Written by: Devin Hollister

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“Can we free the people with music?” Empowering the underrepresented majority of Jamaica is the modus operandi of Reggae music; it was born on the island of Jamaica in the late 1960s. Reggae music seeks to empower the underrepresented majority of Jamaica, to liberate them from the bonds of poverty, religious prejudice, and the erasure of their cultural heritage through centuries of oppression. This essay examines how the social and historical context of reggae music’s artists, themes, and lyrics have made it a valuable tool for the Jamaican people’s expression.

A musical methodology investigates what sonic components of reggae music have contributed to the delegation of power and importance to Jamaica’s people. Stephen A. King’s Reggae, Rastafari, and the Rhetoric of Social Control is an example of how Jamaican music historically is studied. The ideas from this source will be taken and applied to reggae and the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers individually. Bob Marley is featured as a case study of reggae music because, as the most famous reggae musician of all time, his musical legacy has come to define the genre around the world. In particular, the songs “Trench Town,” a track featured on Bob Marley’s posthumous album Confrontation depicting scenes of poverty in Jamaica, and “Ride Natty Ride,” an ode to the power of Rastafari and the spiritual strength of its followers from Marley’s 1979 release Survival, are carefully analyzed due to their themes of protest and religion and because of their sonic representativeness of reggae in general.

This analysis shows that reggae music, best embodied by singer/songwriter Bob Marley, is an effective mechanism of Jamaican social protest, the spread of Rastafari, and African pride, that, let them express their voices by calling upon their collective identity, empower its listeners in ways that can lend a hand to social struggles in other parts of the world.

 I. Reggae and Social Protest

The prevailing perception of Jamaica is of a care-free tropical paradise, but the truth is that this image is only one side of the country. Today, Jamaica is still a developing nation in many ways, but this was especially true when reggae music first appeared in the late 1960s. At this time, its bustling tourist sector was unrepresentative of the living conditions of a significant portion of its inhabitants. The island’s white minority held a disproportional amount of its wealth, while thousands of the Jamaicans of African descent lived in ghettos without electricity or running water.

These unfair and challenging living conditions fueled the reggae movement, making reggae a tool for transforming the existing social order and a rallying force for the oppressed and impoverished. Bob Marley, specifically, shows these themes in his music, and through the specific sonic qualities of reggae music, he succeeds in translating his message.

 Voices of the Ghetto 

The source and modes of distribution for early reggae enabled the music to act as a forum for the Jamaican lower class’s growing dissent. One reason for this lies in the birthplace of Jamaican music, Trench Town. Trench Town was the weakest sector of Jamaica’s capital city, Kingston, a “landscape of live garbage and boxwood and unlikely tropical greenery” where people “built shacks and huts out of cardboard and plywood and rusty old iron.”

It was here that the exclusion from the comforts enjoyed by the higher, lighter-skinned classes and the powerlessness of Jamaica’s African population was most apparent. As a result, reggae music was an essential medium for drawing attention to the struggles and demands of the poor. Trench Town’s rebellious youth population, known as Rude Boys, helped promote this spirit of protest in reggae music. Although this term has now come to refer to any follower of ska or reggae music, the original Rude Boys “were gangs of ‘discontented’ Jamaican youths who carried knives, cutlasses, and guns” and “embraced the image of an outlaw hero, breaking all the rules yet struggling against the forces of evil and oppression.”

Reggae soon became an essential part of the Rude Boy identity, and as a result, the music became increasingly politicized. Some argue that no other reggae artist embodies these connections as well as Bob Marley.

As “the original Rude Boy,” Bob Marley grew up in Trench Town when reggae was in its infancy. Many of his songs, such as “Trench Town,” are dedicated to spreading awareness of the social conditions in Jamaica and fighting against the forces that cause them. “Trench Town” draws scenes of poverty in such lines as “[u]pon a rock I rest my head,” suggesting that in Trench Town a rock is the most comfort that one can find, and “[i]n desolate places we’ll find our bread.”

