The Harder They Come — a fifty-year reflection
Herbie Miller

SINCE its June 1972 release, The Harder They Come has endured as an epochal Jamaican cultural heirloom and a consequential agent for popularising reggae.

Those who missed attending the public opening and the initial showing of the movie were flabbergasted hearing voices and seeing images, which were a reflection of ourselves on screen, when we finally relented and joined the throng to view the film fifty years ago.

We were accustomed to seeing the occasional black person pop up on the screen ever so rarely and greeted them with spontaneous applauding and a shout of “cuz”. On reflection, some of us simply thought cuz meant a black person. We, of course, took the side of those characters regardless of which side they were on. It didn’t matter if it was the side of the law or the outlay. Such occasions amounted to a family affair; those were our separated cousins despite the “legality” of the black Atlantic experience that separated us.

For us, characters in The Harder They Come were family; they were close to home, even if we hardly or never knew them personally. They were Jamaicans, predominantly black, who dressed, walked, talked, and behaved like us. So naturally, the approving audience response was overwhelming. There we were, looking at what amounted to ourselves on a movie screen — and it wasn’t an entire village of “uncivilised Africans” getting their rumps kicked by Tarzan, “king of the jungle” and Jungle Jim. Nor, for that matter, was it European explorers such as Stanley and Livingston reducing Africans to servants and curiosity specimens in the interest of “civilised” Europe; nor was it Hollywood’s portrayal of new world blacks as grinning, bulb-eyed idiotic shufflers, or prisoners in chain gangs or, at best, them being cast in roles as butlers, maids, mammies, and nannies.

The movie revealed the underbelly of Jamaica’s reality that the market-savvy tourist industry and its advertisers avoided. Instead, the initiative highlighted how friendly and remarkably willing the island’s smiling peasants provided service. The film is visually colourful in language, scenery, and action. Yet, while it engrossingly tells a story of the exploitation experienced by the underclass, through the absolute brilliance of its soundtrack, it also drives the narrative. The music remains the conveyance that genuinely expresses the complexity of the Jamaican experience as an auditory adventure.

The Harder They Come was inspired by Jamaica’s hellish and heavenly reality — a complex of the island’s separate and unequal socioeconomic, class, and ethnic life, and the contrast between its spiritual and cultural world. That complex produced “Vincent Ivanhoe Martin, known as Rhyging, a legendary outlaw and folk hero often regarded as the ‘original rude boy’,” as Wikipedia revealed, and his lore was widespread. Revered in popular culture as someone who resisted an unjust system, Rhyging became the model for the movie’s lead character, Ivan.

The movie’s actors, especially Jimmy Cliff, Carl Bradshaw, and Ras Daniel Hartman; and performers, Toots and the Maytals, The Slickers, Scotty, The Melodians, and Desmond Dekker and the Aces, were unpretentious participants of that world. Trevor Rhone, the film’s co-writer, along with Perry Henzell its director, and the soundtrack’s respective music producers among others, were peripheral to the cultural and nocturnal vibrancy of the city’s marginalised inhabitants.

With such dynamics, The Harder They Come captured the impact and effect of reggae on impoverished and menially engaged youth in underserved and depressed communities. The movie and soundtrack underscore those locations as the origin of reggae’s Afro Jamaican aesthetic and identity, and the singers and musicians from those neighbourhoods as the actual creators and performers of this colloquial music who, along with the music’s potency, subsequently evolved into cultural and community idols as some, like the lead character in the movie, Ivan, evolved into righteous rude boys and heroes.

The film, therefore, tracks reggae’s significance to dance halls, rude boy mannerisms, and personal identity. In addition, the music was introduced to a broader audience through recordings, limited radio and television programming, and live performances. With the release of The Harder They Come, reggae’s cultural lifestyle expanded from a vernacular phenomenon to a codified global language and a widespread cultural force.

In addition, The Harder They Come is especially relevant given its socio-cultural authenticity. It is also celebratory since it captures the essence and the tensions between Jamaica’s two worlds.

