Writer Shereita Grizzle penned an interesting article titled ‘Can Jamaica still claim reggae music as its own?’ which appeared in the Jamaica Gleaner a few days ago.
Ms. Grizzle deserves much credit for asking Jamaica this tough question. Her piece is thoughtful and well-written and raises several interesting discussion points.
Unfortunately, this is not a discussion which Jamaica gets to have with itself inside of a vacuum. This is because Jamaica alone does not have the luxury of determining whether it can still lay claim to reggae music.
Many will scorn me for what I am about to say, but it is truth, pure and simple. Bob Marley, though the most supremely talented and charismatic musician to emerge on the international popular music scene since The Beatles, would never have achieved international success without the backing of Chris Blackwell and the Island Records promotion machine. In fact, it is quite possible that The Wailers, for all of their collective talent, unparalleled work ethic, and endless determination would never have achieved success outside of the Jamaican hotel and festival circuit had Blackwell not taken a risk on them.
Blackwell’s involvement in reggae made it possible for other major labels to invest in reggae artists. Capitol Records signed Inner Circle. The Rolling Stones and Rolling Stones Records got behind Peter Tosh, as did CBS and EMI. Columbia and CBS got behind Third World after Blackwell dropped them. So it should come as no surprise that when Marley passed in 1981, Blackwell began pulling out of the reggae business. At the time Black Uhuru was the next great hope. They represented the “new reggae” of post-Marley Jamaica. Blackwell wasted no time in divesting in Uhuru, who he had signed in 1980, cutting them from the label in 1983. No more world tours with Sting and The Police, no more MTV, no more of that life-giving Island promotion.
Let there be no mistake, Blackwell’s withdrawal from reggae was the death knell for the genre. Never again would a record company go all in on another reggae artist and no artist since Marley has received the vital promotional backing needed to break into the US and world radio markets. Reggae will be forever confined to college radio and 1-hour weekend slots on the local R&B station.
Sure there were plenty major labels still releasing records by reggae artists but these companies never invested in the artists, never promoted them outside of the record store, and most began to withdraw from reggae as it devolved into the era of dancehall slackness, which lacked production value and was characterized by a levity and lack of seriousness that only appealed to a small niche market outside of Jamaica.
Yes, this decline in the quality of reggae coming from Jamaica can be attributed primarily to the introduction of crack cocaine, which caused a shift in both the lyrical content and sound of reggae. As the Howard French wrote in ‘Where Reggae Was Born, a Foreboding Silence’ which appeared in the May 7, 1990 edition of the New York Times “[m]any Rastafarians and reggae fans link their music’s problems at home to a moral decline that involves the emergence of crack as the drug of choice on Kingston’s streets…We have entered a new era when much of the money is cocaine money, so instead of reggae you get dance hall, a party music that goes with the whole cocaine set.”
Finding no love at home, many acts moved to the US and started to record reggae music outside of Jamaica. One of Jamaica’s most beloved vocal groups recorded their first album outside of Jamaica in 1987. Israel Vibration’s Strength of My Life was proof positive that authentic, foundation roots reggae could be recorded outside of Jamaica. The capitol of reggae moved from Kingston to places like Los Angeles, Washington, DC and New York in the late 1980s. RAS Records began investing once again in roots reggae and conscious dancehall music. However, lack of promotion continued to plague reggae throughout the 1990s during which time a paradigm change occurred. Music could now be downloaded and traded online through web applications like Napster. This shook the record industry to its core and it would never be the same again.
Notwithstanding the breakout success of Shaggy and Sean Paul, Jamaica has struggled to produce solid talent that can compete with acts that started to emerge on the international scene.
The article contains a quote from Copeland Forbes where he says that reggae from Jamaica is the only “authentic” reggae and that reggae music recorded outside of Jamaica is only a replica of the real thing. He is just plain wrong when he says that reggae music made outside Jamaica is a replica. Perhaps he should listen to the sounds coming from the Virgin Islands. The Virgin Islands, especially St. Croix is the only country outside of Jamaica that has a reggae sound all its own – a “national marker,” something that other countries use to identify the country and its culture.
Midnite and I-Grade Records have built upon the foundation of roots reggae a truly authentic and more evolved sound that is all their own. They are an absolute original and their music is on a much higher level intellectually than reggae. As Dermot Hussey explained in ‘Midnite In The Belly of The Beast’ “I think lyrically they have changed the form of the reggae song. Intellectually they are way in advance of the mostly simple messages of traditional reggae.” They are also the most prolific band in reggae and have been for at least the past 15 years.
There are many promising acts coming out of Jamaica right now, Protoje, Chronixx, Jah9, Dre Island and others just might have what it takes to bring Jamaica around once again. People should also take note of the bands backing these singers – very gifted musicians playing some of the tightest reggae to come out of Jamaica in years.
So no, Jamaica can no longer claim reggae music as its own. I agree with Professor Carolyn Cooper who says “[s]o we’ve given reggae music to the world. But sometimes we act as if reggae was stolen from us.” Jamaica should stand proud for they gave the world a very soulful and spiritual music which continues to touch the lives of people all over the world. But reggae music now belongs to those who choose to be caretakers of the music, wherever they are.