These images are accompanied by challenging threats to the government in such statements as “don’t make my life a prison,” and in demanding they “pay tribute to Trench Town” for “keep[ing] us in chains.” Marley also draws upon the feeling of collective identity among the oppressed in the chorus with “[w]e come from Trench Town,” using the pronoun “we” to turn the song into a rallying cry for action. The song also highlights the importance of reggae music in the struggle for equal treatment in the line “We free the people with music,” citing music as “his only recourse” and providing a specific promise of redemption.

However, this statement carries a double meaning, also referring to the bustling local music industry in Trench Town. Becoming a musician was one of Trench Town youths’ only ways to enable themselves to leave the ghetto and was an essential alternative to joining a gang. In addition to its themes of fighting against poverty, reggae music connected the poor through its distribution.

As the Jamaican government started to ban reggae songs with anti-government messages from the radio, reggae began to be primarily distributed by Rude Boys who played the latest reggae tunes, especially those forbidden on the radio, on the streets of Kingston and in dance halls through large groups of speakers called “sound systems.” By circumnavigating the government’s radio laws, playing reggae music was made even more subversive.

The operators of the sound systems, or selectors, would often play instrumental versions of popular reggae songs called versions and “toast” over them, speaking and shouting in the place of lyrics. In this way, reggae was quite literally the voice of the ghetto. In “Trench Town,” Bob Marley imitates the toasting technique in the lines “[j]ust because we come from Trench Town,” which are more yelled in selector style than sung. Even during composed sections, however, the words of the poor could be heard in expressions particular to Jamaicans’ English patois.

In Bob Marley’s “Ride Natty Ride,” for example, the phrases “go deh,” “a-gwan,” and the replacement of pronouns such as in “me say” are reflections of the local dialect of the Jamaican poor and went against what the elite considered proper English. The power of reggae as a form of social protest does not lie solely in its lyrics, and the musical components of reggae play an integral role in its politicization.

 Sonic Qualities of Reggae and Social Protest

In many ways, reggae’s musical fingerprint in itself was a form of protest. One of the most evident and far-reaching examples of this is reggae’s characteristic drumming pattern, the “one drop.” One drop drumming consists of weak beats on the first, second, and fourth beat while heavily accenting the third with the bass drum and, most often, a cross-stick hit on the snare drum. One drop drumming “ran counter to both standard Western music accents and the rock and roll backbeat rhythm, which accent the first and third, and the second and fourth beat, consecutively.

Both Marley’s “Trench Town” and “Ride Natty Ride” feature this classic pattern and most of his other songs. Reggae also challenges Western influence in its strong emphasis on the offbeat, the portion of a beat between the even-numbered pulses, the guitar, and sometimes the organ. These offbeats, called the “skank,” give motion and anticipation to the music’s slow tempo, creating a “lurching dominance” and an “overall effect…of urgency.”

The relative volume and the role of the bass guitar were an essential contradiction to Western music. In reggae music, the bass plays a very melodic role, often playing sixteenth-note patterns. It is part of the forefront of the sound in recordings produced by the many independent recording studios in Trench Town. Additionally, the records produced in these studios were of relatively low-quality compared to those produced by the American or British music industry at the time.

Many people embrace them as sonic representations of the ghetto. While reggae music proved to be an excellent medium for social commentary, it was also very successful in spreading religious beliefs.

 II. Reggae Music and the Rastafari Movement

With its roots 1930’s, Rastafari is a religion often considered a sect of Christianity founded in Jamaica. The followers of Rastafari worship the former emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I, as the earthly embodiment of God, referring to him as Jah. As many call them, Rastas also smoke cannabis for the spiritual purpose of becoming closer to God. Much of the lyrics and themes of reggae music, especially those of Bob Marley, carry the word of Rastafari.

Through reggae’s popularization across the world, Rastafari is now a credible religion. This credibility of faith has added legitimacy to the Rasta way of life and subsequently empowered the Rastafari community. Furthermore, the unique musical aspects of reggae music have played a crucial role in enabling this progression.

