Let's Talk ReggaeSunday, March 07, 2021
Andrea M Davis
As we celebrate Women's History Month, it is a great time to recognise, applaud and appreciate the contribution to Jamaican music by the many women who have done their part to establish the foundation, those who have been a part of expanding it and those who will be instrumental to its future.
In the beginning there was Miss Lou. Louise Bennett Coverley, the mother of Jamaican culture, has through her creative brilliance and trailblazing journey, set the table for Jamaica's music and creative industries. A published writer, Miss Lou was among the first Jamaicans to release an album. She did so in 1952 long before there was a Studio One or Treasure Isle, and went on to record six albums in her career. Her folk recordings later inspired fellow Jamaican Harry Belafonte who included two of her songs on his Calypso album, the world's first million-selling album. Miss Lou championed the combined power of spoken word and music as an art form in studio, theatre and television. She single-handedly elevated and legitimised the use of patois as the lexicon for Jamaica's creative expression which is today, one of the most admired in the world and further distinguishes Jamaican music in the market.
In the early days of Jamaica's popular music industry development, circa 1960s, it was the sound system that carried the swing and gave birth to the pioneering producers who shaped the Jamaican sound, established the landmark studios and unearthed the many artistic national treasures whose journeys were just beginning. When Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, the father of Jamaican music, opened the doors to Studio One, by his side was his wife Norma whose contribution, although unsung, continued throughout their lives. Sonia Pottinger is recognised as the only female producer in the history of Jamaican music. She was responsible for many hits produced from the mid-1960s-1980s with artistes including Marcia Griffiths, Bob Andy, U-Roy, Big Youth, Melodians, Hortense, and Alton Ellis.
As Randy Chin launched his producing career, it was his wife 'Miss Pat' who spearheaded the launch of a record shop at 17 North Street which would later migrate to New York and morph into VP Records, the leading distributor for Jamaican and Caribbean music worldwide today.
In terms of artistes that paved the way for the international success of Jamaican music, Millie Small was the Caribbean's first international million seller. Her cover of Barbie Gaye's My Boy Lollipop, arranged by Ernie Ranglin, charted at number two on the UK Singles Chart and US Billboard Top 100 charts as well as in Australia and launched Chris Blackwell's Island Records into the mainstream as an independent label. The timeless ska hit has sold over six million copies worldwide and remains one of Jamaica's most instantly recognisable hits.
There have been many queens who have reigned over the Kingdom of Jamaican music, each leaving their mark and advancing the increasing influence of females in the music including the queen of rocksteady Phyliss Dillion, the queen of the dancehall Lady Saw, as well as out of the UK Janet Kaye and Carroll Thompson, the queens of lover's rock. The one who reigns above all is Marcia Griffiths, queen of Jamaican music, whose career began at 14 years old, and has included countless hits as a solo artiste, as a duo with Bob Andy, a trio with I-Three touring the world with Bob Marley and the Wailers, and again as a solo artiste. No other artiste, male or female, has had hits in four of the sounds of Jamaica — ska, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall — or has more duets releases than Queen Marcia Griffiths.
In the 1970s the I-Three, which includes Marcia Griffiths, Rita Marley and Judy Mowatt, toured the world with Bob Marley and the Wailers and set the stage and raised the bar for reggae music globally. The trio was also solo artistes releasing critically acclaimed albums. Rita Marley has for the past 40 years admirably managed Bob Marley's legacy as the matriarch of the family and has anchored the family business over successive generations.
During this era, when reggae was rising internationally, Puma Jones of Black Uhuru, who won the first reggae Grammy, and the iconic Grace Jones put the world on notice that there was a new breed of female artistes coming out of the Jamaican scene. Althea and Donna are credited with recording one of the first international dancehall hits with Uptown Top Ranking which spent 11 weeks on the UK Singles Chart in 1978. Songbird Cynthia Schloss charted with hits like You Look Like Love and Love Me Forever. It is important to note that celebrated connection between Jamaican music and hip hop was sparked by 14-year-old Cindy Campbell from Jamaica who booked her brother DJ Kool Herc to play at her back to school party on August 11, 1973 and the rest as they say, is history.
In the 1980s, women hitmakers included Sister Nancy, whose cover of the Toots and the Maytals' 1966 festival song winner Bam Bam has become one of the most sampled recordings in from the Jamaican catalogue, most recently released as Bam by Jay-Z featuring Damian Marley. Other hitmakers included Dawn Penn whose No No No cover remains one of the most internationally popular hits in Jamaican music, Sophia George with Girlie Girlie which was a top 10 hit in the UK and JC Lodge whose Telephone Love rang around the world.
