Did God make a mistake when he gave reggae to Jamaica?


Wednesday, March 06, 2019

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God in his infinite wisdom chose to give reggae to Jamaica. Imagine for a minute if America were home to reggae; if America had Trench Town, the birthplace of reggae, with street after street where icons of the culture and the music lived; the Ambassador Theatre, where the early proponents of the music honed their craft; Boys' Town, where many of them were nurtured; Culture Yard, the sparse government yard from which the legendary Bob Marley produced music as timeless as time itself, one of which achieved acclaim as the song of the millennium.

New Orleans, Louisiana, and Nashville, Tennessee, are American cities associated with the birth of mainstream music genres — the blues and jazz, and country and western music, respectively. Annual festivals such as the Mardi Gras in New Orleans and shows such as the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville help one envision what might have been had reggae been gifted to America.

But the place in America that causes one to reflect the most on the possibilities is Graceland — the mansion where Elvis Presley lived. A property only 13 acres in size, Graceland was named a national landmark by the US Government in 1991. Tours go as high as US$179 per adult, who may elect to stay at the 450-room, four-diamond hotel and pass time at the US$45-million entertainment complex both located on the property. The tourism revenue generated by Graceland and Memphis, where it is located, rank them among the important destinations for travellers worldwide. What then are the possibilities for Culture Yard and Trench Town?

Our investment, or lack thereof, in reggae says others see more in its worth than Jamaicans do. One year ago, rapper Jay-Z and singer Beyonce rode a motorcycle through the streets of Trench Town. The picture went viral. The footage from the visit was used to create the backdrop for the couple's On the Run Tour, which had box office receipts of an estimated US$235.5 million.

Music personality David Radigan, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of reggae, will stage a show on March 12 at the Royal Albert Hall, the most prestigious music venue in all of Great Britain. Tickets were sold out within three hours of going on sale. This proves the phenomenal popularity of Jamaican music, said Radigan.

By comparison, how is reggae doing in the land of its birth? To find the great reggae venues one has to go to Europe. There is none in Jamaica. A tourist who comes to Jamaica to experience reggae in its natural setting would leave without getting what he or she came for. The sound systems that play at street parties have gone silent; everywhere under lockdown with states of emergency and zones of special operations.

Although reggae is ranked high in terms of popularity and acceptance among the 400 or so genres of the world's popular music, there remain mountains to climb before it ascends to the height of, say, American pop and rap music. A song that makes it to the top of the Billboard pop charts would have sold platinum or millions compared to a song at the top of the Billboard reggae chart, which may have sold a few thousand units. An example is this year's Best Reggae Album, 44/876 by Sting and Shaggy, which sold 78 copies the week before the Grammys and 208 copies in the week following with overall sales just topping 50,000.

Outside of Jamaica, there is no real reggae superstar. One reason is that the big money and institutional support necessary to develop, promote and position what is in essence an indigenous art form is not there. This sobering point was made by two living legends in my book, Mikey Bennett and Ibo Cooper, at a Reggae Open University symposium organised by the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JaRIA) and held in celebration of February as Reggae Month. The panellists were attempting to explain why it is that the Grammy for Best Reggae Album is announced in a low-key, pre-show and not during the live show watched worldwide by one of the largest television audiences.

So, did God make a mistake when He gave reggae to Jamaica? God never makes a mistake. There are several developments that give us hope that things are at last getting on track, pun intended. These include UNESCO's 2015 City of Music designation for Kingston and last year's inclusion of reggae in its collection of intangible cultural heritage. There are people in the business, like Tony Rebel, who continue to take risks to put on a world-class festival and artistes who continue to burnish the brand through solo performances and collaboration with international stars.

This year's Reggae Month benefited from Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport Olivia “Babsy” Grange grabbing it by the scruff of the neck and whetting the appetite for what is to come in future years. The annual Dennis Brown show on the Kingston waterfront and the Reggae Gold Awards show, including naming of inductees to a soon-to-be-constructed Reggae Hall of Fame, were the hallmarks. Minister, take a bow for the role you are playing in showing the world that reggae deserves Jamaica and Jamaica deserves reggae.

We can go further and do more. To the billion-dollar “legacy” projects that have been announced and are being pursued by Government — new Parliament building, road and highway construction, Negril redevelopment, Port Royal cruise ship pier, new town development at Bernard Lodge, Special Economic Zones and the logistics hub — add developing Trench Town, the birthplace of reggae, as a cultural hub, and watch reggae and Jamaica grow.


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