Reggae

Like many musical stylings in the Caribbean, reggae has strong cultural associations - religious and political in this case. The growth of both ska music and Rastafarianism went a long way toward the creation of this popular genre. However, this urban music was also influenced by the feelings of Kingston's youth.

Ska, and its descendant, rocksteady, are the two direct musical predecessors of reggae. The music's social predecessors are Jamaica's independence and its ever-nagging political problems. However, while Rastafarian beliefs are incorporated into the songs of many reggae musicians and lyricists, not every reggae musician follows this Jamaican religion.

Politically, Jamaica was filled with opposition between the "yout'-man" (young people) and the Rasta-named "down-pressors," such as the police. The influences of Rastafarian beliefs also included a characterization of Africa as the homeland and Jamaica as a Babylonian prison, undermining the statements of the politicians working for a united Jamaica. Furthermore, Rastafarians' use of marijuana (ganja) was illegal according to Jamaican law.

These conflicts kept reggae out of the mainstream, even in Jamaica. It was the music of the rebellious youth, not the nation. However, the political message of much music was balanced by religious messages, and even songs about relationships. There were many facets to this new music.

Early Days

Bob Marley led The Wailers, perhaps the quintessential reggae group. They dissolved peaceably in 1974, and Marley continued leading a new group called Bob Marley and The Wailers (composed of all new Wailers) until his death in 1981. The original Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, went on to have solo careers.

Their original productions were far from world popular and generated little money. The same was true for all recording artists of those days, as it was virtually impossible to collect royalties in Jamaica since the recording studio kept the profits.

The Wailers themselves got their break in 1968 when they recorded alongside American soul singer Johnny Nash. From this point forward their fame grew. In 1973, Island Records, led by Jamaican-English Chris Blackwell in Britain, produced The Wailers' first international hit record and allowed them to collect royalties. Bob Marley and The Wailers released another album two years later.

Growing Fame

The Wailers' international success was not shared by every reggae artist, but their accomplishments did bring worldwide attention to the genre. As far away as Africa, children knew all the words to reggae songs. The style became a hit in England as well.

Perhaps surprisingly, Marley's music was not as widely popular in the U.S. as it was throughout the rest of the world - that is, until after his death from cancer. Europe, on the other hand, seemed to consider him the most important reggae artist. In the U.S. Marley and reggae music were first accepted by the black power movement as large political changes took place in the late 1960s.

By the 1970s reggae had also gained acceptance in Jamaica's mainstream. In fact, the People's National Party (PNP) used a hit song by reggae artist Delroy Wilson as its campaign song. This came about as older generations on the island became more accepting of Rastafarian culture.

Popular Artists

While Marley and The Wailers are the best-known musicians of reggae and dominated the genre as it spread internationally, there are a number of other popular reggae musicians. Here are a few artists who deserve mention:

  • Dennis Brown

  • Gregory Issacs (the Cool Ruler)

  • Freddy McGregor

  • Beres Hammond

Modern Views

Reggae itself has evolved since its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, but both traditional reggae and dance hall, the style it birthed, have gained international attention in recent years. Again, political and social views have caused problems for these musical forms, as they've come under fire for homophobic and misogynistic lyrical content.

These controversial lyrics have caused problems for some artists. Some performances have been canceled, and others have attracted extra police to watch over the event. Scotland Yard even took an interest in reggae artists whose lyrics advocated violence against homosexuals at a recent performance.

Bob Marley will always dominate the international reggae scene, but Jamaica's own popular charts are filled with many artists who produce this native style of music.

 

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