Check out the real situation: Charting reggae's vast influence
Shabba Ranks
Let's Talk Reggae

In early January 2021, MRC (Media Rating Council) and Billboard ranked the most popular music genres in the United States for 2020, based on physical/digital song and album sales, and on-demand audio/video streams. Hip hop/R&B took the top position with 28.2 per cent of the market's total volume and 31.1 per cent of on-demand streams. At number five, Latin music had 4.7 per cent total volume and 6.0 per cent streams. Dance/electronic tiered at number six, with 3.2 per cent total volume, 3.3 per cent streams. And world music placed at number eight with 1.8 per cent total volume and 1.6 per cent streams. Classical music ranked last (number 11) with 1.0 per cent total volume and 0.8 per cent streams. Figures for genres with lower rankings were not included. Jamaica's reggae and dancehall were not represented among the top 11 genres — well, at least not by name.

It still bears repeating that the blueprint for hip hop was established by a Jamaican almost 50 years ago. DJ Kool Herc set up his turntables, amplifiers and massive speakers, based on the sound systems he heard growing up in Kingston, to play at parties in the recreation room of his New York, apartment building. He initially played reggae records, which were not well received; he got a far better response spinning hard funk and emphasising the drum beat (or break), switching from one break to another or using two copies of the same record (one on each turntable) to extend the break. Meanwhile, his MC Coke La Rock rhythmically delivered catchphrases to a receptive audience, just like sound system deejays did at Jamaica's dances. Stateside, this vocal approach was called rap, and the hip hop movement was born.

A significant portion of Latin music's mainstream success is due to the popularity of reggaeton, which, as its name makes clear, is rooted in (dancehall) reggae: Shabba Ranks' 1990 hit Dem Bow, produced by the late Bobby Digital, has provided the music bed for so many reggaeton hits, it is regarded as a reggaeton subset called dembow. Like dancehall, reggaeton has, in recent years, strongly adapted elements of trap, the popular hip hop sub genre, although vestiges of dembow, including its bass line and drum syncopation, can still be heard on many reggaeton hits.

EDM owes a debt to Jamaican music, too. EDM DJs, who manipulate various tracks of a song while playing live, are following innovations established by the brilliant Jamaican engineer and sound system owner/selector, the late King Tubby.

Tubby eliminated vocal and instrumental segments, sometimes stripping a song down to a single, booming bass line, embellished by echo and reverb effects, a process called dub. Tubby's electronic expertise enabled him to recreate these and additional dub effects live on his sound system, Home-Town Hi-Fi, something no one had never heard before, which forever altered Jamaica's soundscape and that of popular music, by establishing the prototype for a song's remix.

The amorphous world music category, a debated term that Talking Heads' David Byrne once described to further contention, as “a none too subtle way of reasserting the hegemony of western pop culture”, encompasses a wide variety of music made outside of the USA, including African, Asian, European and Pacific Islander reggae. Conversely, reggae made by white and non-white Americans is usually rolled into the jam band category, a subdivision of rock (jam is not an abbreviation for Jamaica). World music also includes afrobeats, which has steadily risen in popularity in the US in recent years, with rhythmic and vocal cadences heavily influenced by dancehall. Afrobeats has become so widespread, it now exerts its sway on its Jamaican progenitor.

Within this dizzying cycle of genres, sub-genres and hybrids, the inevitable result of sonic conversations between artistes, players of instruments, and producers of different backgrounds, it's worth noting that categories aren't always determined by what the music sounds like, but by who's making it: Rihanna's Work (featuring Drake) and Ed Sheeran's Shape of You are often identified as pop or tropical house or anything but what they truly are, dancehall, so it's unlikely those songs' streams are considered part of reggae's overall total.

The MRC/ Billboard 2020 statistics underscore an absolutely bewildering disconnect between reggae and dancehall as pervasive influences in four of the most streamed music categories and the paltry streaming and sales numbers for the home-grown Jamaican genres. At the time of this mid-April writing, three American hip-hop/ R&B artistes were in Jamaica working on reggae projects, yet the island's reggae and dancehall still struggle to sustain traction in the US mainstream.