Accordingly, the movie’s popularity was boosted abroad through the soundtrack distribution by Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. Therefore, the music also oriented British, other European, and American metropolitan audiences to reggae as an extension of the film. Seduced by reggae’s rhythmic pulse, vocal cadence, melodious lilt, and colloquial dialogue, The Harder They Come intrigued curious audiences and contributed extensively to the vocabulary of the reggae lexicon.

A robust male presence dominates the movie and its soundtrack, mirroring Kingston’s rude boy characteristics and reggae’s virility. From the first of several songs by pioneering reggae artistes Jimmy Cliff, the film’s lead actor, to the distinct authenticity of Toots and the Maytals with a cameo appearance, Desmond Dekker and the Aces (arguably the first local male vocalists to gain fame internationally), The Melodians before their multinational acclaim, the streetwise Slickers, and a contribution by famous DJ Scotty — his puckish incanting on Stop This Train providing irony and comic relief — the soundtrack maintains a respectable balance.

The compilation features eclectic compositions with menacing lyrics about the gun-shooting, bomb-throwing, knife-wielding, and pressure-dropping activities of Kingston’s rude boys, to themes of love, heartbreak, optimism, reflection, and opportunities. Steeped in idiomatic references, the film’s foremost theme, its primary focus, is a broader commentary on Jamaica’s social disparity, including exploitation and immorality.

Cliff’s natural role as a singer and an actor determined to get what he “really wants”, negotiating the immoral vagaries of music producers, especially when dealing with naive artistes, represents an elevated level of refinement. He portrayed the lead character with sophistication and a sense of liberation that never surrendered his character to lawlessness but instead one opposed to society’s pressure. But, in addition, his versatility as a proficient artiste, including songwriter, musician, and singer, jointly reveals his individual intelligence, strength, and stunning intricacy to social and artistic expression. Cliff is represented on the soundtrack by the defiant The Harder They Come, the wistful Sitting Here In Limbo, the contemplative Many Rivers To Cross, and You Can Get It If You Really Want, a song of motivation and triumph.

Toots and the Maytals’ Sweet and Dandy observes an unpretentious wedding and spotlights poor people’s humanity and humility while displaying pleasure and dignity despite the host’s modest provision for the guests. However, the upbeat Pressure Drop echoes a warning to those, like the corrupt upper class and their agents in the movie who would pressure others maliciously, that it is on them the pressure will fall.

Desmond Dekker and the Aces’ 007, a reference to secret agent James Bond and signifying Ocean’s 11, a 1960 gangster film, is another rude boy tune associated with the infamous Shanty Town.

By the River of Babylon, The Melodians’ lament, is a meditation in response to captivity and slavery, its intones reflecting the difficulty of chanting psalms while in bondage. Spiritually and emotionally, it moves from fragility to emotional solace.

Like many scenes in the movie the rude boy’s countenance defines most of the soundtrack including The Slickers’ Johnny Too Bad, a rebuking commentary on the threatening gun and ratchet knife crew.

A heartbroken Scotty delivers Draw your Brakes in a worrisome tone, a hilariously sad response to the painful experience of losing his girl. He sings, “This is indeed a sad, sad song.”

Contrary to the hellish exploitation portrayed in The Harder They Come, the singers on this soundtrack had the tenacity and self-confidence to persist, resulting in extraordinary careers in entertainment. For example, Fredrick “Toots” Hibbert (1942-2020, of The Maytals) had an impressive and rewarding career lasting over fifty years.

After a series of hits and following his international success with Poor Me Israelites, Desmond Dekker (1941-2006) migrated to Britain. He was recognised as a pioneer of popular Jamaican music and maintained a long and successful career. Likewise, “Scotty” David Scott, 1951-2003, earned substantial hit records before migrating to Miami, Florida, building a recording studio, and producing other artistes.

The Melodians, Tony Brevett (1949-2013), Brent Dowe (1946-2006), and Trevor McNaughton (1940-2018) — had prosperous careers recording and touring internationally. Their composition By The Rivers of Babylon was covered by Boney M and sold over a million copies. Later, the 1999 Nicolas Cage movie Bringing Out the Dread and the 2010 film Jack Goes Boating enhanced the group’s profile by using the song. In addition, the tune “was adopted as a hymn by the Unitarian-Universalist Association and appeared in their supplemental hymnal Singing the Journey (Hymn 1042).

