The evolution of a rebel music

May 14, 1997

Get Up, Stand Up: A History of Reggae
Monday, May 19, 8.30pm (8pm in SA)

Review by Norm Dixon

Reggae is the world's favourite Caribbean music. It is Jamaica's most famous export. Between 1970 and the early 1980s, it ranked as one of the main pop music styles throughout the world. The distinctive relaxed, bass-heavy beat has influenced pop music — whether punk, rock, funk or African pop.

What explains the sudden rise of reggae in 1970s and 1980s, and its relative decline in popularity today?

Get Up, Stand Up gives us some hints. As an introduction to Jamaican music and its evolution, this French-made documentary is good.

Those with some knowledge may find that it does not tell them anything they do not already know and does not explore the controversies that rage amongst reggae's hard-core fans in any detail. It's a thumbnail sketch, that's all. But its shortcomings are more than made up by the deluge of classic footage of Jamaican music's legends.

Reggae evolved with the struggle of the African-Jamaican people. It is rebel music. Over 150 years until 1807, more than 2 million slaves were transported from Ghana and Nigeria to work the British-owned plantations of Jamaica. Music was one of the ways they survived that living nightmare.

The most important early influence was the music of the Maroon community. The Maroons were fugitives from slavery who sought refuge in the remote interior. They fought a guerilla war until the British government was forced to grant them independence in 1738.

The Maroons maintained, largely intact, the culture, beliefs and music of their African forebears. The rhythms of the Maroons formed the basis of subsequent Jamaican music.

The modern evolution of reggae began with ska in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A mixture of Jamaican beats and horn-laden jazz, ska reflected the fact that Jamaica was within radio range of the US, so African-American swing, jump blues and later doo-wop vocals and soul all made their mark.

Ska skanked in Jamaica's independence in 1960. From ska evolved the more vocal-oriented pop known as rock steady or lovers' rock.

While the exact date of its emergence is one the great debates, reggae as we know it today, with its distinctive "heat beat" rhythm, came into being in the late 1960s.

Reggae in the 1970s began to reflect the growing influence of the persecuted Rastafarian religious sect. Rastas combined a form of fundamentalist Afrocentric Christianity with utopian rural socialism and pacifism. Once in the ghettos of Kingston, Rastafarianism took on a distinct class bias towards the poor and unemployed youth and developed into the Caribbean's liberation theology.

The overtly political reggae stars — the most prominent being Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Winston Rodney aka Burning Spear, and later Jimmy Cliff and, in London's Brixton, Linton Kwesi Johnson — were also deeply influenced by the victories of the anti-colonial struggles that swept Africa through the 1960s and the anti-apartheid struggles in southern Africa.

Jamaica itself was not immune from the radicalisation that was also felt in the Caribbean, culminating in the revolution in Grenada in 1979.

It was the openly radical, class conscious, pro-liberation nature of reggae in the 1970s and early 1980s that led to its sudden widespread popularity throughout the world, especially amongst the world's black populations and young people.

Punks in Britain like the Clash embraced it. The influence of reggae on UB40, Sting's Police and even Boy George's Culture Club is clear. The sounds of the insurgent ghetto youth of Jamaica struck a chord in the working-class ghettos of London, Sydney, Paris and New York.

As the political radicalisation that went hand in hand with reggae's rise was quelled by Reaganism (literally when the US invaded Grenada in 1983) and Thatcherism, so did reggae's popularity take a relative tumble.

Any fan of political reggae can tell you that left-wing lyrics have been few and far between over the last 10 years. In their stead has been the apolitical commercialised sexist and nihilist party music known as dance hall and the reggae-meets-house music called jungle.

"Conscious" reggae has been little more than the reactionary and wacky elements of the Rasta religion shorn of its revolutionary political interpretation, best represented by the music of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.

Has reggae had its day as a rebel music? I doubt it. There remain radical artists — new and veterans — who are prepared to bring reggae to the service of new radicalisations. It still appeals to radical youth. As long as that is the case, reggae remains rebel music.

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