Mr. Jose Arrom
November 8, 2011
The aim of this paper is not only to educate but to graft a better understanding of the role of reggae music and its influence on the people of Jamaica and all over the world. I believe for Jamaica the importance of their culture and subcultures have never truly been investigated and realized by the majority of Jamaicans or by the world at large. Ska, Rock steady and Reggae were major influences in Jamaican’s daily life and political structure. An African influence came to Jamaica through the slave trade in the West Indies. Africans influenced Ska, calypso, and rock steady. Rock steady was the forerunner for reggae (1). Jamaicans searched for their own unique sound to express their struggles in their oppressive society. They discovered this in the culture of the Rastafarians.
Jamaica being the third largest island in the Caribbean is known for its local fascinating culture found throughout the island including the music, dance, songs and food. An island colonized by Christopher Columbus, with its earliest inhabitants being the Taino Indians, also known as the Arawak. The island is 4,243 square miles in size with a coast line of 634 miles and is located in the Caribbean Sea just 90 miles of south Cuba. It carries various numbers of different ethnic groups with the largest group being from African descent. Also interweaved in this ethnic majority was the European culture of the white slave masters.
With most countries that the majority is living in deep poverty, there is a rebellion that springs from racism and oppression. According to The Gleaner, a Jamaican newspaper, “up to a third of Jamaicans are out and out illiterate in the 21st century, others are semi-literate; and up to three-quarters of the people in the low-wage economy have no formal skills training.”(2)
“The wealth is distributed largely along racial lines, reflecting Jamaica's slave- plantation heritage. The descendants of black slaves tend to be among the poorest classes in Jamaica, while white and mixed-race descendants of plantation owners and traders tend to be better off. These extremes are reflected in the nation's distribution of income: in 1996 the wealthiest 20 percent of Jamaicans controlled 43.9 percent of the wealth, while the poorest 20 percent controlled only 7 percent. In fact, the poorest 60 percent controlled just 34.3 percent of wealth. Due in large part to the decline of services in urban slums, the percentage of people with access to safe water has declined from 96 percent in the period from 1982-85 to 70 percent in the period from 1990-96; access to sanitation facilities (plumbed toilets) has dropped from 91 percent to 74 percent in the same period.”(3)
To truly understand the roots of Reggae music, we have to understand the major religion in Jamaica which is known as Rastafarianism. The Rasta story is first linked to a Jamaican man living in America in the 1800’s named Marcus Garvey. Marcus Garvey prophesied that from Africa there would be a savior that would come and would deliver the American blacks back to Africa. Garvey also believed that only Africans should be in power in Africa. He was dedicated to African Americans to being resettled in Africa. In 1930 there was a prince that came to power in Ethiopia. His family name was Tafari and as was common in Ethiopia, Tafari took the Amharic title of Ras. When Ras Tafari had his coronation he took the new name of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I. Selassie I invited blacks living outside Africa to return to the motherland and return to Shasamene. Thus, this Emperor was the fulfillment of the prophecy that Marcus Garvey spoke of and was believed to be the reincarnation of God in human form.
The fundamental belief that the Rastafarians held was that HIM Emperor Haile Selassie I was the savior and they worshipped him accordingly. “The Rasta movement also believed that the bible was Satan’s ploy to mislead the faithful.”(1) In Christian religion the paradise that we go when we die is called heaven. In the Rastafarian tradition it is called Zion. The Rasta is commonly a vegetarian, and sometimes eats small fish or shellfish. The Rastafarians do not eat pork or any animal that have cloven hoof. “The colors of the Ethiopian flag are used often. Red is for the blood spilt in defending themselves and their ways, gold for the riches stolen from the blacks, and green for fertility of the land.” (1) Rasta’s valued living as naturally as possible. Their hair being a tree with roots, like dreadlocks. They believed in not being part of the normal society and going against vanity. Locks and Weed were very large parts of the Rastafarian culture.
The 1950’s the so called ”race music” was beginning to take over the radio. In 1958 they began to release songs in Jamaica by local artists. In 1959 the very first “ska” record was cut. Groups such as the skattelites and Israelites were the first ska groups to form and gain international attention and were the leaders of the ska movement. In 1963 a group made up of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer had their very first hit called “Simmer Down”. This song by the Wailers was written as a direct message to the rude boys. In the mid sixties ska had over time had mixed with soul music. This music soon became rock steady which was associated with the rude boys. This rude boy mentality is portrayed through music and culture. The first rude boys were associated with the poorest sections of Kingston, Jamaica and were also usually argueing.
Rastafarians used Reggae as their voice to Jah and also against the Political oppression that was oppressing them daily. “Reggae music was made up of traditional African Drums, Jazz and rock steady. Reggae music is all about poverty, social injustice, religion, and love and because of the turmoil faced by Jamaicans have faced over the years it speaks directly from the soul.” Some say the beat that is consistent in almost every reggae song is representative of a human heartbeat.
Bob Marley was the first Jamaican singer to take reggae music to a higher level and to be internationally known for the love of his songs. Bob Marley was a Rastafarian and believed intensely in Jah and Haile Selassie. He believed his purpose was to be a prophet of truth and social awareness and social justice not just for his fellow Jamaicans but also for African Americans. “Marley’s music grew out of both severe and constant economic impoverishment as well as politics content with the government and its policies; and it is in this context that as well his music must be analyzed and understood.”(5)
Reggae music and its lyrics changed Jamaican peoples lives in the 1970’s and 1980’s as well as today. Its lyrics cry out for the government, politicians, and police to stop oppressing the people living in poverty and the black people and native people with whom they have been keeping down by psychological and physical warfare.
One of the songs that was most influential for people of color was “Redemption Song.” Partial lyrics to this song are:
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
'Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look?
Ooh Some say it's just a part of it
We've got to fulfill the book
Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have
This song made oppressed people have a voice they could finally relate to.
Jamaica is a island that is diverse in culture, ethnicity, music, dance, and political views. Is is one of the most beautiful islands and also one of the most impoverished islands. The wealthy make up a small percentage of the people and the majority are living in poverty. There is a lot of discrimination, especially when it comes to police and people of color. This is similar to the police here in the United States. Reggae music is not just entertainment but it is the heart of the Jamaican people. It brings unity and takes pain away even in the darkest of times. “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain, so hit me with music, hit me with music.”