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The Development of Reggae Music in The 1960’s-70’s

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Reggae is a Jamaican music genre that came about in the late 1960s. Reggae music at the time was influenced by jazz, rhythm and blues, and mento a rural form of dance music. It is derived from Ska which uses a distinctive bass and drum which was popular in the 50s. When everyone hears the term Reggae they instantly think of Bob Marley and think about marijuana but during this report I’ll go into what really makes Reggae so influential in the music industry and how it pertains to class, race, gender, and sexuality. Reggae was used as an outlet for people to talk about the problems that they dealt with in Jamaica with the violence, drugs, and government. A lot the artists in this genre dealt with this stuff on a daily basis because of what was going on in Jamaica at the time. During this time Jamaica was going through a power struggle between two different political parties trying to gain control of the country and often times they would resort to urban warfare in the streets. Both sides believed the other side was being controlled by outside governments this was during the time of the cold war and the war on drugs. By the end of the 70’s there were 844 people murdered in political violence. The great thing about reggae was that the underlying meaning was always about the power of love and how people could persevere over such problems by coming together.

Many artists in the reggae genre came from lower class families that were raised in the same streets that all this violence was happening. The meaning of reggae is regular, and they use it as a way to say that Jamaican people are regular people that are suffering. They use reggae as a way to reach people and tell them their feelings and the state of the country that they live in. During this time reggae artists became basically like prophets for the people in the country because they were able to use this medium to talk about what the lower class people like themselves were dealing with and helped them cope with the injustices they were going through. Jamaica was a country founded by slave owners, in the 1830s slavery was abolished but it wasn’t for about another 100 years that Jamaicans would start to gain a little control in their country. Jamaica has a horrible history of lawlessness, suffering, and oppression and at the center of that are the descendants of the slaves from Africa which are now the native Jamaicans. From all this is where reggae was born for Jamaicans, they use reggae as a tool to reach the masses and still maintain their roots which are very grounded in music.

In 1968 Toot and the Maytals made a song called “Do the Reggay” which was the first song to coin the term reggae and from there the name stuck and became popular worldwide. When reggae first came about most of the lyrics talked about the love between men and women but in the 70’s once reggae became bigger worldwide the artists realized they could use this as a way to reach the world and tell everyone what was really happening in their country. A really good example of this was the movie reggae artist Jimmy Cliff did in 1972 called “The Harder They Come” which was about a young reggae artist who moves to Kingston to try to start his music career and gets dragged in to the violence and drug problems that were rampant there at the time and ultimately gets murdered by the police. The soundtrack from this movie which had a lot of music from him and other reggae artists at the time helped cement the genre around the world and make it an even bigger force in the music industry.

In 1973 Bob Marley blended rock and reggae together with his new album Catch a Fire and, in this album, he starts to introduce some of the political themes. The blending of rock and reggae is what helped it gain such traction in the US. What Marley brought to the table was an identity that was something the community needed. Marley was around since the early 60’s but really started to shine for the people in the 70’s when he started singing about slavery and how the government is keeping the people down through racism and controlling all the money. This was the turning point for the lower class where they started to view the reggae artists as prophets of some sort because they blended their music about oppression and violence with religion.

That religion was Rastafarianism and embraced a more Afrocentric view. Reggae music always had a close link to Rasta but came to the light more in the 70’s with artists becoming more mainstream. The Rastafari movement came to be because of the feeling of people still feeling like even though slavery was abolished they still felt like slaves in their country and longed to return back to Africa. Bob Marley used his music around this time as a kind of weapon socially and spiritually to combat what was happening in his country and to his fellow countrymen. Many of his songs were a form of protest during this time with songs like “Concrete Jungle” where the lyrics talked about “No chains around my feet/But I’m not free/I know I’m bounded in captivity.” Songs like this touched his people and Africans around the world because they all still felt the affect of slavery and discrimination. At this time one of the parties trying to gain control of the country started taking notice of reggae and along with Marley used the music to help win an election within the country with the Rastafari religion at the fore front.

In 1976 two days before Marley would preform at the Smile Jamaica concert to help promote the election of the person running for office he would be should shot twice because of his beliefs by the rival party. After this shooting the city that the concert was to held at was in turmoil. He was only penned in to perform one song during the show but after the shooting he decided it would be better for the people to show strength through the violence and ended up playing a 90 minute show all the while having gunmen from the other party in the crowd. This performance would go down in history as a symbol of peace and unity. It would cement to the people that love would always win as long as you don’t give up hope.

Reggae was influential and, in many ways, helped to create hip hop. The way reggae used dubbing a way of using samples from other records to come up with different sounds to go along with music and the lyrics that they used which people in the inner cities of the U.S. related to helped give birth to hip hop. There are a lot of similarities between reggae and hip hop to this day because hip hop is also music about an oppressed people. Some of the songs like “I Shot the Sheriff” which Marley made after witnessing the oppression of police in Jamaica also still hold true to this day. The song is about a sheriff who was out to kill the protagonist because he hated him which was due to racial profiling. This theme still holds true almost 50 years later because racial profiling is still going on to this day and it seems like little has changed for the people of lower class living in lower class neighborhoods.

Reggae is one of my favorite genres of music because of the themes its about such love, peace, equality, and freedom from oppression are so uplifting. Music like this will always be around as long as people are being oppressed and treated differently because it gives a voice to people who would otherwise not have a voice to be heard. Bob Marley once said, “If I can’t bring black and white and yellow and brown people together then I don’t want this life.” This statement right here is the perfect example of how he tried to use his music to bring people together under the banner of love and to wake up people in the position of power to do something for the people that are downtrodden. Reggae is used as a tool to help people to learn from their pasts and fight for a better future.

Works Cited

  • Aimers, Jim(2004) The Cultural Significance of Reggae
  • Lipsky, Jessica Down to the Roots: The Radical Politics of Reggae
  • Cooper, Carolyn(Jan 10 2020)  

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