“Our entertainment industry is a very informal space; we have survived because our talent pool is so deep, but there has to be something we aren't doing right because we aren't translating our talent into global superstars every year,” Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JaRIA) Chairman Ewan Simpson told me in a recent interview.

“Why is it Rihanna or Justin Bieber's dancehall songs do well but the same music coming from Jamaica doesn't? Is it management, team, networking?” asked Usain Bolt's manager Nugent “NJ” Walker. Bolt and NJ recently started their record label, A-Team Lifestyle. “Obviously people enjoy dancehall music, so why doesn't it regularly have one billion YouTube views? We are reading, researching and we believe connecting with the right people hoping to crack that code.”

Earlier this month Conkarah, born and raised in Kingston, became the first Jamaican artiste to amass one billion global streams for his 2019 viral hit Banana (featuring Shaggy) and the DJ Fle Minisiren Remix, following Omi's Cheerleader, originally released in 2014, which reached the one billion global streams milestone in May 2020.

Streaming platforms should expand their presence within a diversity of cultures and musical movements so more nuanced and accurate statistics can be generated, likewise the people who comprise those movements and cultures have much to gain by utilising available technologies to precisely determine who is listening to their music and where and how are they listening to it. As an example, Jamaican and Caribbean expat communities in New York, Miami, Washington DC, etc, undoubtedly access some of their reggae via streaming platforms, but how else do they listen to their music? Via YouTube? Social media? Online and/or terrestrial radio? Compiling their listening activities can determine with greater precision the audience size for reggae and dancehall. As Bob Marley sang so presciently, “Check out the real situation!” Indeed, having access to real, accurate, verifiable statistics is an invaluable asset when brokering deals or attempting to secure partnerships, while identifying fan base clusters is an obvious benefit in tour planning and targeted promotions.

Spotify's recent entry into numerous Caribbean, as well as Latin American and African countries, will likely bring an increase in the streaming numbers for Caribbean music overall. According to the latest United Nations estimates the current population within the Caribbean region is 43,686,227: That's a formidably sized, reggae-friendly consumer base. Whether or not Spotify proves to be a preferred platform for listening throughout the Caribbean, their regional availability is an opportunity for more Caribbean artists' to be featured on the platform overall and for their fans to have their streaming choices quantified, demonstrating the music's strength with greater numbers.

Although there isn't a chart that gauges influence, with open eyes and ears and an understanding of Jamaica's musical evolution, it's obvious just how impactful reggae and dancehall continue to be on a variety of music types. The numerous reggae festivals held across the world is another indicator of Jamaican music's popularity and that's as valid a stat as any generated by an algorithm; it's also a remarkable and unparalleled achievement for music coming from a small country. It is my hope that alongside the island's ever changing, consistently vibrant reggae and dancehall culture, a complementary, optimally functional Jamaican music business will finally be structured and remain steadfast in pursuits of strategically monetising Jamaican music's vast influence. Such an industry should work closely with other sectors within the country (and internationally) such as tourism, to create and market virtual and physical events (festivals, concerts, exhibitions, award shows etc) and look to the tech sector for assistance in compiling comprehensive, accurate data so we can finally have gold standard measurements of the music's impact, it's real situation.

Patricia Meschino is a New York City-based journalist who has specialised in writing about reggae and dancehall music for 30 years. Patricia regularly reports on events throughout the Caribbean, providing exposure to artistes and events that otherwise wouldn't be featured within mainstream media. A long-standing contributing writer to Billboard magazine and, Meschino has freelanced for numerous media houses including The Daily Beast, NPR, The Associated Press, The Village Voice, Miami New Times, The Source magazine, Caribbean Travel and Life magazine, Songlines (UK) and Excelente (Spain).

Patricia Meschino
Patricia Meschino

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