by Dwayne Campbell
“Get up, stand up, Stand up for your rights, Don’t give up the fight.” – Bob Marley
Another Reggae Month is behind us and I am almost sure that plans are in high gear for Reggae Month 2020. Music has always been and continues to be a powerful medium for social change and advocacy. Jamaica is fortunate in that we have benefitted from our African ancestry in the formulation of a wide genre of music offerings, from ska to reggae to dancehall.
The international community has also been a recipient of Jamaica’s gift to the global community in numerous art forms. Unquestionably, Jamaica is a cultural superpower.
It appears, though, that reggae music is still not fully accepted in the birthplace of its roots. It seems that classism is very much at play regarding how some of us in Jamaica view reggae and its offshoot, dancehall. It seems to me that reggae music is somewhat that “bastard” child who everyone tries to be nice to; however, the child is constantly reminded that he/she does not belong.
Reggae music is still fighting for a legitimate “space” within Jamaica’s rich cultural heritage, even after the United Nations—through its cultural arm, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)— added reggae to its collection of “intangible cultural heritage” in 2018.
Reggae music’s “contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love and humanity underscores the dynamics of the element as being at once cerebral, socio-political, sensual and spiritual,” according to UNESCO.
Sadly, even after the tangible efforts by UNESCO to preserve reggae, there are segments of the Jamaican population that have disassociated themselves from this genre of music. This distancing from reggae music by some is a direct result of the early associations of Rastafarianism with the origins of the music.
The truth is, reggae music has become one of the defining indicators of who is a Jamaican. The social impact of this popular music form is rather widespread and can be found in our streets, homes, cars, on public transport and just about all public spaces. In spite of this, there are still those who do not see it as a worthy cultural ambassador with the capability to move across borders and jurisdictions to spread a message of love and hope.
The 22nd Annual Bob Marley Lecture was held on Friday, February 15, 2019 at the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. The lecture was given by Dr Les Johnson, Research Fellow at Birmingham City University in the United Kingdom. Dr Johnson is a Jamaican by birth. He was born just outside of Lucea in Hanover. He holds a PhD in Cultural Visualization from Birmingham City University. Among Dr Johnson’s areas of interests are New Media and Design and Online Music Archives.
The topic of his lecture was Reggae Urbanism: Re-Mixing Design, Sonic Culture, and Archiving the Reggae Continuum as Planetary Discourse.
According to Dr Johnson, Marley popularized reggae music into a planetary discourse. For him, the term “reggae urbanism” is where reggae music acts and impacts various stimuli, as well as how urban life impacts reggae music. Dr Johnson suggested that reggae urbanism can be a flagship for development.
It is fair to say that Marley would have got some of his inspiration from growing up in Trench Town in Kingston. As an urban setting, Trench Town is densely populated. One’s outlook on life is obviously shaped by one’s experiences, such as living in an urban city, and this undoubtedly impacts one’s creative juices.
Perhaps a definition of development would be useful. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) defines development as a process of enlarging people’s choices, increasing their opportunities for education, healthcare, income and employment, and covering the full range of human choices from a sound physical environment to economic and political freedoms. It is obvious that reggae music has that ability and influence to fulfill all the aspects of development as outlined in the aforementioned definition. The urban dictionary describes reggae as a music genre first developed in Jamaica in the 1960s. The term “reggae” symbolizes a particular music style that originated following the era of ska and rocksteady. The source continues that “reggae is based on a rhythmic style characterized by accents on the off-beat, known as the skank”. And dictionary.com defines reggae as a style of Jamaican popular music blending blues, calypso and rock and roll characterized by a strong syncopated rhythm, and lyrics of social protest.
Dr Johnson mentioned that Bob Marley used his music and lyrics in songs such as Concrete Jungle, Trench Town Rock and Natty Dread to highlight this reggae urbanism concept. It is safe to say that during the developing and emergence of reggae a relationship with Rastafarianism also blossomed, especially since one of reggae’s most famous sons, Marley, was a Rastafarian.
Dr Johnson opined that international transfer is an important commodity and, as such, reggae archiving is essential. He views reggae music as a significant movement of change which is able to generate innovation. He commented that Marley’s body of work is a significant movement of cultural significance. Dr Johnson declared that archiving is significant in the reshaping of words and the re-mixing of words as well for the expression of words, and the idea of archiving is critical to the preservation of one’s culture.
Dr Johnson also mentioned “reggae futurism” as a hybrid form of reggae. He called for a new set of narratives as he told his audience that reggae archiving manifests itself in many ways, such as through fashion, poetry, dance, and one’s hairstyle. Reggae is a living culture, he added.
Archiving is more about facilitating historical discourse about the past, present and the future, more than it is about preserving one’s culture. Have we done a good job at archiving our past? Archiving is also about one’s emotional intelligence and change in one’s mentality. There were those in the audience who were left to ponder whether we need another space to archive reggae music. Perhaps what is needed is a collaborative effort in consolidating all our archives and museums on reggae music.
We already have the Institute of Jamaica among other spaces which serve to preserve our reggae music. An interesting point was made by Dr Michael Barnett who challenged Dr Johnson not to forget “reggae ruralism” in the discourse.
The Future of Reggae
The future of reggae is endless. Reggae music has transcended from the string guitars and a few drums to mainstream music with an international flair. One only has to look at the 2019 Grammy winner for Best Reggae Album, Shaggy and Sting, for their album 44/876. There are many princes and princesses of reggae music. Among them are artistes such as Protoje, Taurus Riley, Chronixx, Koffee and Etana who continue to hold the reggae flag high.
Do you need to engage more of the public in the discourse? Absolutely, yes! I find that the narrative on such matters tends to be too academic. As a result, there is not a sense of ownership from the average Jamaican. We need to create more spaces for information sharing, especially using a bottom-up approach. Is now the right time for such an engagement of the wider society? I believe so. The time has come for us as a society to appreciate and value the power and influence Jamaica has made over the years to the cultural history of this world. Jamaica’s contribution is incalculable and serves as a testimony to our rich cultural diversity as a proud people. We should not allow the binaries of social class, skin colour, education and political associations to prevent us from celebrating reggae’s legacy.
In the words of Victor Hugo, “music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent”.