Jamaica's music has been popular outside the island since its earliest recorded days, but the best-known Jamaican form is undeniably reggae. Following in the footsteps of mento, rocksteady, and ska, reggae also combines elements of rock music to form something truly unique.

Setting the Stage

The lively music scene in Jamaica was fed by the popularity of dance tracks, and in Kingston in particular, music was extremely important. Rude boys were disillusioned and disenfranchised young men who had moved to Kingston in the hopes of gaining jobs. Unemployment led to political and social challenges that influenced rude boy music.

Ska and rocksteady are reggae's main influences, but it also goes back even earlier to draw on mento music as well. Although reggae musicians did not generally prefer this type of music, many, including Bob Marley, grew up with this style around them as children. The influx of music from the United States also played a role.

The growth of reggae spurred the island's record companies toward change. Prior to the explosion of reggae, record companies paid artists per record – without royalties. No matter how popular a track became, the individual artist would see none of the profits, and many musicians were still poor in Jamaica. Meanwhile, the music industry outside of Jamaica had converted to a system of artist royalties, making musicianship lucrative.

Evolutionary Musicians

When you think of reggae, the name that springs to most people's minds is Bob Marley. His group, The Wailers, originally began its career performing rocksteady style tracks, but Jamaican music was poised to take another step forward. Changing the beat again, reggae took over with its own distinctive rhythm.

Established house bands signed to record companies had no problem remaining employed, but new, younger musicians hoping to get recognized used the complex stylings of reggae to catch the attention of producers. The Wailers were able to turn some heads, but Marley, seeking steady income, spent several years in the United States before returning to Jamaica and the reggae scene.

In 1968, the band got its big break, recording as studio musicians alongside John Nash, who was a popular soul singer in the United States. The rebellious attitude of the trio had scared off a number of record companies, quite possibly due to the arrests of each member of The Wailers (two for marijuana possession).

Politics and Music

The political scene at the time in Jamaica was tense. Many reggae musicians, including Wailer member Bunny Wailer, were Rastafarian. The conflicts between the "yout'-man" and the "down-pressors" was central to reggae music as well as Rastafarianism at the time.

Rastafarianism's stance that Jamaica was the Babylonian prison stood in direct opposition of political statements of unity and happiness of the Jamaican people. Furthermore, Jamaican law forbade the use of marijuana (ganja), which is an integral part of Rastafarian beliefs for some.

World Stage

In the early 1970s, The Wailers were finally signed to Island Records in Britain, earning them the opportunity to be paid royalties for their earnings. Jamaican-born Briton Chris Blackwell was responsible for the production of their first wildly popular record. A second record came a few years later, though The Wailers amicably broke up in 1974, and the later recordings are credited to a new group of Wailers, led by Bob Marley.

Marley himself became synonymous with reggae as its popularity grew worldwide. Even African children knew the words to Marley's reggae tunes, while other reggae artists continued producing top-notch works. Still, reggae was less popular in the United States than it was in many other countries.

America first took notice of reggae as a part of the black power movement in the 1960s. In the 1980s, after Marley died of cancer, he became a widely popular musical figure in the United States. Reggae finally gained political acceptance in its home country by the late 1970s, and the People's National Party (PNP) used a hit song by reggae artist Delroy Wilson as its campaign song.

Becoming Popular

Most studies of reggae focus on Bob Marley and The Wailers because of their strong worldwide presence in the genre. And the original Wailers – Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer – each produced their own hit records after the group broke up.

Meanwhile, other artists, both in Jamaica and around the world, were producing hits. However, it was Marley and The Wailers' talents and ability to bring the genre to Britain and, later, the rest of the world that made reggae what it is today. Even so, it was not a reggae song by a Jamaican artist that brought the world's attention to the genre: it was Eric Clapton's "I Shot the Sheriff" with The Wailers that truly broke international ground.

Jamaica's popular artists include Tosh and Wailer, as well as Marley. However, Delroy Wilson's songs were island-wide hits, encouraging political support. Dennis Brown, Beres Hammond, Gregory Issacs, and Freddy McGregor are other Jamaican reggae stars. These and plenty of other artists brought unique styles to the genre.

Lyrics and Controversy

While many reggae songs are simply tributes to love, songs can also be known for their political and occasionally controversial lyrics. Religious lyrics also abound, particularly from Rastafarian reggae musicians.

Some lyrical content of reggae songs – and the songs of its sub-genres, particularly dancehall – is raising eyebrows. Recently, some groups have come under fire for misogynistic and homophobic lyrics. Performances of such groups have even been canceled, while, in one well-publicized move, Scotland Yard decided to keep close watch on a concert of a group whose lyrics encourage violence toward gays.

Reggae for Dancing

Reggae has inspired a large number of sub-genres. Dancehall, ragga (raggamuffin), and dub are three of the most popular styles that have grown from reggae. However, roots reggae is another style performed exclusively by Rastafarians. More modern forms of reggae are customized for the dance halls, giving listeners a beat they can move to.

Dancehall music is much faster than reggae, with electronic drums replacing the original drum sets. It was sped up so listeners could more easily dance to it. DJs generally "toast" over this style of music. "Toasting" is a form of rapping, and lyrics tend to be bawdy.

Raggamuffin, or ragga, is a subset of dancehall reggae. Characterized by sampled, electronic music, and DJs, ragga represents the majority of the modern reggae music in production. It, too, is evolving into new forms, but it has mainly been influenced by international dance music and hip-hop.

Dub is less a musical genre of its own, and more an important new style of mixing. Record producers began mixing reggae tracks with more emphasis on the musical style, and without vocals. This would allow the DJs to toast over popular reggae songs, and it has been an integral part in the creation of future reggae genres.

Although most consider reggae to be the style Bob Marley and The Wailers popularized, it is in practice a growing and changing family of music. More modern styles have fused traditional reggae with beats that appeal to the Jamaican peoples' love for dancing.


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