Whither the future of reggae

Henley Morgan

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

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February is celebrated in Jamaica as Reggae Month. Organised and promoted by the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association, the celebrations incorporate the birthdays of two of the music’s iconic figures — Dennis Brown and Bob Marley.

Trench Town, the birthplace of reggae, is one of a few communities which may be more recognisable than the name of the capital city of the country where it is located. The community is made famous by the lyrics of the legendary Bob Marley, who lived and made his music there. More than that, there is no other area of equal size on planet Earth that in less than a generation produced an indigenous music and took it mainstream to the level of the Grammy Awards.

Of a reputed 350 genres of music in the world, reggae is ranked in the top three in terms of dispersion and popularity. Jamaica has not built on its musical heritage, or leveraged this amazing asset, and is at risk of losing its status as the reggae Mecca to the developed countries, such as Japan, that have embraced the music. Let’s look what is at stake.

Tamara Scott-Williams, in a January 20, 2013
Sunday Observer article states the following: "Estimates put the global cultural and creative industries as being worth US$2.2 trillion and growing at an annual rate of five per cent. This industry, which exists to create, produce, and/or distribute copyright materials, affords Jamaica its greatest foreign exchange-earning potential and should be placed at the forefront of the search for economic solutions. In fact, according to Creative Economy 2010 published by the United Nations, the Government of Jamaica needs to focus on reggae, film, and other creative services to grow the economy."

In that same article, Scott-Williams referred to work done by University of Technology, Jamaica, professor of economics Dr Vanus James, which shows that, "A dollar of foreign exchange put into music and other recreation forms yields $6.18, while that same dollar put into information technology yields only $1.49."

We have a lot of ground to make up in terms of Jamaica and Jamaicans earning from the creative industries generally, and reggae music in particular. The Jamaica Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers reported that in the 15 years since its founding, it has paid out in excess of $300 million in royalties. But here is a fact that should shame us. In 2016, 82 per cent of such payments went to composers, writers and authors overseas, with only 18 per cent going to locals. Not only do Jamaican radio stations tend to mix reggae with other genres in almost equal proportions, but those stations that have adopted a predominately reggae format do not consistently comply with rules governing the payment of royalties. Jamaican entertainers and the music are the losers.

The lack of sponsorship for reggae events is another measure of the degree to which we have failed to support the indigenous music. Junior Lincoln, who promotes the annual Dennis Brown concert, has lamented the lack of sponsorship which forced the relocation of this year’s event from its historical location on Kingston’s waterfront to Mandela Park in Half-Way-Tree. The result was a sharp decline in the standard of the event from former years.

The hole that we have dug for ourselves by not supporting reggae becomes a grave when one considers this next point. The Economic Growth Council (EGC) was established by the Government to spur growth in the economy. The EGC has boldly promised five per cent growth in four years, but of the eight published growth initiatives, not one recognises the wealth-creating potential of reggae. How could such an omission occur?

If reggae is the proverbial goose that lay the golden egg, Jamaica’s treatment of it is like a poor man who, having been giving the goose for a Christmas present, cooked it for his Christmas dinner. It’s left to others to appreciate and benefit from the Jamaican music and culture. The great reggae festivals are to be found in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and to a lesser extent Asia, South America and North America. Our own Rebel Salute is a rare exception but, alas, we do not have a proper venue dedicated to the staging of major reggae and other outdoor music events.

We have proven that we can produce reggae icons who accumulate wealth for themselves, but it is questionable whether we have been able to build an industry which is necessary in order to create wealth for the nation. The world is waiting on Jamaica to take reggae music to the next level. To that end, and as an encouragement, in December 2015 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awarded Kingston its coveted Creative Music City designation.

A giant step in the direction of advancing this under-exploited area of the national economy was achieved with the establishment of the National Cultural and Creative Industries Commission on March 25, 2014 in the Office of the Prime Minister. Among the deliverables expected from the commission are a National Cultural and Creative Industries Policy and a master plan for the sustainable development of cultural and creative industries.

The then prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, was quoted in a release by the
Jamaica Information Service saying: "We need to recognise how important these industries are for both economic growth and national development." At the first meeting of the commission, the prime minister, in her reported remarks, issued an ultimatum: "We need a partnership between the players in the industry and the Government because this industry will play an important part in our national development. We need to get it right."

When will the talk end and the action begin?


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