In the 1990s and 2000s it was Diana King, Patra, Nadine Sutherland, Shelly Thunder and Tanya Stephens who made the biggest waves for female artistes with number one hits like Shy Guy, Pull Up to My Bumper, Action, Kuff and It's A Pity rocking fans around the world. Sister Carol helped pave the way for Rasta women in reggae music and was among the first reggae artistes to be featured in a Hollywood movie, Wild Thing, and perform the title track on its soundtrack album. Singer/songwriters like Queen Ifrika, Jah9 and Hempress Sativa have taken the baton and continued to champion the word, sound and power of conscious reggae music and the teachings of Rastafari. Gospel queens Carlene Davis and Chevelle Franklyn are among the biggest voices in Jamaican music and these ladies continue to spread the good news worldwide with reggae music.
The 90s was also dominated by multiple Grammy winning artistes Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers which included Ziggy, Steve, Sharon and Cedella along with vocal powerhouse Erica Newell. This trio of women modified the I-Three blueprint with their own sense of harmonies, style, dance and energy which helped propel the group to international stardom. Today Cedella Marley is the CEO of the Bob Marley Group of Companies which remains one of the most successful independent music companies in the world.
Among the pioneering women behind the mic, a few deserve special mention including Mervis Walsh who runs the Harmony House label and manages Beres Hammond; Claudette Kemp, who manages Capleton; Rose Linton, who headed her husband's Arrow Records label and launched the careers of I-Octane and Denyque; and the late Louse Frazer Bennett, former manager for Ninjaman, whose passion and commitment to sound system culture spearheaded the establishment of the first Sound System Association. Entertainment Minister Olivia “Babsy” Grange began her journey to government in the music business representing artistes like Shabba Ranks, Cobra, Carlene Davis and Leroy Sibbles.
Others like Sonya Rodney who manages Burning Spear, Marcia Simpson, manager for Black Uhuru; Bridgett Anderson who managed Garnett Silk and music executive Cristy Barber who has been a key part of the success of Damian Marley's annual Welcome to Jamrock Cruise, have all contributed to the success of their artistes and the music culture. Record executive Elaine Valentine, Reggae Report founder M Peggy Quattro, and Reggae on the River promoter Carol Bruno, were among the women helping to build the international Reggae ecosystem. With the advent of music videos, the industry converged with film and female producers like Maxine Walters and Carleene Samuels responsible for a significant body of work in this area. From her early work with Reggae Sunsplash, booking agent/event producer Sharon Burke, who represents Shaggy, Bounty Killer and Tessanne, among others, has been a force in the music industry. Her company Solid Agency has produced many top events from Fully Loaded to the infamous Beenie and Bounty VERZUZ battle in 2020 which raised the profile and spirits of Jamaica's music industry.
In the last two decades there has been an explosion of female artistes who have ascended to the heights of the music including Tessanne Chin, Alaine, Cherine Anderson, Tami Chynn, Brick & Lace, Spice and more recently Koffee, Shenseea, Lila Ike, Sevana, Jaz Elise, Naomi Cowan, Shuga and the list goes on. Women have always been a part of Jamaican music but the future is brighter because there are more women now flexing their talent with a better understanding of the business and the importance of their brands in the digital age.
The global success of the Jamaican sound is due in part to all the ladies with the golden voices whose harmonies blanket and enhance every live performance and recording made. Music demands movement and so to all the dancers and choreographers who interpret the Jamaican sound through movement, the world of music thanks you.
For every woman who has directly played a role in the music as an artiste, manager, agent, assistant, vocalist, musician, engineer, producer, publicist, lawyer or accountant, or indirectly as a media host, journalist, visual artiste, designer, choreographer, dancer, stylist, academic, chef, etc, or supportive mother, grandmother, aunt, wife, girlfriend, daughter or friend, know that you have made a difference for the culture. Based on the amplified energy around women globally, now would be a good time for women in the international Jamaican music industry to connect, consolidate and collaborate to strategically move this lifestyle music culture to the next level for the benefit of future generations....Happy Women's History Month 2021
Andrea M Davis is a cultural curator, historian and advocate, content and event producer, with a 33 year multi-faceted career in entertainment as a consultant in the cultural and creative industries (GOJ, UNDP, WIPO, JAMMS). She is the founder and producer of International Reggae Day and former artiste manager (Toots & the Maytals, Diana King, Crueshal Substance) and event architect (Air Supply, Rastafari Rootzfest, East Fest).
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