 Jah and Cannabis in Reggae

As a devout Rasta, Bob Marley dedicated a large portion of his work to further Rastafari’s ideas. In the song “Ride Natty Ride,” for example, Marley invokes Rastafari lingo to call his fellow Rastas to continue following their way of life, saying “[d]ready got a job to do/ and he’s got to fulfill that mission.” Like many reggae artists, Marley addresses a follower of Rastafari as “ready” and “natty dread,” referring to the dreadlocks worn by Rastas, who believe that it is against the natural order to cut their hair.

The use of such “dread lingo” has become far-reaching through reggae music as “the use of this vocabulary is also present with artists who are not Rastas, which shows how strong the influence of Rastafari on reggae has been” and vice versa. Marley then attests to Rastafari’s power, promising that its followers “will survive in this world of competition” and that Rastafari will be the fire that burns down the institutions of its oppressors.

This line reflects Rastafari’s rejection of modern society, referred to by many reggae artists as Babylon for its immorality, oppression, and war. For his contributions to the spreading of Jah’s words, many Rastas compare Marley to a prophet. Still, he is perhaps even more infamously known for his association with another pillar of Rastafari: the use of cannabis.

Through Bob Marley and other Jamaican reggae artists, the use of cannabis, or ganja as people in Jamaica call it, for spiritual purposes is something that people understand throughout the world. Bob Marley was known to smoke “cigar-sized joints of powerful marijuana” and mentions the herb in many of his songs, even naming the album Kaya after a potent strain of ganja. In addition to its significance to Rastafari practice, the use of cannabis was also a way to rebel against the Jamaican government. Ganja has been illegal in Jamaica since 1913, but people estimate that “between 60 and 70 percent of the population smokes, drinks, or ingests ganja in one form or another.”

For Jamaica’s many poor and oppressed, ganja offered a brief escape from the everyday toils of living in poverty. In addition to testaments to Jah’s power and the metaphysical benefits of ganja, reggae’s necessary qualities facilitate the spread of Rastafari ideas.

 Music Qualities of Reggae that Reflect Rastafari

The very nature of reggae music lends itself to the attachment of religious ideals. One of the most noticeable of these aspects, and what separates it from ska, reggae’s Jamaican predecessor, and other types of music, is its slow tempo. Reggae music uses a slow and steady “hypnotic groove” to put the mind of the listener into a state of meditation and simulate being under the influence of cannabis. Marley’s “Trench Town” at 72 beats per minute (bpm) and “Ride Natty Ride” at 68 bpm are very slow in comparison to most other forms of popular music and, as a result, achieve the profoundly spiritual quality of reggae music.

Another critical factor in allowing reggae music to acting as a platform for religious ideas is its repetition. Most reggae songs are composed of a simple pattern of verses and choruses with each chorus identical except for possibly small improvisations. In addition to making the song’s messages more likely to be remembered, this repetition also imitates the practice of prayer. The chanting of lyrics that reggae artists sometimes use also serves this purpose, harkening back to traditional African religious ceremonies, prominent aspects of which incorporate modern Rastafari.

The bridge of “Ride Natty Rides” uses this technique in the rhythmic call and answer of “the fire.” In addition to African religious roots, reggae has raised awareness of other parts of African heritage that, while important to Rastafari, transcend religion and focus on racial identity.

 III. Reggae and Africa

In 1655, Great Britain claimed that Jamaica was one of its colonies and prompted by the consistently warm climate and ignored the sparse populations of Arawak people, It began to import people from the West Coast of Africa to work as slaves in sugar plantations. As sugar cultivation proved extremely lucrative, the need for more labor increased, and soon, the number of African slaves greatly outnumbered the white population of the island.

Today, the majority of Jamaica’s inhabitants are still of African descent, and the reconnection to African culture is a prominent aspect of Jamaican society. Reggae music and the music of Bob Marley in particular, through its lyrics and its stylistic features, have acted as an essential representation of African pride and Pan-Africanism, giving strength to the African-Jamaican community.