The composition of the transient group, The Slickers rotated around Derrick Crooks and included his brother Sydney. Acknowledged as founding members of another group, the Pioneers, Abraham Green was enlisted and they recorded Johnny Too Bad. The song was covered by American folk-blues artiste Taj Mahal, the British super bands UB40 and The Specials, the American reggae punk group Sublime, and the influential pop band The Silencers.

While they all became pop stars to varying degrees and enjoyed thrivingly prosperous to satisfactory careers, almost all the fledgling singers on this 1972 soundtrack are survived by Jimmy Cliff. This venerable troubadour has evolved into an elder statesman and an esteemed cultural ambassador. He has thrilled audiences with his extensive musical repertoire for more than fifty years. Many of his acclaimed classics have been used in commercials and movies, covered by a vast and eclectic set of artistes, and adapted to political rallies in Africa, Britain, and South America. As a result of his global achievements, Cliff has received the highest honours his country can bestow, including an honorary doctorate from The University of the West Indies, having an avenue named after him in his home town, the Order of Merit, and the Musgrave gold medal. Therefore, the celebration of The Harder They Come is as much celebrating Jimmy Cliff for his contribution to Jamaica’s global distinction, its humanity, arts, and culture. No other artiste is a more highly respected national figure than this reserved, unpretentious genuine hero — the musician, multi-instrumentalist, singer, and actor James Chambers “Jimmy” Cliff.

Commemorating fifty years of its initial release says something about the substance and longevity of The Harder They Come. Whether celebrating uplifting milestones or dismantling oppressive symbolism, any golden anniversary demands reflection. But, as we reflect on this cultural accomplishment, let’s also consider how our master innovators brought fresh levels of empathy to improving life and evolved as vessels of social, cultural, and spiritual messages on their own terms. So inspirational and influential is The Harder They Come that in recent times an innovative reimagining of the movie’s aesthetics and its characters has influenced poets, auditory and visual artists, including contemporary creatives, to develop works — many exhibited on the pages of this book — as re-evaluations of the movie’s iconography.

With the passing of fifty years, re-engagement with the soundtrack offers a montage of optical imagery, meandering through the intensity of hopelessness, despair, and rage to a sense of somberness, reflection, wit, optimism, and triumph yet fused by the artistes’ innovative accomplishments, the musicians lilting arrangements, and the producers’ savvy sequencing — a comprehensive logic that indeed induced repeated listening from the overwhelmingly college-educated and liberal white crowd when it was released.

This was indisputably the circumstance a few years later when the initial group of artistes, including Bob Marley and the Wailers, The Maytals, Peter Tosh, and Jimmy Cliff, began touring and encountering support from predominantly white fans filling venues. It was a discernible revelation that, without white audiences, promoters, and journalists, reggae possibly, would have waned in the metropolis and, conceivably, remained a local, colloquial music phenomenon. It is also a reminder that were it not for The Harder They Come and its accompanying soundtrack setting the tone, these same Caucasian listeners would not have been introduced en mass to reggae.

The soundtrack is a richly curated compilation evoking nationalist Jamaicanism at a time of burgeoning creativity imagined through Kingston’s jobless and unemployable youth; envisioning boundless possibilities for socioeconomic rewards, dividends which, outside crime, as the movie dramatises, perhaps only entertainment could deliver. Indeed, as the film explicitly signifies, making a hit song may have been the only area oppressed but optimistic Kingstonians imagined as the answer to their social and economic woes.

Commemorating the golden anniversary of The Harder They Come at the approximate juncture as the diamond jubilee of Jamaica’s incomplete independence celebrates the people’s cultural innovativeness and political resolve. Despite our politicians’ wavering on the issue of complete statehood, The Harder They Come, its soundtrack, Perry Henzell, Trevor Rhone, Jimmy Cliff, and those concerned with making this epochal movie are exemplary contributors to sovereignty and statehood. Hence, these creative innovators are cultural iconoclasts who embarked on an unexplored pathway to portraying Jamaicaness and, as such, are worthy of being ‘monumentalised’.

Herbie Miller is a cultural historian and director of the Jamaica Music Museum, an arm of the Institute of Jamaica.

Herbie Miller

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