steady, and eventually to reggae. The Folkes Brothers’ 1961 record Oh Carolina marks a watershed in Jamaican recorded music. With the Rastafarian nyabinghi-style drumming of Count Ossie forming the spine of the track, the song is now a classic of Jamaican music. Although ska incorporated big band horn-blowing elements, it differed from jazz and swing in the way Jamaican musicians sped up the second beat while slowing down the fourth, so that the music seemed offbeat with loose skips. One of the most important ska instrumentalists was the trombonist Don Drummond, who played with the Skatalites, perhaps Jamaica’s most accomplished musicians at the time. This group produced such titles as “Freedom Sounds,” “Far East,” “Addis Ababa,” and “Man in the Street,” indicating the tight relationship between urban poor communities in Jamaica and Africa and certainly the cultural importance of Rastafari. The music of the Skatalites remains a rich archive of early Jamaican music.
Jamaican music is organically tied to dance and the body. There is no popular music without dance steps. In the history of Jamaican music, with its reliance on the local sound system as the conduit of its popularity, the participation of both audience and dancers in giving the music its form is critical. When the audience comprises primarily urban dwellers alienated from official society, then the relationship among the music, musicians, form, and audience becomes especially intimate and can become a practice of counter-signification. This practice is clearly illustrated by the morphing of ska into the musical form of rock steady. If ska began as the music of hope, it quickly came to express a growing alienation and despair, as “Simmer Down,” the single most important ska hit of the Wailers, illustrates. In the song the Wailers ask the “rude bwoy” to “simmer down.” The “rude bwoy” was the iconic young black male of the city, a figure of rebellion who began to confront notions of Jamaican citizenship and respectability. Prince Buster, the Nation of Islam producer and singer, also sang in “Judge Dread” of the confrontation between the Jamaican justice system and the “rude bwoy.” These songs were not reflective of but rather an integral part of Jamaican social and political discourse of the period.
In rock steady, the transitional music between ska and reggae, the music slowed down, lost its skip, became languid. The dance movements were transformed, with the shoulders and hands operating in different time from the motions of the pelvis. Singing groups were central to this style; the Wailers, Heptones, Ethiopians, Paragons, Melodians, and Mighty Diamonds were popular. Singers like Jimmy Cliff, Alton Ellis, Delroy Wilson, and Ken Boothe also emerged, and along with the centrality of the sound systems of Sir Coxsone and Duke Reid and Prince Buster, Jamaican popular music consolidated itself locally. The singers and instrumental creativity of ska and rock steady combined with the creative musical drives of the urban dispossessed population to lay the ground for reggae.
In reggae the drum and bass became pronounced and the individual singer was given more scope; the horns surround the bridge segments of the music, and the dancer skips and moves with feet free from the thralldom of postcolonial oppression, while the body retraces the memory of the Middle Passage. Reggae music relies heavily on the message it delivers—from Marley’s “Trench Town Rock” to Junior Byles’s “Fade Away” and perhaps that most reproduced of all reggae riddims, the rhythm of the Abyssinians, “Satta Massagana.” Reggae music operates in the languages of black struggle and redemption and is shaped by the language—what Velma Pollard calls “dread talk”—and religious and political doctrines of Rastafari. Dread talk undertakes the lexical reorganization of Jamaican language in an effort to linguistically reorder society. The themes of reggae music are history, slavery, Africa, and exile alongside the machinations of record producers. These themes are lyrically enunciated in the idioms of proverbs, rereadings of biblical passages, Jamaican folksongs, and children’s songs. The lyrical rhetorical strategies of many reggae songs are embedded within the social and linguistic complexities of Afro-Jamaican life. One only has to listen to the vast musical archives of the Black Ark studio of Lee Scratch Perry, of Channel One Studio operated by the Hoo-Kim brothers, and of Gussie Clarke to understand how reggae presented alternative narratives of Jamaica’s history and postcolonial society. As the reggae producer Rupie Edwards put it, “The music was a way of life, the whole thing is not just a music being made … it’s a people … a culture … it’s an attitude, it’s a way of life coming out of the people” (Bradley 2000, p. 1). Marley put this well another way in the song “Trench Town”:
Whoa my head
In desolate places we’ll find our bread
And everyone see what’s taking place …
We come from Trench Town
Lord, we free the people with music. Sweet
For many reggae musicians, Jamaican postcolonial society was, in the words of the Rastafari and reggae singer Johnny Clark, a “Babylon system” that the Jamaican people had to move out of. History was a “stench” that consisted of “old pirates,” and freedom was possible only through some sort of revolution or redemption. Reggae music became the voice of black prophetic criticism in postcolonial Jamaican society. At the international level reggae has produced many iconic figures, with Marley being the most popular. Many factors shaped both Marley’s Jamaican and international appeal: the rise in Jamaican radical nationalist politics driven by conceptions of black power, the anticolonial struggles in Africa, the civil rights movement in the United States, and the failures of the immediate Caribbean postcolonial state to deliver on the hopes and aspirations of political independence. In the last stage of Marley’s life, his concert for the guerrillas of the Zimbabwean anticolonial struggle illustrated the deep connections between reggae as a popular antihegemonic musical form and aspects of international black struggles. This dimension of reggae is now being practiced by reggae poets like Mutabaruka.
Reggae continues to develop in the twenty-first century. One genre, roots reggae, popularized by the singer Luciano, distinguishes itself by its message of openness, its rebellious quality, its firm affirmation of Rastafari, and a central preoccupation with social and political issues. Other genres are dub and dance hall. In the 1970s many children of Jamaican immigrants to the United Kingdom, often called “black British,” deployed reggae as a cultural form not only of identity but of protest. Bands such as Steel Pulse and Aswad played a role in the black cultural politics of the United Kingdom. Thematically these bands reflected on the concerns of the black British experience as part of an international black experience. It was from this experience that one of the most important reggae poets, Linton Kwesi Johnson, emerged. Johnson’s poetry, as Fred D’Aguiar put it, is “an epicure of this familiar metre and rhyme served up into a reggae rhythm” (Johnson 2002, p.xi). Reggae has come to constitute an aesthetic form for many Caribbean poets.
Reggae still shapes black popular music around the globe, with reggae bands in Africa, Europe, and Latin America. In addition the philosophy of Rastafari, which traveled with reggae, remains an important cultural and social movement in many parts of the world. Perhaps the best summary of the importance of the historic achievement of reggae is that given by Count Ossie, the drummer and Rastafarian personality, who remarked that both reggae and rasta were “fighting colonialism and oppression but not with guns and bayonet, but wordically, culturally” (Bogues 2003, p. 192). Reggae as a black cultural achievement is an integral element of late-twentieth-century efforts of former colonized people to achieve full decolonization.
"Reggae." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2008. Retrieved May 15, 2011 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3045302216.html