 Themes of Africa in Reggae Lyrics

When the British colonized Jamaica, they stripped the African people of their rich heritage and destroyed any links to their homeland to dehumanize and subordinate them. To combat the effects of hundreds of years of this treatment, Jamaicans have used reggae music to retell their history from their point of view. For example, “[s]ongs such as Mutabaruka’s Great Queens of Africa furnished . . . original images of African people as excellent people, intelligent and resourceful, emanating from a culture and tradition which was vigorous, glorious, [and] irrepressible;” this goes directly against the teachings in the European education systems operating in Jamaica and most of the Western world which typically portrays African history as primitive or glosses over it entirely. In addition to rewriting African history to show its beauty, reggae music often reminds listeners of past injustices to the African people.

The history of slavery in Jamaica is often cited, as in Bob Marley’s “Slave Driver,” to accomplish this and to force one to “consider . . . the phenomenon of slavery from an Afrocentric perspective.” These injustices are often compared to current examples of African oppression, illustrating the longevity of social inequality for those of African descent. In “Trench Town,” for example, Marley refers to the poverty of his community as “[a]nother page in history.”

Reggae music is also a powerful advocate of the Pan Africa movement, often calling directly upon the people of Africa to come together in peace. The songs “Africa Unite” and “Zimbabwe,” the latter of which Marley historically performed to a crowd of thousands in Zimbabwe, do just this, demanding the establishment of a unified African state to serve as an alternative to Western Society. While the lyrics of many reggae songs bear powerful African consciousness messages, their effectiveness comes from reggae’s musical connection to Africa.

 Reverberations of African Music in Reggae

Reggae music’s most significant musical tie to Africa is the influence of African American blues in its development. Reggae music was born primarily through the marriage of ska music from Jamaica and blues music from the American South, which was played extensively on Jamaican radio. African American blues, and transitively reggae, reflects many traditional music styles inherent to Africa. In both colors and reggae, vocal techniques include vocal glisses, or “sliding” to and from notes, moaning, growling, shouting, and chanting, all of which were not common to Western music before the arrival of blues and has African influence.

The harmonic structure of most reggae comes from African-induced blues. The most critical chords in building most reggae music are the first, fourth, and fifth (I, IV, V) chords of a given key and the notes played over them are composed of five letters of specific musical intervals in a pattern called a minor pentatonic scale, or “blues” scale. The so-called “blue” notes of these scales are interpreted as a dissonance by Western music theory but are extensively used in Africa to add expressiveness to African music. One can see the importance of these chordal and scalar structures in “Ride Natty Ride” which is composed entirely of four chords, three of which are the I, IV, and V.

Despite its similarities to blues, reggae diverges from blues in some ways that make it even more representative of African music. One example of this is the use of “tight” three or more part vocal harmonies, tight meaning singing the smallest note intervals available to sing a chord. Many reggae songs, including “Trench Town” and “Ride Natty Ride,” borrow this stylistic device from traditional African choirs. Reggae music’s rhythmic complexity, created by the different instruments’ separate roles, can also be traced to Africa.

The polyrhythms that characterize African drumming create a similar driving and pulsating effect, encouraging movement and dance. These throwbacks to African heritage illustrate the richness of African culture and induce a sense of pride in being African, in fact empowering the black Jamaicans by which and for which reggae music represents a sense of collective identity. Reggae music has proved, however, that its potential for social change, religious communication, and cultural celebration is not limited to the people of Jamaica.

Jamaica’s African majority has a long history of oppression, poverty, and powerlessness, but through reggae music, they have found a voice. Arising from the shantytowns of Kingston and propelled most famously and effectively by Bob Marley, reggae has served as a form of protest against the unjust “Babylon.” It has also established Rastafari, the religion of many of Jamaica’s unfortunate, as a valid form of spirituality and spread its teachings throughout the world.

Also, reggae has given black Jamaica pride in their heritage, supplanting the history of colonization and subjugation taught by white education systems. The overall effect of reggae for the people of Jamaica has been empowerment, as the people of a relatively small island in the Caribbean now have a voice that the entire world can hear. As a result of Bob Marley’s international superstardom, reggae has become Jamaica’s most lucrative export, and its potential for bringing social and political reform is being applied in many different countries across the planet to combat the global Babylon of modern society; this illustrates reggae music’s power to transcend race and nationality, bringing the world closer to a time when “there are no longer first-class and second class citizens of any nation” and “the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes.”


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